Saturday Night Live celebrated its fortieth anniversary over the weekend with a three and a half hour special full of clips, former cast members, special guests, music, and, of course, recurring characters. As much as the show gets credit for its political and celebrity impressions, pioneering fake news, and occasional forays into edgy music, what most people associate with SNL is its four decades’ worth of characters and catchphrases. Most of the ones revived for the special were respectable (Wayne’s World; What Up with That; Stefon); a few were unnecessary (Garth and Kat). But any longtime SNL fans probably maintain a mental list of the recurring bits that they never ever want to see again (and will probably see again, even if the cast members in question are gone, during compilations, anniversary specials, and when those cast members return to host). It’s an inevitable byproduct of (a.) having recurring characters at all and (b.) doing recurring characters often as a clear concession to casual fans. Not everyone watches SNL every week and even fewer people have been watching it every week for decades.
But some of us do and have and this is my list of beloved recurring characters I absolutely despise. To keep it a little positive — it’s the show’s birthday, after all — I’ll suggest alternatives for all of the hacky, overplayed, irritating torture I’ll be discussing. I considered an accompanying list of my favorite recurring characters, but we’re already working on a Best of Will Forte post. That’s basically the same thing.
Feel free to chime in with your own least-favorites, or to defend these terrible sketches, in the comments.
The 16 Worst SNL Characters
15. Nicholas Fehn (Fred Armisen) and Drunk Girl (Jeff Richards)
As often as they’re run into the ground, it’s hard for a Weekend Update character to really draw my ire for recurring characters; it’s not a waste of a sketch and it’s usually over within a couple of minutes, unless it’s Garth and Kat — another strong contender for this spot. But I must admit that the first Garth and Kat appearance made me laugh, and I enjoy genuine improvisation making its way onto the ultra-scripted SNL broadcast, even if the results are pretty repetitive. Speaking of repetitive: As Nicholas Fehn, Armisen assays a certain type of counter-cultural, faux-rebellious, socially-conscious comedian, a guy who just points to headlines and scoffs out gestures of righteousness without every actually making a coherent, complete point. It’s one of Armisen’s pointed meta-comedy bits, except it becomes less meta with every appearance, as a meta-joke becomes a non-joke. Jokes about how someone is rambling on without saying something need to tread awfully lightly to work, and as vaguely clever as Fehn seemed the first time, it felt like an Armisen filibuster about two seconds into the second. Also on the Weekend Update hall of shame: the one Jeff Richards character, Drunk Girl, a caricature of drunken woo-girl behavior that, while not necessarily inaccurate, feels like the wrong kind of vicious coming from a dude in drag.
Better alternative: Armisen has an array of funnier high-concept comedians (if only because they only appeared a handful of times versus the punishing seven instances of Fehn). But as much as I enjoy the deaf comedian and the Native American comedian, I love even more his potentially cruel but hilarious David Paterson bit, which turned Paterson into something of a hacky stand-up himself, viciously smearing New Jersey and Upstate New York. Richards, well, he wasn’t on the show that long.
14. The Californians (Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Kenan Thompson)
I get it. It must have been really fun to do. I like imitating the Californians almost as much as I hate watching the fucking thing, mainly because this sketch should be 90 seconds long, tops, and somehow cycles through three or four several-minute segments each time. I’m not a big math guy but it seems like that adds up to at least five hours. I love gratuitous swipes at the west coast, but the show has rarely seemed so self-amused as when it allowed this to become the stuff of legend.
Better alternative: Pretty much anything else that combines Armisen, Wiig, Hader, and Thompson. Possibly even any applicable Secret Word sketches. Possibly.
13. Penelope (Kristen Wiig)
Wiig may have set some kind insanely even ratio of talent to insufferable recurring characters; she’s a gifted performer who the show felt weirdly unembarrassed to lean on whenever possible. There are a variety of Wiig characters who never should have made it past a single oddball appearance — Gilly; the Target Lady; the dotty actress on Secret Word, a sketch that cries out for a rotating series of characters but instead just got the same Wiig shtick over and over — but for her main spot on this list, let’s go back to the beginning. Penelope, a squirrely one-upper who plays with her hair while nonchalantly lying (or is she?!?) about how her life is just a little bit better or more interesting than yours. It’s certainly rooted in observation of real human behavior, and of course that kind of observational material tends to distort into caricature when it becomes a recurring sketch. This isn’t automatically bad but it led to a weird kind of conceptual incoherence, where the Penelope sketches, possibly out of sheer boredom, started ending with surreal touches implying that Penelope really is telling the truth about her fantastic life. That’s a clever twist once and shameless around-fucking after that.
Better alternative: Wiig can be brilliant at underplaying, which is why one of her best characters is Virginia Horsen.
