The best and worst SNL skits of all time

Saturday Night Live has aired thousands of sketches during its 40-plus years on the air. It's hard work turning out 90 minutes of live, original comedy, and the quality is naturally going to vary. Some of those bits have stood the test of time and become classics, while others have become memorable because they were so ill-conceived. (There's also the matter of taste—one person's all-time great is another's trash.) In no particular order, here are 12 of the very best sketches to ever air on SNL…along with 12 of the very worst.

Best - Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker

Chris Farley developed his Matt Foley persona on stage (along with Bob Odenkirk) before introducing him to the national TV audience. That lent the character a depth and backstory that sketch characters generally don't have. Because he's a bombastic life coach and motivational speaker, parents hire Foley to talk some sense into their wayward kids. It works…because the kids end being terrified that they'll end up like Foley, "living in a van down by the river." Farley's a force of nature here—he was one of the all-time greatest comic yellers, and his furniture-breaking pratfalls are a thing of magic.

Worst - It's Pat

In the current pop culture landscape, Jeffrey Tambor has won two Emmys for his thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of a transgender woman on Transparent. In the early '90s, SNL featured a recurring bit with Julia Sweeney as a gender-ambiguous character with the gender-ambiguous name of Pat. The joke was that observers couldn't tell if Pat was a woman or a woman, and Pat would obscure things further by dating a gender-ambiguous person named Chris. The character was annoying and obnoxious then—Pat constantly simpered, wined, and winced—but is problematic if not offensive now.

Best - Haunted Elevator

Technically, the sketch is title "Haunted Elevator," but it's much better known as the "David S. Pumpkins" sketch. In this delightfully silly Halloween-themed bit, a couple (Beck Bennett and Vanessa Bayer) try out a haunted house thrill ride in which an elevator is supposed to expose them to monsters, ghosts, and other spooky creatures. Instead, it just keeps stopping on a random guy (Tom Hanks) in a pumpkin-print jacket named David Pumpkins—sorry, David S. Pumpkins—and his two dancing skeleton friends. Any questions?

Worst - Rear Window

January Jones excels at playing unapproachable women—Emma Frost in the X-Men movies, or Betty Draper on Mad Men, for example. In this sketch, she's another distant and mysterious character: Grace Kelly during the making of the 1953 classic movie Rear Window. While Jones would later show a real gift for comedy on The Last Man on Earth, she comes off in this sketch as awkward and strange—probably because the premise is entirely based around her inability to stop farting.

Best - Land Shark (Jaws II)

There are two main kinds of comedy on SNL: sketches that endure forever because they aren't about timely topics, and sketches about timely topics. In SNL's first season, the most popular movie around was Jaws, and the show found a unique way to send it up: Chevy Chase, in a cheap costume, plays the very sneaky shark who stalks his prey on land, fooling people into letting him into their homes with ruses like "plumber," "candy gram," and "I'm only a dolphin."

Worst - Gilly

Obviously, Kristen Wiig is one of all-time SNL greats: adept at celebrity impressions, physical comedy, silly voices, and great original characters. And then there's Gilly, a recurring character so obnoxious and difficult to enjoy that she feels like a parody of recurring characters. Dressed in a fright wig, Wiig plays a little kid who acts innocent even though she's obviously guilty of savage pranks. The greatest prank ever pulled on the audience, however, is this character's stubborn refusal to go away.

Best - Word Association

Satire is a big part of SNL, and once in a while, that satire elevates to the downright dangerous. That's the power of comedy. In the show's early days, it was particularly risky with its social commentary, never more so than in this sketch featuring cast member Chevy Chase and guest host Richard Pryor, one of the funniest and most controversial stand-up comics of all time. In this fast and furious bit, Chase interviews Pryor for a job, and administers a word association test. Words and tempers escalate quickly, demonstrating just how tenuous race relations can be.

