For a program based on the brevity of sketch comedy, “Saturday Night Live” has been on the air for an awfully long time — 40 years, to be exact. Lorne Michaels’ celebrity host + musical guest variety show has had its highs and its lows, but it remains a consistent part of the cultural conversation, due in large part to a series of writers and cast members who shaped the world of comedy over the last four decades. Here are the stars we think were the show’s biggest influences on the pop culture scene, decade by decade. You can see many of them returning in the anniversary special this Sunday at 8 p.m. on NBC.
The early seasons of ‘SNL’ were a murderer’s row of future comedy stars, from Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to Jane Curtin and Chevy Chase. While we’d like to choose future Senator Al Franken, just because his career took the oddest turn, we’re going to pick Bill Murray, who dominated the box office in the ‘80s with “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and more, and then began a late career renaissance as a dramatic actor that rewrote the book on post-"SNL" careers.
It may be hard to remember, given the “Norbit” and “Daddy Day Care” years, but in the ‘80s, Murphy was one of the sharpest comics around, covering racial issues in Reagan-era America, which was not a time known for its progressive politics. Though he hasn't returned to the show since the '80s, he’s now set to return for the show’s big Sunday night 40th anniversary special.
While fellow ‘90s alum Mike Myers had a fairly unstoppable streak of hits in the ‘90s, it’s Ferrell’s big goofball style that has stayed a part of the comedy world. And it’s hard to imagine any other actor from the show making quite the splash that Ferrell did with his George W. Bush impression, which was so popular, he brought it back in 2008.
Remember when “Saturday Night Live” became all about the women instead of the men? Following strong work by Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon, Fey became the show’s first female head writer, and then ushered in an era of women (finally) dominating the show, a trend that continued with Kristen Wiig and now seems to rest on the shoulders of current star Kate McKinnon. Oh, and she took a break to write the preeminent teen comedy of the decade as well, in “Mean Girls”