12. The Bloder Brothers (Jimmy Fallon, Chris Parnell) and Merv the Perv (Chris Parnell)
God love Parnell and God even kinda like Fallon, but jokes about idiots making obvious/stupid/crass jokes have to be really incisive or strange to be worth telling again — to say nothing of again and again and again. In the Bloder Brothers bit, Parnell and Fallon play guys who crack stupid jokes and probably hate themselves. Ha? They’re a more nervous, self-deprecating Beavis and Butthead. Merv the Perv is a similar-ish bit where Parnell, uh, is a really gross sexually harassing guy. There’s one decent installment of that one, I must admit: when Colin Farrell hosted and did that hacky move of having the host play the brother or the father or the best friend of the recurring character who behaves exactly like the recurring character, the joke was that Farrell’s harassment sounded more charming because of his Irish accent. OK, not bad. But generally, the routine feels like a sop to Parnell, who tended to be better in other people’s sketches than as his own characters. He’d break that streak in his deeply Parnellian Dr. Spaceman appearances on 30 Rock
Better alternative: Tom Hanks and Jon Lovtiz have similarly low levels of game in this recurring piece, except it’s funny!
11. Principal Daniel Frye (Jay Pharaoh)
Jay Pharaoh is a gifted impressionist, but sometimes I wonder if there’s a real comic sensibility hiding underneath his often-flawless mimicry. It isn’t encouraging that his most famous non-impression bit is a nothing of a character, a routine built almost entirely on a vocal tic. Principal Frye comes up to the microphone and says “attentionteachersandSTUdents,” giving announcements at various school functions as other teachers rotate in and out. I should love this sketch; I generally love sketches about schools, weirdoes, and misbehaving teenagers, and I generally love the sketch format where a series of characters approaches a podium or microphone one by one. But it falls flat because so much of it has to do with Pharaoh making funny sounds — an odd turn for someone who really knows his way around vocal specificity.
Better alternative: Recurring formats often trump recurring characters, so I’ll go with the similar but much funnier bit where a series of characters speak at a wedding or funeral. Will Forte’s insane character Hamilton appeared in one or two of these and later got his own sketches.
10. Z105 with Joey Mack (Jimmy Fallon)
Another imitative fallacy from Fallon, where his one-man morning-zoo crew is unfunny and annoying on purpose, which does not, in fact, make for a clever sketch. Yes, it’s impressive that Fallon can do a Robin Williams-like array of hacky voices and has the patter of a terrible morning radio show pretty much down, but frankly, I’d rather just watch him do his Robin Williams impression.
Better alternative: If we’re gonna watch Fallon host a talk show, well, I guess there’s lots of opportunity for that these days, but there’s also the fairly tolerable Jarret’s Room.
9. The Vogelchecks (Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Paul Rudd sometimes, Jesus who cares)
There’s a performative aspect of this sketch that made it work once: when a kid brings his girlfriend home to meet his parents, she’s weirded out by how affectionate they are, and a bunch of cast members get to kiss each other in elaborate, ridiculous, and pseudo-incestuous ways. But with no room for variation — literally; the sketch almost always takes place in the same damn living room — the Vogelchecks quickly went from cheap laugh to zero laughs, though the studio audience always obliged with much hooting delight.
Better alternative: I don’t want to sound sour, but dysfunction is generally funnier than love, so I’ll take either of SNL’s seething family dinner series: either the one Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer, and whichever young female host wanted to join in the screaming, or the bit where Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, and Will Forte explode into anger and disgust at the drop of a hat.
8. Trina (Kristen Wiig)
Okay, one more Wiig character. This almost doesn’t count, in the same way that Armisen’s horrible court stenographer character doesn’t count; like that character, Trina — the weird woman who calls out “Thomaaaas” over and over; that’s the joke — seems almost like a deliberate provocation, an experiment to see how little a cast member can give to a character and still get it on the air on the strength of his or her popularity. Frankly, as talented as Kristen Wiig is, it felt like she was doing that a lot. But really, the writers are to blame for stuff like this: they know that certain cast members will get almost anything on the show, and having sketches on the show is fun! So let’s have Wiig say “Thomaaaaas” a thousand times and we can all go home happy.
Better alternative: This isn’t Wiig, but if we’re talking non-beloved occasional recurring characters from this era of SNL, it’s Jeff Montgomery or nothing.
7. Omeletteville, or whatever the fuck you want to call it (Justin Timberlake and whoever)
When Justin Timberlake first hosted SNL in 2003, I did not think I had seen history. I thought I’d seen a pretty bad episode. The centerpiece of badness was an interminable sketch where Timberlake dressed in an omelette costume as an overzealous street pitchman, outdoing another restaurant’s mascot played by Chris Parnell with a series of over-elaborate ditties based on recent popular hits. The timing was as clunky as the costumes. And yet when Timberlake returned to host on subsequent occasions, this mostly jokeless sketch became some kind of idiotic centerpiece, revived just about every time Timberlake turns up. It’s a perfect encapsulation of his worst instincts as a host: the sketch is not really about jokes, characters, or point of view; it’s about the fact that it’s Timberlake showing off how game he is. But Timberlake dressed up in a big stupid costume, doing muddled song parodies that aren’t as good as the weakest Fallon-on-Update numbers, isn’t actually funny. But this sketch will continue — and because it’s host-driven, it will continue basically forever, wasting time on every episode Timberlake ever hosts. Can’t he do this shit on the Tonight Show now?
Better alternative: This counts!