Worst - The Couple

This may not be one of the worst written sketches in SNL history, but it's among the worst executed. Former cast member and host Chris Rock stars opposite the fantastic Leslie Jones as a long-married bickering couple getting ready to go out. The sketch isn't particularly funny; it's loaded with so much emotional nuance, story, and poignancy that it feels more like a short play. When it aired, the scene was besieged with so many technical difficulties and messed-up lines that none of the actors could pull it out of a tailspin.

Best - Celebrity Jeopardy!

Game show parodies are a mainstay of SNL, but the most beloved are the many Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches. The premise is simple: SNL stars and guest hosts get to show off their celebrity impersonation skills while competing on Jeopardy!, all while embodying the stereotype that superstars are very stupid. The questions (or answers, rather) are remarkably easy, and the contestants' continual failure to answer them correctly is an endless source of exasperation for Alex Trebek (a simmering Will Ferrell). The only celebrity that can truly make Trebek lose his cool, however, is the wildly hostile and profane Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond).

Worst - Commie Hunting Season

SNL can, should, and does try to skewer people from all walks of life, but there's a fine line between social commentary and pointless cruelty. In this sketch that aired during SNL's strike-shortened misbegotten 1980-'81 season, a bunch of angry guys with thick country-fried accents can't wait to go out hunting "Commies"—America's number one enemy at the time. Charles Rocket's character is so repugnant that he actually says the N-word on the air. The studio audience responded with utter silence.

Best - Old Glory Insurance

The best SNL fake ad of all time doesn't star a single SNL cast member—only a cast of hired older actors, which makes the product look all the more real. That is, until the robots show up. Written by SNL head writer and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Adam McKay, it skewers commercials that prey on the elderly, using both fear and the reassuring presence of Sam Waterston from TV's Law & Order to get them to buy a very special (and very absurd) kind of insurance.

Worst - Royal Stripper

See, what they did here is take "Jack the Ripper" and changed it to "Jack the Stripper," because it rhymes. That's pretty much the sum total of the joke. A guy in grimy, Victorian-era London flashes people rather than murder them, and investigators are pretty sure it's a member of the royal family because the culprit wears a luxurious robe.

Best - Derek Stevens (Choppin' Broccoli)

Dana Carvey dominated SNL in the late '80s with the Church Lady, Garth from "Wayne"s World," and his silly impression of President George Bush. None of them, however, were anything like ultra-serious, washed-up British superstar Derek Stevens, who's put on the spot by a pair of record executives (Phil Hartman, Sigourney Weaver) to play some new material. Derek clearly doesn't have anything, so he just kind of wings it, blurting his way through an overwrought breakup song about "choppin' broccoli."

Worst - Three Wise Guys

What if the Three Wise Men were the Three Wise…Guys? That little bit of wordplay substitution led to this Christmas bit, in which the trio on their way to deliver presents to the Baby Jesus were instead members of the Mafia. The sketch features three guest stars—Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, and John Goodman—talking like movie mobsters. Or at least, that's probably what they're doing. They're so difficult to understand (especially Stallone) that it's hard to tell exactly what's happening.

Best - (Do It On My) Twin Bed

After the Lonely Island left SNL, the tradition of "digital shorts" they helped pioneer continued with more members of the cast getting involved. This song, co-written by Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant and performed by SNL's female cast, is all about the joys and humiliations of heading home for the holidays with a beau in tow. In other words, it concerns their futile, un-sexy attempts to "get a little nasty" in childhood bedrooms that haven't changed since these ladies were 12.

Worst - The Whiners

Eddie Murphy was SNL's breakout star in the early '80s, but the show's other big laugh-getter was Joe Piscopo, a solid, funny performer who could do a great Frank Sinatra. His recurring characters, however, needed some work. In "The Whiners," he and Robin Duke played Doug and Wendy Whiner, a couple who, coincidentally whined all the time. The joke is that they annoy everybody, but if the sketch also annoys the audience, what's the point?

