“I felt robbed.” That’s how Garrett Morris summed up his tenure as a Saturday Night Live performer. When the sketch comedy show first hit the airwaves in 1975, critics and audiences heralded it as a counterculture breakthrough — but as Morris admitted in the 2017 documentary Live From New York!, he struggled to fit in with the majority-White cast and felt like he was denied opportunities to shine.
While cast members like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase enjoyed the spotlight in many sketches, Morris found himself typecast in flagrantly stereotypical roles, or left out altogether. “Anything for Garrett?” SNL creator and boss Lorne Michaels would ask during routine 3 a.m. phone calls to the writer’s room. The answer, too often, was no.
For Black cast members, life on SNL in many ways parallels the Black American experience: While many others enjoy long, mediocre careers, our triumphs arise from a combination of defiance and sheer genius. You already know some the names of the Black SNL alumni who found breakout success — Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph — but much respect is due for unsung pioneers like Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, and the aforementioned Morris.
In all, only 20 of the 153 total performers to appear on Saturday Night Live in its 45 seasons have been Black. The show’s issues with diversity have been so publicized that a self-mocking 2013 sketch actually leaned into it, with guest star Kerry Washington forced to portray first lady Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, and Oprah Winfrey all in the same sketch, mid-scene costume changes and all. The gag is, of course, that there were no Black women on staff to step up (and, hell no, Kenan wasn’t available).
Still, Black SNL performers have delivered some of the show’s iconic moments of the past four-plus decades. Superstar trajectories began there, and too many remained in obscurity there — which is why it’s so fitting to highlight and rank every Black Saturday Night Live cast member. It’s a tough, tragic, wild, joyful, hilarious history. It’s unapologetically Black. And, as always, it’s live from New York.
20. Yvonne Hudson
Years on staff: 1980–1981
Comedic style: Understated Greatest sketch: “Bad Clams”
As the first Black woman to be hired by Saturday Night Live, Hudson faced double the obstacles. But she shined in rare moments during her featured player run, best amongst them “Bad Clams,” a bizarre sketch with SNL OGs Garrett Morris and Gilda Radner in which a married couple forces comedy legend Lucille Ball to eat rancid shellfish. In “Apartment Building Confrontation,” she proved she could hold her own against rising star Eddie Murphy in a straight-faced battle of the dozens. Unfortunately, Hudson’s stint — largely spent as a bit player — reflects the undervalued experiences of most of the Black women who have been cast for the series.
19. Damon Wayans
Years on staff: 1985–1986
Comedic style: Subversive Greatest sketch: “Mr. Monopoly”
Aside from having the unenviable task of filling the shoes of megastar Eddie Murphy, who’d departed two seasons prior, Wayans’ sketch ideas were routinely rejected by Lorne Michaels. Angered by what he saw as brazen disrespect, the funnyman rebelled during the now-infamous “Mr. Monopoly” sketch, in which he went off-book to play a routine straight cop as a cartoonishly effeminate gay man.
Decades later, Damon Wayans reflected on the creative stifling that led to his decision. “I came to learn it was Lorne Michaels’ way of protecting me from looking like I was trying to be the next Eddie Murphy,” he said in 2015. “They weren’t letting me do things that he would do. So, I went against the script. I knew I was going to get fired for it. Lorne did the right thing.”
Wayans was shown the door after that fateful episode (only his 11th overall), but he had the last laugh in the long run. He became a founding cast member of his brother Keenan’s landmark ’90s sketch comedy series In Living Color, depicting revolutionary characters like Homey D. Clown, prison inmate Oswald Bates, and superhero Handi-Man — all of which made SNL look downright stale.
18. Jerry Minor
Years on staff: 2000–2001
Comedic style: Low-key hilarity Greatest sketch: “Good Morning Bronx”
Despite arriving with credentials as a mainstay of the influential comedy troupe Second City, Minor didn’t get much of a chance to flex his acting and writing chops. Along with his recurring “Rap Sheet” sketch alongside Horatio Sanz, Minor’s most major pop was in “Good Morning Bronx,” a wildly risible ode to the BX in which he thoroughly ate up his part as Derek Jeter-hating co-host C-Dog. Minor, who also parodied Cuba Gooding Jr., Rev. Al Sharpton, and Jimi Hendrix, was unceremoniously let go during the show’s summer hiatus, a victim of budget politics.
