Saturday Night Live (or SNL) is an amazing and endearing sketch comedy show and one of the longest-running shows on American television. It was created by Canadian-born Lorne Michaels and first premiered on NBC October 11, 1975. It originally starred ‘The Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ (all of whom became household names, like so many subsequent stars of the show over its ensuing years). SNL is currently in its 42nd season.
Over all its years on the air, the stars, guests and celebrity hosts on SNL have done incredibly spot-on impersonations of other famous folks. There are really too many gut-busting impressions to include here from the show’s long and rich history—so consider this list of 15 a mere sampling of some of the very best of the best.
15 Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer
What a stroke of brilliant casting it was for the show to invite Melissa McCarthy to portray harassed, beleaguered and belligerent Trump White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. McCarthy plays him as ridiculously hostile and immature, wearing a poorly-fitted suit, chewing massive wads of gum and vigorously defending so-called ‘alternative facts.’
McCarthy lampoons Spicer baffling the press corps with circular logic and treating them with hilariously bitter condescension, spraying Mikey Day (playing a reporter in one skit) with a Super Soaker, declaring: “This is soapy water and I’m washing that filthy, lying mouth!” She also re-enacts show-and-tell (since the press is soooo dumb), pulling stuffed animals, dolls and various objects out of boxes decorated with US presidential seals, while delivering a gut-busting narrative. McCarthy is just too damn good.
14 Jimmy Fallon as Barry Gibb
Jimmy Fallon does a hilarious job playing Barry Gibb—with his sidekick Justin Timberlake (playing Barry’s soft-spoken and virtually monosyllabic Bee Gee bandmate and brother, Robin). They portray the brothers Gibb co-hosting the fictional SNL creation, The Barry Gibb Show, where Fallon as Barry interviews guests, improvises songs (constantly interrupting his own interviews to spontaneously harmonize with his brother) and has a hair-trigger temper (this facet of Fallon’s caricature is one of Fallon’s own fictional comedic touches—not fact-based). Fallon hilariously rants and goes off on guests throughout interviews and incorporates hilarious disco moves as part of his irrational fake rage episodes. Barry Gibb must be okay with Fallon’s portrayal since he appears at the end of this sketch in a cameo and has appeared on Fallon’s late-night talk show since.
13 Kenan Thompson as Steve Harvey
Kenan Thompson does a bang on portrayal of Family Feud game show host, Steve Harvey, on SNL. He has the congenial game show banter down and the Steve Harvey look with the shiny bald head, trademark mustache and camera-conscious facial expressions. Thompson hilariously summarizes the contestants’ convoluted answers down to a few concise words so they can score on the board.
Thompson honed his early impersonation skills on the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show All That and currently ranks at #88 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Teen Stars list. He’s been on SNL for 15 seasons now, holding the show’s record for the most celebrity impersonations at 122 (including, among many others, renditions of: Charles Barkley, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby, CeeLo Green, Serena Williams and Reba McEntire).
12 Maya Rudolph as Donatella Versace
Maya Rudolph created many fabulous celebrity impersonations on the show and a fan favorite was clearly her recurring impression of socialite/Italian fashion designer, Donatella Versace. Rudolph played a champagne-guzzling and cigarette-smoking Donatella hosting her own show, the Versace Show, where Donatella surrounded herself with hunky, shirtless manservants who she orders around. Donatella hands out cigarettes and airplane bottles of vodka to kids on Halloween and bats ‘fly out of her cooch’ (to quote her in character). She, like Barry Gibb, abuses her show’s guests and one of her trademarks is screaming "get out!" in the face of anyone around her. The real Donatella Versace was cool with Rudolph’s impersonations, apparently, since both appeared as ‘Donatella Versace’ in a VH1 fashion awards comedy bit.