Best - D*** in a Box

Three-man comedy troupe the Lonely Island revitalized SNL in 2005 with "digital shorts"—pre-taped, typically musical bits that often became instant classics, including "Lazy Sunday" and "I'm on a Boat" (with rapper T-Pain). The best has to be "D*** in a Box," because there's nothing funnier than two guys who look like Color Me Badd rejects (Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake) proudly presenting the ladies in their lives with a very…personal Christmas gift.

Worst - Copy Machine

Some of the most common criticism SNL receives has to do with its reliance on recurring characters and catchphrases. Here's one example. Rob Schneider plays an office worker—"the Richmeister"—who sits by the copy machine and riffs on co-workers' names, then says "makin' copies." That's it. What might have been a clever sketch for two minutes one time gets old quite fast when one office employee after another makes copies…and then SNL repeats the whole thing week after week.

Best - Mister Robinson's Neighborhood

When Eddie Murphy arrived at SNL in 1980, he brought a youthful energy and an urban African-American perspective the show had never seen—and applied those talents to play Mister Robinson, an unrepentantly criminal, inner-city version of Mister Rogers. It's not easy to parody Mister Rogers, one of the sweetest and most well-meaning men in history, but Murphy doesn't really make fun of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as much as he points out how unrealistic it was for a large portion of the audience.

Worst - Airport Security Check

Sharon Stone shot to fame with Basic Instinct, a sexually charged psychological thriller in which she bared a lot more than her acting chops. SNL seemed more interested in her physical attributes than talents, however, and cast her in this sketch as a woman airport security finds so attractive that they keep making her remove articles of clothing to "make sure" she isn't "smuggling anything." In other words, Sharon Stone is forced to strip—and it's more sexist than it is sexy.

Best - More Cowbell

Writers built a deliriously funny sketch around a tiny element of Blue Öyster Cult's 1976 hit "(Don't Fear) the Reaper"—the song's unrelenting cowbell. Framed as an episode of Behind the Music airing studio footage of the band recording the song, Will Ferrell (in an ill-fitting shirt) plays BÖC's (fictional) overzealous and emotionally sensitive cowbell player, while Christopher Walken plays the incredibly cool music producer who "has a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell!" It's been nearly 20 years since this sketch aired, and people are still saying "more cowbell."

Worst - The Tampon Prince

The very public and messy divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana was one of the major news stories of 1992, dredging up embarrassing information about both parties—including a recording that surfaced of Charles on the phone with his then-mistress (now wife) Camilla Parker-Bowles expressing his desire to be transformed into a feminine hygiene product so he could be with her always. This SNL sketch takes the concept to its logical and tasteless end—Prince Charles (Dana Carvey) announces his abdication from the line of royal succession so as to get together with some scientists and literally make that wish come true.

Best - Consumer Probe

Frequent early SNL host Candice Bergen as the quietly raging voice of reason and Dan Aykroyd as an over-the-top scumbag makes for some classic SNL. On a public affairs show called "Consumer Probe," Bergen's host takes shifty, menacing toy maker Irwin Mainway (Aykroyd) to task for his extremely dangerous (but profitable) products, such as "Mr. Skin Grafter" and "Doggie Dentist." Mainway is slimy and gross and the sketch hints at some dark truths about consumer culture run amok. (And remember kids: Be careful with "Bag O' Glass"—because it's a bag of broken glass.)

Worst - Yankee Wives

Athlete guest hosts almost always strike out on SNL. They're generally stiff, dull, and not funny, so the show has to rely on tired tricks to get through those episodes—which usually includes dressing the manly jock in women's clothes. When New York Yankees great Derek Jeter hosted, he played the wife of a Yankee hanging out with other ballplayers' wives in the Yankee Stadium grandstands. The entire joke here is that Derek Jeter is wearing a dress, and it's funny for about as long as you'd think.