The SNL Top 50: Impressions

By Mark Polishuk,
March 2000

It appears as though I've caught the millennium fever. At first I thought
it was herpes, but thankfully, it was a false alarm. One of the side
effects of millennium fever is the compilation of useless lists that will
undoubtedly be debated over and will result in several nasty e-mails sent my
way. Since it is the year 2000, as well as "SNL's" 25th year on the air, it's
time to look back at some of the great moments that have made the show the
cultural phenomenon that it is today.

Impressions are fun. Everybody has at least one impression that they can
do very well; I've been told that I do a pretty good Kelsey Grammar. Of
course, this is mostly because I have a deep voice and I'm going bald, but I
digress. What separates your average drunk at the office Christmas party
who does a great take-off of the boss from the "SNL" actor is the actor's
ability to do several impressions, and several impressions of quality. This
list attempts to ... uh, list some of the great spoofs that have made some of
our great celebrities look like blooming idiots (in the case of some people,
not a hard task).

I hold no favorites in making this list. Any impression in the show's
history will do, even a one-shot appearance from a guest host. I rank the
impressions on their humor, and their accuracy. If there is a bias, it's
that I haven't seen the older "SNL" shows as much as I've seen the newer ones,
and that may be reflected in some of the selections. So now, to paraphrase
Bill Swerski's Super Fans, here is da list.

50. Matthew Perry does Michael Keaton
"Celebrity Jeopardy," that bastion of good impressions, inspired this
particularly funny piece of work. Perry had a good time of mocking Keaton's
habit of hesitating before speaking, including one bit where he buzzed in,
then did several hesitations and ran out of time before answering. Ah,
Michael Keaton. Remember back when the Batman movies were, you know, GOOD?

49. Cheri Oteri does Judge Judy
The sketch is pretty repetitive (Judy always lets the loser defendant go
free), but the impression is mighty funny. The real Judge Judy even made a
guest appearance once, because she was such a fan of Cheri's impression.

48. Mary Gross does Dr. Ruth Westheimer
One of the better characters of Mary Gross, who I feel is one of the more
underrated SNL actors. Gross frequently played the elderly sex therapist on
Weekend Update, and it was a tribute to Gross' skill that she actually had
good banter with the Update anchor of the time, Brad Hall. Believe me,
folks, having good patter with Brad F'n Hall is a rare feat.

47. Tim Meadows does Ike Turner
Ike was one of the few characters that got Tim air-time during his first few
years with the show. A frequent Update correspondent, Ike would turn every
subject into a misogynist rant directed towards women (actually, is there
any other kind of misogynist rant?). He would then apologize for his
behavior to the anchor, Kevin Nealon, who grudgingly accepted every time.
An early vehicle that showed Tim's talent.

46. Tracy Morgan does Reggie White
As a diehard Packers fan, I have the utmost respect for Reggie White's
football playing abilities. As for his off the field personality,
well...He's an ordained minister, and one of those ministers who believes
that homosexuals and minorities are evil. Reggie is black himself, so you'd
think he'd know a thing or two about how prejudice is stupid, but maybe he
was hit in the head one too many times on the field. Tracy Morgan did a
good Weekend Update spot about how Reggie isn't prejudiced; he hates
everybody.

45. Ana Gasteyer does Celine Dion
I'm Canadian. Up here in Canada, we are just about sick to death of Celine
Dion. She can sing, I'll give her that, but she's so damn melodramatic.
Ana does a very good impression of just how egotistical Dion is, especially
about that damn song from Titanic. Thanks to Ana, soon maybe you
Americans will hate her too. AVERT YOUR EYES, SHE MAY CHANGE FORMS!

44. Norm Macdonald does Quentin Tarantino
This impression only appeared only once (to my knowledge), in a sketch about
how Tarantino auditioned several 70's stars for Pulp Fiction before
settling on John Travolta. This was an impression that came out of nowhere,
and only furthered Norm's cult-hero status among fans who thought he was
unfairly removed from the show.