11 Tina Fey as Sarah Palin
Tina Fey resembles Sarah Palin so strongly that Fey once confided during an interview on Conan that when her three-year-old daughter saw Palin on TV, she confused her for her mommy. It’s only natural that with such a strong physical and facial resemblance, Fey would be pegged to portray Sarah Palin on SNL in a slew of political sketches. Her impression was so popular that the ratings for the show went up by 50 percent during the first season that Fey portrayed Palin. Fey made the most of parodying Palin’s down-home folksiness, appealing to average American ‘Joes,’ with Fey implying they were playing a drinking game every time she said ‘maverick’ (which was Palin’s over-used buzzword to characterize herself and McCain during her 2008 VP presidential debate with then-senator Joe Biden).
10 Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child
Dan Aykroyd was one of the original ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ when SNL debuted back in 1975. He’s subsequently become a household name from his work on SNL, as well as from his performances in blockbuster films (such as the original Ghostbusters) and from collaborations with his Blues Brother co-star and friend, the late John Belushi (who died prematurely of a drug overdose back in March, 1982).
Aykroyd is known for his impersonations on the show—such as that of the former president, Jimmy Carter—among others—and for his Julia Child impersonation from 1978 where Aykroyd donned a skirt, wig and apron and played the legendary chef cutting her finger during a cooking segment and gruesomely bleeding all over the set. Hilarious and gross!
9 Maya Rudolph as Beyoncé
Maya Rudolph did an excellent impression of soft-spoken Beyoncé while on SNL, often appearing alongside Fred Armisen who played her silent sidekick and co-host, Prince, on the Prince Show (another popular, recurring sketch on SNL). Since Maya herself is a terrific singer (as the daughter of the late, great Loving You five-octave and ‘whistle pitch’ '70s soul singer, Minnie Riperton). Maya obviously inherited her mother’s vocal talents and portrayed powerhouse singers regularly on SNL such as Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera, (among others), but her impression of Beyoncé was always a particularly hilarious and memorable one.
8 Fred Armisen as Prince
Fred Armisen silently portrayed a mostly mute (but not camera shy) Prince on the recurring Prince Show sketch on SNL alongside Maya Rudolph who, as we saw above, played Beyoncé and acted as Prince’s interpreter/spokesperson/co-host.
Armisen shared a story on The Howard Stern Show about an encounter he had with the real Prince when he appeared as a musical guest on SNL. Fred recalled that Prince threw his own post-show after-party featuring a buffet of macaroni and cheese. Fred cautiously approached Prince at the party, who was “sitting alone, eating macaroni and cheese…so [he] sort of carefully sat down and [he] was like, 'Hey, I just wanted to tell you I think you're the greatest.'"
According to Fred, Prince responded: "You know what I think the greatest is? This macaroni and cheese." No, you were the greatest, Prince. RIP.
7 Cheri Oteri and Gilda Radner as Barbara Walters
The jury’s out on who did the best Barbara Walters impressions on SNL over the years because we’re left with two excellent choices: Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri. Walters herself was not a fan of Radner’s portrayal back in the day—though time seems to have softened her stance and she now expresses admiration for Radner. Radner’s impersonation was perhaps more mean-spirited than Oteri’s—really exaggerating Walters’ famous lisp, introducing herself as “Baba Wawa” and sounding more like Elmer Fudd than Walters herself. Oteri, on the other hand, spoke more like Barbara actually did and went more for Barbara’s comical inner moments of introspection and one-liners to draw laughs with her portrayal. Whichever you prefer, both are hugely enjoyable to watch and tons of fun.
6 Kate McKinnon as Justin Bieber
Kate McKinnon is another SNL comedian who does tons of amazing impressions including: Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Ellen DeGeneres, Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Warren. But, arguably one of her best impersonations is her recurring Justin Bieber role. Kate appears in one hilarious sketch as Justin along with Taran Killam (playing interviewer Piers Morgan) where, even though he’s alone in the room, Kate (as Justin) keeps striking poses as if cameras are around. McKinnon also appears with Cecily Strong in hilarious parodies of Bieb’s Calvin Klein ads, where—tattooed and wearing only a white tank and Calvins—Justin/Kate declares: “I’m a big boy now,” as she rides a scooter, plays drums, combs non-existent facial hair, drinks from a juice box and appears riding in a baby carriage, all while wearing XXS #mycalvins.
