Doing sketch comedy is like playing a sport. A group of people come together for a common cause: making people laugh or scoring points. There are different strengths for different players, certain areas of expertise that make the entire team better. When all these forces combine, you have a winning team and you leave competitors in awe. And in the dust.
In celebration of Key & Peele’s first film, Keanu, we have compiled a list of sketch comedy power players. We tried to think outside of the Saturday Night Live box but to most Americans, SNL is sketch comedy so forgive us for our lack of variety. We’ve grouped them into certain categories or – if you’re a fan of the sports allegory – positions. On their own, these are all funny, funny people. When they are combined with other hilarious performers, everyone here becomes an all-star.
The Straight Man (Or Woman)
Comedy is about absurdity. Silly, unbelievable things happening and the characters just go along with it. Although sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there’s one person who is just befuddled by the silliness around them. That’s your straight man, the guy or gal who watches all the chaos go on and sighs “Really?!”
One of the best straight men is Dave Foley of Kids in The Hall. He doesn’t just play it straight but he really delivers in that category. Confused, slightly short-tempered and unamused by the madness around him, Foley (and all straight men) is actually an extension of the audience. We see the bizarre scenes through him. We end up rooting him on…and commiserating with him too. Part of Foley’s appeal is that he always seems much smarter than everyone else on screen and even us, the viewers.
An SNL star who captures the essence of the straight man so well is Tim Meadows, a man whose work on the show isn’t as celebrated as it should be. Part of the reason that few people talk about Meadows is that he was so natural on the show, it almost felt like he wasn’t even trying. He was rarely explosive or loud but he was always superb, especially at channeling the reality and frustration of the straight man. Such an important part of any scene.
See Also: Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, Chris Parnell, Kevin Nealon
The Loud Mouth
Who’s the silliest person in a sketch comedy scene? Who’s the one who draws in all the attention, causes the conflict and continually raises the stakes? That’s the loud mouth, the character who is most likely larger-than-life and often times re-occuring. The straight man and the loud mouth play off each other regularly, with the straight man rolling his eyes at the antics of the loud mouth.
Jim Carrey of In Living Color is an obvious loud mouth and, boy, did it work out well for him. He was always big, bigger than big. To some, it was annoying. To many, many others, it wasn’t enough. People ate up every character he created. That explosive energy and fearlessness translated well to the big screen, where Carrey played characters in the same vein (The Mask, Ace Ventura, Batman Forever if you must).
Kristin Wiig is another loud mouth who has found success in theaters. She created multiple memorable characters on SNL and was constantly pushing herself and attempting to make something new. Wiig was a perfect blend of awkwardness, absurdity and cringe. She balanced all those elements very well with pure fearlessness. And while she is technically a loud mouth, sometimes her characters were quiet as a mouse and so, so odd. Regardless, she drew you in and you couldn’t look away.
See Also: Eddie, Murphy, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Molly Shannon
Part of sketch comedy is addressing current events. It’s no easy task. Say what you want about Saturday Night Live (go ahead…) but you have to hand it to them: they put up a brand new show every single week. Ninety minutes of comedy, come hell or high water. That means all sketches won’t hit but some will, especially when you have a performer doing impersonations, an age-old comedic trope. From playing the president to a celebrity to someone at the center of a controversy, the impersonator is pivotal for great sketch.
Very few are better at the role of impersonator than Bill Hader. The man’s first bit on Saturday Night Live was playing Al Pacino. He said his first line in character and you could hear the studio audience gasp. He’s just that good. Since then the man has gone to play many different iconic people and many fictional parts too. If you need a senator or actor or newsmaker portrayed, you call Hader. He kills it. Always. The man’s talent is almost eerie.
Maya Rudolph, also of SNL, is a natural at playing other people. Her best role was Whitney Houston. Rudolph would play Houston at the Weekend Update desk and left the audience (and Update anchor) in stitches. While Hader was always fairly faithful to the mannerisms and characteristics of who he was playing, Rudolph loved to embellish but somehow still stayed accurate. “I can see Beyonce saying that,” you’d think. “Oh yeah, Oprah would totally do that.” She had such a good handle on her character that she was able to explore and go wild.
See Also: Jay Pharoah, Kate McKinnon, Jan Hooks
The Wild Card
Perhaps the most important part of the sketch comedy team is the wild card. This is the performer who can be…anyone. The wild card can play the straight man, the loud mouth, the impersonator. The wild card can be in the scene for a split second or the entirety. They fill any void and do any task. They are true team players that conform to the scene and do what it takes to bring the laugh, being anyone the sketch needs them to be. To be fair, all sketch comedy stars should be a wild card. Most are, to varying degrees. These are just some of the best.
One of the greatest wild cards of all time was Phil Hartman. Hartman is a Saturday Night Live legend, a man who lit up any scene he was in. He also played presidents and celebrities and fictional characters by the dozen. And the person he really was – the sweet, kind, somewhat quiet guy – came through in all of it. He was incredibly likable and it made all of his characters more human and enjoyable. If you could have one person in your scene, regardless of what it was, you wanted Phil Hartman. Is he one of top five SNL performers ever? Most definitely.
Amy Poehler is another SNL alumnus who could do practically anything on the show. She bounced around as multiple characters and real life people (Hillary Clinton, anyone?) with incredible success and impressive ease. She also was able to co-anchor Weekend Update and still start in a bunch of sketches every week. She was a powerhouse, playing a wide variety of characters. The writers loved writing for her, the cast loved playing with and, most importantly, the audience loved watching her. Any role, any size, any type of joke – Poehler nailed it.
See Also: Bill Murray, Alex Borstein (MADtv), Nicole Sullivan (MADtv), Will Forte