43. John Goodman does Linda Tripp
Goodman, an erstwhile SNL host, has become a virtual featured player over
the past couple of years playing Linda Tripp. Why Goodman for the part?
Well...Linda Tripp (pre-plastic surgery) looked like a man. That's the
nicest way to put it. The impression was based more on comedy than
accuracy, but it was awfully funny.

42. Molly Shannon does Courtney Love
Despite her recent attempts to clean herself up, Courtney Love is best known
as a riot girl from the early nineties. Molly Shannon does a terrific
impression of such a bitchy character. I must admit that I could be a bit
biased here, because while I'm no particular fan of Courtney Love, she did
have Kurt Cobain shot, so she can't be all bad.

41. Will Ferrell does Harry Caray
Caray, the senile Chicago Cubs broadcaster, was known more for his rambling
than his play-by- play. SNL had the character host, of all things, a show
about space. This sketch even continued after Caray died, and one of the
guests (Joan Allen) asked "Excuse me, didn't you die?" The answer? "What's
your point?"

40. Jan Hooks does Tammy Faye Bakker
As a youngster, I originally saw this impression and thought it was
over-the-top. This was before I knew who Tammy Faye was, and it was quite a
surprise to me to find out that a human being actually acted this way.
BITCH CITY. I can see why Jim cheated on her. My favorite part of the
impression was how Jan would break into tears at the drop of a hat.

39. Dana Carvey does Jimmy Stewart
The first of six Carvey impressions on this list, which incidentally gives
him the most of any cast member. Go Dana. Jimmy Fallon also does a pretty
good Stewart, but Carvey's is superior because of the physical aspects that
he brought to the performance.

38. Jimmy Fallon does Adam Sandler
Speaking of Jimmy Fallon, I suspect that when somebody writes up this list
for SNL's 50th anniversary, he is going to be much more of a factor. Sandler
is a classic Fallon impression, so the voice and mannerisms are perfect, but
there is little or no physical resemblance. It was still pretty damn funny.

37. Chris Farley does Tom Arnold
Farley was known more for his characters, but every once in a while he'd
bust out some acting. This was one of the few impressions that required
Farley to actually play a character, rather than just being big and fat
(such as Meat Loaf, Carnie Phillips).

36. Ana Gasteyer does Martha Stewart
One of the best current impressions on SNL. In addition to the resemblance
between herself and Stewart, Ana always plays ol' Martha like she's a
repressed, bitter, violent bitch. So not only does she get points for
physical accuracy in the impression, Ana also gets points for personality as
well. :)

35. Will Ferrell does Janet Reno
Janet Reno is probably the most famous attorney general the U.S. has ever
had, and it's all thanks to SNL. Of course, Will Ferrell presents her as a
butch sociopath, but hey: there is no such thing as bad publicity. The
Janet Reno Dance Party sketch just by itself was enough to clinch this
impression a spot on the list.

34. Darrell Hammond does Richard Dreyfuss
This impression, by coincidence, came from the came show as Janet Reno's
Dance Party. This, of course, was the classic 1997 show that Kevin Spacey
hosted, which in my opinion was one the best single Saturday Night Lives in
history. Darrell did this impression as part of screen tests for the new
Star Wars movie, and Dreyfuss was auditioning for the part of C-3PO. My
friend Dave still uses the voice from this sketch to say "I don't need this!
I'm Richard Dreyfuss!"

33. Dan Aykroyd does Julia Child
Another caricature impression, where it's pretty much just Dan Aykroyd in a
dress and raising his voice an octave. Still, seeing him chop off his
finger and remain perfectly calm about it was pretty funny. Aykroyd re-used
this character on his (short-lived) sitcom Soul Man.

