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Before we begin, an explanation: This is not a list of the 39 best SNL sketches of all time.
Any institution that lasts as long as Saturday Night Live has—and that experiences as much cast and writer turnover as Saturday Night Live does—will necessarily have stronger years and leaner years. In SNL‘s case, the difference between eras can be especially stark; you’re more likely to laugh at a meh John Belushi sketch than you are at even the finest display of Charles Rocket’s talents. Given that fact, it’s easy for a simple “best sketches ever” list to focus only on the best-known work of SNL‘s biggest stars (your Will Ferrells, your Eddies Murphy) while totally ignoring its less memorable seasons—which also means that such a list won’t really provide an overview of the show’s long, tangled, uneven history.
Thus this: In honor of the show’s upcoming 40th season, EW‘s team of SNL experts has assembled an inventory of each individual season’s best sketch. You’ll find many familiar picks below, as well as more obscure selections—and, perhaps, the absence of a few sure things. (There’s no “Celebrity Jeopardy,” for example, both because those sketches aired during a particularly fertile period—how can you pick even Turd Ferguson over “More Cowbell”?—and because we included one of them in a magazine feature called “Build a Perfect SNL Episode.”) Scroll through—and don’t forget to vote for your favorite one by 5 p.m. ET Sept. 26 at our poll here.
Season 1, 1975–1976
“Word Association,” Dec. 13, 1975
What kind of janitorial company gives job applicants a racist psychological test? The one Saturday Night Live invented for one of the most audacious two-minute segments in TV history. Even nearly 40 years later, Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor’s tense pas de deux (“Jungle bunny!” “Honky!”…”N—–!” “Dead honky!”) is just as sharp as it was in the ’70s—not to mention every bit as uncomfortably funny.
Season 2, 1976–1977
“Consumer Probe,” Dec. 11, 1976
Dan Aykroyd is at his slimy best as kids’ toy manufacturer Irwin Mainway, a shyster who hucks questionable products like “Mr. Skin-Grafter,” “Johnny Switchblade,” and one that’s simply called “Bag O’Glass.”
Season 3, 1977–1978
“The Festrunk Brothers,” April 22, 1978
Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd debut Yortuk and Georg Festrunk—a pair of characters you probably know better as “two wild and craaaazy guys!”
Season 4, 1978–1979
“Point/Counterpoint,” Dec. 16, 1798
Weekend Update anchor Jane Curtin and “station manager” Dan Aykroyd (him again! Can you blame us?) expertly skewer gender relations and vitriol-spewing talking heads. More importantly, their segment gives birth to SNL’s best catchphrase: “Jane, you ignorant slut!”
Season 5, 1979–1980
“Lord & Lady Douchebag,” May 24, 1980
Meet the British aristocrats behind some of the modern world’s most beloved innovations: Lord Worcestershire, the Earl of Sandwich, Lord Cardigan, and, well… the title of the sketch sort of ruins the punchline, but it’s still plenty great. (Also, watching is a great way to get your daily recommended dose of Gilda Radner.)
Season 6, 1980–1981
“Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” Feb. 21, 1981
“I hope I get to move in your neighborhood someday/The problem is, is when I movie in, y’all move away!” Watch three minutes of Eddie Murphy’s gritty, urban take on Mr. Rogers, and you’ll instantly understand why he kept SNL on the air nearly single-handedly.
Season 7, 1981–1982
“Buckwheat Sings,” Oct. 10, 1981
There’s not much to this classic sketch beyond Murphy’s hair, grin, and bizarre speech impediment—but that’s more than enough.
Season 8, 1982–1983
“Merry Christmas, Dammit,” Dec. 11, 1982
Hey, you know which recurring Murphy character we haven’t talked about yet? Gumby! There’s more to this Christmas special than the big green guy, though: Check out Joe Piscopo’s pitch-perfect Sinatra, as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger’s creepy-sexy take on Donnie and Marie. (At least, you could check them out if it were available in full online.)
Season 9, 1983–1984
“James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party,” Nov. 5, 1983
Okay, okay: We know there’s more to early ’80s SNL than Eddie Murphy. (Theoretically.) But what roundup of the show’s best sketches would be complete without the Godfather of Soul? “Here I go in the hot tub! Too hot in the hot tub!”
Season 10, 1984–1985
“Men’s Synchronized Swimming,” Oct. 6, 1984
And now for something completely different: A deadpan mockumenary made, naturally, by one-season cast member Christopher Guest (and starring his comrades Harry Shearer and Martin Short). Just consider it a blueprint for Waiting for Guffman.
NEXT: Church Chat, a driving cat, and “Get a life!”