5 Dana Carvey as Johnny Carson
Dana Carvey was a big part of SNL’s revival in the mid-'80s, when poor ratings almost scuttled it off the air. Thanks to fabulous new comic talents such as Carvey, Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon and Jan Hooks being hired, SNL's ratings launched back into another honeymoon phase of popularity. This revived attention for the show was due in no small part to Carvey’s amazing impersonations, such as the hugely popular Church Lady, Hans (of the Hans and Franz sketches), Garth on the Wayne’s World sketches and his imitations of luminaries such as: Bob Dylan, George H.W. Bush, political hopeful Ross Perot and, of course, his recurring stellar impersonation of late night television king, Johnny Carson.
4 Ariana Grande does Britney, Shakira, Rihanna, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston
Ariana Grande, at the tender age of 23, was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and has a huge following of fans on social media. Ariana’s a natural performer garnering huge respect from peers such as Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry (who are no slouches themselves). It was a jaw-dropping display of vocal talent when Ariana imitated Britney Spears, Shakira, Rihanna, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston during an SNL sketch back in 2016.
Here's what composer Jason Robert Brown said of Grande in Time magazine:
“[N]o matter how much you are underestimated ... you are going to open your mouth and that unbelievable sound is going to come out. That extraordinary, versatile, limitless instrument...” Yes, we agree, Mr. Brown—Ariana’s pretty damn good.
3 Ana Gasteyer as Martha Stewart
Ana Gasteyer started out, as many SNL alum do, performing in sketch comedy. She started off with The Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles, gaining experience and perfecting her craft in those workshop and improv settings which spawn so many successful comedians. Gasteyer was a regular cast member on SNL between 1996 and 2002 and has done many impersonations, such as that of Bobbi Mohan-Culp (a recurring sketch featuring a good-natured and tenacious married pair of high school music teachers, along with Will Ferrell), Margaret Jo McCullen (in the hugely popular and infamous “Schweddy Balls” sketch along with Molly Shannon and Alec Baldwin as ‘Pete Schweddy’) and finally—one of Gasteyer’s fan-favorite impersonations—her recurring role as Martha Stewart.
2 Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra
Any hardcore, long-term SNL fan will tell you that Phil Hartman was one of the show’s greatest all-time stars, contributing his always-stellar character impersonations and providing some of the show’s most entertaining moments. Hartman’s tragic, premature death was a shattering loss not only to his family, friends and everyone who loved him, but to his millions of fans worldwide. Phil made a stellar Frankenstein, Peter Graves, Donald Trump, Ed McMahon, Ronald Regan and especially Bill Clinton. He was magnificent in the whimsical and retro "Love Is a Dream" sketch, co-starring Jan Hooks. He played a delightfully cranky and outspoken Frank Sinatra, barking unfiltered and generally disgusted opinions about the world’s current state of affairs in recurring segments as the aging crooner. Thanks for all the laughs, Phil.
1 Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump
Alec Baldwin has truly had an amazing career. He started off largely in hunky roles and dramas (such as the prime time '80s soap, Knots Landing) early in his career and was, for a time, known as the handsome husband of the gorgeous actress Kim Basinger, but his incredible flair for comedy became apparent in time and there he really hit his stride. Baldwin has found stunning success on shows such as 30 Rock, and of course, from his numerous and always hilarious appearances on SNL. In fact, Baldwin just wrapped up his 17th stint as host on February 11th, where he continued his recurring role as the 45th American president, Donald J. Trump, supported by his cartoonish cast of advisors. "Hail to the Chief," indeed, Mr. Baldwin.