32. Chevy Chase does Gerald Ford
I had to debate a long time where to put this, or even to include it at all.
You see, Chevy Chase did an impression of the slightly dense 38th
president that looked and sounded nothing like Gerald Ford. The
"impression" consisted of Chevy saying stupid things and falling down
several times. Despite the lack of accuracy, it was damn funny, and ergo it
deserves to be on the list.

31. Jimmy Fallon does Jerry Seinfeld
Another good Fallon impression that relies more on mannerisms and voice than
it does on physical resemblance. The best way to judge an impression is
when the original is right there. During a Weekend Update bit, Jerry
Seinfeld and Fallon/Seinfeld had a debate, and it was hilarious.

30. Phil Hartman does Phil Donahue
Phil Hartman, one of the great impressionists in SNL history, had enough
talent to make the traditional talk show host role funny. Usually, for talk
show skits, there is a laugh for the host, but the humor is mostly
generated by the guests. Hartman's impression of Phil, however, was so good
that he could be funny just asking questions.

29. Rich Hall does Paul Harvey
Rich Hall, a talented cast member who got lost in the shuffle behind Billy
Crystal, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, et al. during the 84-85 season,
had a great Weekend Update bit as Paul Harvey, the radio host. There was
one particularly good bit where he suggested that the U.S. trade Nerf
missiles with the Russians. A good impression by an underrated comedian.
Does anyone know what happened to Rich Hall?

28. Jon Lovitz does Harvey Fierstein
"I just want to be loved, is that so wrong?" Despite that fact that this
line was said about, oh, five hundred times a sketch, the impersonation was
still good enough to make a funny skit. If you didn't know (THEN YOUR ASS
BETTER...sorry), Harvey Fierstein is the actor with the horribly gravelly
voice who plays largely homosexual roles, a bit of typecasting since he
actually is gay. Apparently, Fierstein didn't like this impression at
first, but he and Lovitz made peace.

27. Dana Carvey does Dennis Miller
Miller was doing Weekend Update, when he introduced a debate (or something).
He introduced his fellow debater as..."me." Then Carvey showed up and did
almost a dead-on Dennis Miller. I was in hysterics when I saw this, and so
was the audience. This is really the best way to judge an impression; when
the subject is sitting right there.

26. Darrell Hammond does Sean Connery
A caricature impression, but a terribly funny one. Connery is played as a
macho fool with a five- year-old's sense of humor, who spends a lot of his
time insulting Alex Trebek (Will Ferrell). I'd like to thank the writer
that first thought up the Celebrity Jeopardy idea.

25. Victoria Jackson does Roseanne
Roseanne, nasal bitch that she is, was the ideal impression for Victoria
Jackson. Not to imply that Victoria was a bitch; she just had a nasal
voice. Seeing her make out with Chris Farley (as Tom Arnold) on Update was
awfully funny.

23. (tie) Phil Hartman does Burt Reynolds
Norm Macdonald does Burt Reynolds
Try as I did, I couldn't break the tie. Hartman's was more accurate, but
Norm's was funnier. The common ground was that they both played Reynolds
like an idiotic jerk, which seems to be the general consensus in Hollywood,
too.

22. David Duchovny does Jeff Goldblum
Another Celebrity Jeopardy impression, and I would say one of the best ones
there has ever been. I can't stress this enough; David Duchovny did
Goldblum PERFECTLY. The voice, the look, the mannerisms...everything. One
bit where he answered a question, and then proceeded to smirk until his time
ran out almost caused me and the people I was watching the show with to bust
our guts laughing. When he's not being dry as hell, Duchovny is a funny,
funny man.

21. Dana Carvey does Regis Philbin
Seeing Darrell Hammond as Regis in the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"
sketches today makes me think of the king of the Regis impression, Dana
Carvey. Nobody got the talk show host's outgoing yet mildly annoying nature
down as well as Carvey did.

