Whittling down the nearly 40-year history of “Saturday Night Live” to the 50 funniest sketches is a herculean task. The list of legendary comedians who have been among the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” is too lengthy to mention and the sheer volume of episodes is staggering. Between the first episode with guests George Carlin and Billy Preston through last week’s show with Melissa McCarthy and Imagine Dragons, that tally now stands at 758 episodes, not including specials. Let's say there’s an average of seven sketches per episode; by my tally, that’s over 5,000 sketches.
So yeah, not easy. Thankfully, the comedy experts over at Rolling Stone have done the heavy lifting for us and identified the 50 funniest sketches in “SNL” history. Lists like these are always sure to generate controversy, and this one should be particularly contentious, since it’s common knowledge that the best “SNL” cast is whomever was on the show when you were between the ages of 12 and 15.
That said, Rolling Stone absolutely nailed it with their No. 1 pick, Chris Farley’s masterpiece of physical comedy as Matt Foley in the original “Down by the River.” Like Lorne Michaels, I’m generally not one for cast members breaking during a sketch (and Rolling Stone’s Top 10 is definitely too heavy on those), but it’s hard to blame David Spade for cracking up at Farley’s wild gesticulations and vocal inflections.
"In rehearsal, he's done the thing with his glasses… But he'd never done the twisting his belt and hitching up the pants thing," Spade told Rolling Stone. "He saved that for the live performance, and so none of us had ever seen it. He knew that would break me."
Created by Bob Odenkirk and Farley during their days at Second City, Foley’s manic energy in the centerpiece of the sketch but it’s the progression of the premise that takes it from funny to timeless. Phil Hartman’s cool-dad delivery of the line “We’re not trying to ‘come down’ on you too hard” is one of the funniest parts of the bit and Christina Applegate’s apathy and exhaustion at her parents clueless attempts to teach their kids a lesson about drugs with a motivational speaker sets up the misdirection crucial to its humor. When Hartman says “he’s been down in the basement drinking coffee for about the last 4 hours,” the audience chuckles expectantly; little did they know that man in the basement was about to unleash one of the funniest moments in the show’s history.