6. Suel Forrester (Chris Kattan)
One thing a lot of the characters on this list have in common is the simplicity of their premises. A simple premise can actually be a thing of beauty in sketch comedy, but the worst SNL characters take a simple premise and stare it down for eight minutes at a time. Suel Forrester, a signature Chris Kattan character, is especially bad because it’s not really a writing-driven premise. It’s based entirely on the idea that it would be funny to watch Kattan talk in a confident garble as the people around to him struggle to understand. And so, the character took an extended tour of various professions where it would be better if people could understand what you’re saying. If this sounds suspiciously like “every profession,” you may have caught on to why this sketch is all premise and zero laughs. Kattan did this character eight times in five years (or rather, five years a day. First appearance: 3/16/96; last appearance: 3/17/01), half of those in Suel’s first misbegotten year of existence. Special shout-out to his final appearance, which somehow makes the cut in the cut-down rerun version of the episode, while two classic sketches that I can’t even find online get cut out.
Better alternative: Honestly, Goth Talk isn’t all that great, but if you’re looking to watch a Kattan character that he did eight times, this is definitely the way to go.
5. The Manuel Ortiz Show (Fred Armisen)
The first time this aired, I watched with growing horror: the joke really was going to be that a soapy talk show will be self-interrupted by people dancing to the same tune. It was accompanied by a sinking pit of knowledge in my stomach; I knew they would do this again. It’s one of those sketches that must be really fun to do to make up for how boring it is to watch, only I’m not actually sure this one is even that fun to do and kind of wonder if it’s some kind of weird control thing for Armisen.
Better alternative: If you want Armisen honoring/lampooning his Latino heritage, Ferecito.
4. The Leatherman (Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz)
This almost missed the list because I didn’t realize it was a recurring bit. Fallon and Sanz guys who work at a store that specializes in leather. When Fallon walks, you can hear the leather squeaking. Then Sanz screams or something. I guess it’s based on a real store. In SNL’s hands, though, it’s not an opportunity for satire but rather a chance for Fallon and Sanz to crack each other up as ill-timed sound effects jostle up against their terribly timed (and presumably more controllable) interactions. The only reason this isn’t ranked first is that they only did it twice. All the other times Fallon and Sanz cracked each other up just felt like a recurring bit.
Better alternative: Closing your eyes for five minutes.
3. Sally O’Malley or Helen Madden (both Molly Shannon)
Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri brought a welcome and much-needed jolt of female-driven energy to SNL in the late nineties, after several years where the show’s boys-club atmosphere had only gotten more hostile. Shannon was hired around the time that Janeane Garofalo quit in disgust, and, amazingly, she was more or less the first really successful lady at SNL since Jan Hooks left in 1991. Shannon and Oteri also had what looks an awful lot like carte blanche to do any damn recurring character they could think of, and often — hence Sally O’Malley, whose whole thing was being fifty and yelling out “I’m FIFTY!” Her other catchphrase: “I like to kick, and stretch, and KICK!” It’s a catchphrase that repeats itself before the sentence even finishes. This does not bode well for a half-dozen appearances over the years. Same goes for the less-employed but still stupid Helen Madden, a “joyologist” who just goes “I-love-it-I-love-it-I-love-it” over and over. At their worst, Shannon and Oteri sounded like they thought comedy literally was a series of tics.
Better alternative: If we’re talking one-woman shows like this, it tends to work better when the actors play kids, as in Gilda Radner’s gold-standard Judy Miller Show and Amy Poehler’s descendant Kaitlin, who has a similarly repetitive catchword (“RIIIICK!”) surrounded by actual characterization.
2. The Whiners (Joe Piscopo, Robin Duke)
They’re a married couple and their voices are super-whiny. That’s it. You may have noticed that despite the first half of the eighties representing a nadir of SNL ineptitude, almost all of the characters on this list appeared over a decade later. This is due in part to how relatively few SNL episodes I’ve seen from 1980 until 1985, and, moreover: if you repeat a character and no one notices, does it really count as recurring? The answer: maybe if you do it an astonishing ten times in two years, maybe the best example of Dick Ebersole’s autopilot approach to any parts of the show that weren’t Eddie Murphy, and how that doesn’t work unless Eddie Murphy is doing stuff.
Better alternative: Robin Duke played “Mrs. T,” spouse of Mr. T. That wasn’t really a recurring character, but it was pretty funny. Piscopo did Sinatra or something. Whatever, I’m sure he’s happy to tell you about it.
1. Nadeen (Cheri Oteri)
Pure hell, diluted to a catchphrase: “Simma down now!” In this sketch, that’s what Cheri Oteri yells at people from behind various barriers (hospital check-in, fast food counter, etc.). She does this over and over and then, eventually, the sketch ends. Not only is this character amazingly unfunny, prodigiously irritating, and shockingly thin, it’s not even particularly original: it’s basically David Spade’s “buh-bye” sketch with the sarcasm turned down and the volume turned up. Think of how often “David Spade did it better” can ever be said with any accuracy, and glory unto the worst SNL character of all time.
Better alternative: Anything else that has ever been on the show.