20. Mick Jagger does Keith Richards
Consider this set-up: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are supposed to do a
Weekend Update debate about (I think) the British class system or something.
Since Jagger himself is the musical guest, Joe Audience thinks it's a
cameo. But then the camera pans over to see Mike Myers as Mick, and Mick
slouched in his chair as Keith Richards. Classic. Mick even worked in the
line "Mick, you ignorant slut," as is the rule in SNL debates. Apparently,
Keith Richards was watching at the time, and laughed so hard he almost
choked to death...which is odd, because I thought he died around 1985.

19. Cheri Oteri does Mariah Carey
Cheri Oteri usually makes her characters jumpy and quirky (like Ariana the
Cheerleader, or the host on Morning Latte) but the Carey impression is
totally different. The Mariah character is totally laid back because she
thinks she's all that. My favorite part of the impression is that every
time she leaves a room, she quickly strikes a pose before she exits.

18. Al Franken does Henry Kissinger
It's very simple: when Al Franken is not involved with the show, SNL is not
as funny. As a long- time featured player, Franken did his share of
impressions, but his best was the former Nixon chief of staff. It's not
hard to do a Kissinger impressions, really, but what made Franken's great
was that he never broke the character for anything.

17. Phil Hartman does Frank Sinatra
There were two Sinatras done on SNL, one by Joe Piscopo and one by Phil
Hartman. The Hartman impression tended to be a bit more of the cranky old
man that Sinatra became in the early '90's. The funniest example of this
was the sketch about Frank recording his album of duets, and he rushed
through the whole thing and insulted his guest singers. He punched out
Bono, played by Adam Sandler, and called him a potatohead (because he's
Irish! HA!).

16. Dana Carvey does Johnny Carson
As I said before, the talk show host in a sketch just has to show up for a
momentary laugh. Dana Carvey did more than that, as SNL did entire Tonight
Show sketches without any guests. It was just Dana and Phil Hartman as Ed
McMahon riffing back and forth. The impression could also be adapted, like
when "Carsenio" debuted. All in all, a great impersonation.

15. Kevin Spacey does Walter Matthau
From the aforementioned Star Wars audition sketch. It was Walter Matthau
auditioning for the role of...uh, Yoda or something (Why the hell do I not
remember?). He gets a line wrong, and then crankily complains off-screen to
George Lucas "What's this picture about, anyhow?" An absolutely dead-on
impersonation of Walter Matthau. Kevin Spacey should be asked back to host
the show, because his first time was classic.

14. Bill Murray does Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy almost sums up all of the Kennedy family. He is a womanizer, a
drunk, and he's managed to stay in political power for well over twenty
years. I say "almost" sums up all of the Kennedys because apparently Teddy
can dodge bullets and knows how to fly a plane. Bill Murray, not really
known for his impressions, does a very good spoof of the Massachusetts
senator.

13. Phil Hartman does Bill Clinton
While not as good as Darrell Hammond, Hartman did a very good impression of
Bill Clinton. Hartman, in his impression, tended to portray Clinton as a
man who was slightly better educated than your average country bumpkin. So,
points for accuracy.

11. (tie) Joe Piscopo does David Letterman
Norm Macdonald does David Letterman
It is hard to choose between these two, because they were done at different
times in Dave's career. Piscopo played him when he was still a talk show
host, just a little off the wall. Norm's impersonation took advantage of
Dave's habit of getting off on tangents about small things ("Got any gum?")
It's hard to choose, so I'm waffling on this one.

10. Dan Aykroyd does Jimmy Carter
Aykroyd, arguably the best cast member of them all, started SNL's long
tradition of mocking the president. The voice was perfect (Aykroyd used the
southern accent again in Driving Miss Daisy), and the mannerisms were
also dead-on. A more realistic counterpart to Chevy Chase's zany take-off
of Gerald Ford.

9. Terry Sweeney does Nancy Reagan
If you haven't suppressed all memories of the borderline wretched 85-86
season, this impression was one of the highlights. Terry Sweeney, whose
only real claim to fame is that he's the first openly gay SNL cast member,
should also be remembered for his hilarious take on the first lady. Jan
Hooks' Reagan was probably more accurate, but it wasn't nearly as funny.

7. (tie)Billy Crystal does Muhammad Ali
Martin Short does Katherine Hepburn
Both from the hilarious "Kate & Ali" sketch, and also both weren't SNL
originals (Crystal had been doing his Ali impression for years, and Short
used his character before on SCTV). The accuracy is amazing; while
the makeup helped, the mannerisms are what made these impressions great.

6. Phil Hartman does Ronald Reagan
Because of the frequent cast changes on SNL in the eighties, a remarkable
seven different actors have portrayed Ronald Reagan. Everyone from Harry
Shearer, Piscopo, Randy Quaid and even Robin Williams took a shot at
impersonating the prez, but Phil Hartman had the definitive take on Reagan.
My favorite sketch with this character was when it was revealed that Reagan
was really an evil genius. Hartman switched back and forth from Reagan's
public persona to his "real" persona (which included speaking fluent
Chinese). Just a great impression.

5. Dana Carvey does George Bush
Fun fact: Dana Carvey has said "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"
more times than anyone else. That is largely due to the fact that his Bush
character opened the show for most of his run. The Bush cliches ("Read my
lips...no new taxes." "Dan Quayle; gaining acceptance." "My son is a
brainless stoner." Well, maybe not that last one...) sounded even funnier
coming out of him. The impression was more a caricature from the real Bush,
certainly a lot funnier, but that is only a small quibble.

4. Darrell Hammond does Bill Clinton
Darrell Hammond, brought in as the "impression guy" in the wake of Phil
Hartman, had big shoes to fill, but he did it. THE definitive Clinton
impression, and one that is funny each and every time because of the little
details. The bent thumbs-up, the lip bite, the general use of the phrase "I
feel your pain." My favorite part of the impression is when he's just
laughing away at something, and then abruptly stops, bites his lip and gets
the wise gleam in his eyes. Hilarious.

3. Joe Piscopo does Frank Sinatra
A remarkably accurate Sinatra, from a remarkably underrated cast member. I
rank Piscopo above Hartman for this impression because Piscopo had the look
and was generally "smoother" as the Chairman. It also didn't hurt that
Piscopo was able to sing eerily like Sinatra himself. I understand that
Piscopo is still doing this impression at various functions. I suppose that
the quality of the impression can be foretold by the fact that apparently
Frank himself liked it, and since Frank didn't have Piscopo shot, it must
have been good.

2. Dana Carvey does Ross Perot
A funny story: since Carvey was already playing Bush during the presidential
race, SNL was going to have David Spade play Perot. Spade, however, ain't
no impressionist, and Carvey had to take over. It's a good thing too,
because this impersonation turned out to be better than Bush. Carvey fell
into the role of the slightly daft Texan billionaire perfectly, with the
mannerisms and voice done perfectly.

1. Billy Crystal does Sammy Davis Jr.
I was watching an SNL repeat on the Comedy Channel, when my mother walked
in. She said "Hey, it's Sammy Davis Jr.!" Close, Mom. It was really the
most flawless impression I've ever seen on Saturday Night Live. The only
thing I can say about it is that for the longest time, I didn't know who was
doing the impression. Only when I read Billy Crystal's book, I discovered
the truth (of course, watch this; it'll turn out Crystal was kidding and it
was really Gary Kroeger or somebody). The mannerisms were perfect, the
voice was perfect, and the SNL make-up team outdid themselves. All in all,
Crystal's best impression on the show, which is saying something in itself.

Well, that concludes the list that will be invariably useless, because I'm
sure to remember somebody as soon as I e-mail this off. Should you disagree
with any of my selections, SCREW YOU HIPPIE! I am, of course, just joshing.
Feel free to comment on the selections at Jordan Davidson's SNL Message
Board
, or send me your opinions at paul_shock@hotmail.com Ciao.