17. Dean Edwards
Years on staff: 2001–2003
Comedic style: Chameleon Greatest sketch: “Weekend Update” (as Denzel Washington)
Another talent whose nuanced impressions were slept on by the SNL brass. This Bronx-bred funnyman — who rose through the underground standup circuit without the potty mouth of his peers — did Don Cheadle better than Don Cheadle. Likewise for Denzel Washington, who he hilariously depicted celebrating his Best Actor Oscar win for Training Day. Edwards’ SNL highlight reel is sparse, but it helped him score the voice role of the iconic Donkey in the 2010 Halloween special Scared Shrekless after Eddie Murphy declined to return to the classic franchise.
16. Ego Nwodim
Years on staff: 2018-present
Comedic style: The cool, funny chick next door Greatest sketch: “SoulCycle at Home”
A Baltimore native who graduated with a degree in biology from USC, Nwodim’s unlikely path to comedy landed her on one of television’s most powerful launching pads. Her stint so far has been a mixed bag of gems, from Dr. Angie Hynes and the low-key great Mid-Day News segment to supporting spots in an Awkwafina-led “street” dance battle and an Eddie Murphy digital short. Nwodim remains a featured player, but judging from her scene-stealing spot in the SoulCycle lampoon as a disturbingly intense trainer (“That’s right — I’m hot and religious. It’s a trap!”) her future looks bright — and her frequent appearances on the improv podcast Comedy Bang Bang have only solidified her bona fides in the comedy world.
15. Sasheer Zamata
Years on staff: 2014–2017
Comedic style: Grace under fire Greatest sketch: “Stranger Things”
Zamata drew big headlines in January 2014, when the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater alum became the first Black woman to sign on as a regular after Maya Rudolph’s departure seven years prior. After Lorne Michaels hired five White men as featured cast members in a single offseason, the blowback prompted a new talent search, which brought us Zamata along with two Black female writers: LaKendra Tookes and future star Leslie Jones.
The infectious Zamata was nobody’s token, but she still struggled to find her footing. Her biggest moments were flawlessly imitating former first lady Michelle Obama and playing Lucas, the Black kid from Stranger Things, in a smart imagining of his concerned parents. Beyond that, Zamata was consistently typecast as the prototypical Black friend or the resident sister in game shows and TV commercial spoofs. She bolted after three seasons.
14. Finesse Mitchell
Years on staff: 2003–2006
Comedic style: Unpredictable Greatest sketch: “Weekend Update” (as Morgan Freeman)
Finesse Mitchell’s versatility was striking. Through his three-year trek, he tackled O.J. Simpson and a pubescent Michael Evans from Good Times, while also memorably playing a stereotypical around-the-way girl with an attitude named Starkisha. But he’ll always be remembered for his snickery take on Morgan Freeman, who is disgruntled over never appearing in a steamy love scene. “I made a career out of helping White people solve their problems in movies,” Mitchell says, imitating the elder-ish statesman of cinema. “I wanna get freaky with some hottie like every other leading man over the age of 50!”
13. Danitra Vance
Years on staff: 1985–1986
Comedic style: Did she just say that? Greatest sketch: “That Black Girl”
Following the groundbreaking Hudson, Vance became the first Black woman and openly lesbian cast member to take on the reigns as an SNL repertory player. And she was an energetic presence whenever given the chance to shine, most notably on the savvy “That Black Girl,” a parody of the Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl in which a perpetually optimistic Latoya Marie is unable to find acting jobs because of her race. Vance seemed like a natural, but she soon grew tired of playing a string of well-worn characters of color, such as unwed teenage single mother Cabrini Green Jackson.
Then there’s the controversial April 12, 1986, cold open: Vance appears as The Color Purple’s Celie and suggests that Lorne Michaels beat host Oprah Winfrey for refusing to appear as Aunt Jemima. (Yikes!) Years after its original showing, the skit has seemingly been scrubbed from the internet.
12. Chris Redd
Years on staff: 2017-present
Comedic style: In the cut Greatest sketch: “Come Back Barack”
In just three seasons, Redd has solidified himself as the prototypical team player. You need someone to depict Black Panther’s T’Challa in a cracked-up family reunion skit? He’s your man. A fresh face, gold-digging WNBA groupie? Yup. A random dude well-versed in the “Cha Cha Slide”? Sure. But Redd’s calling card is his invaluable contributions to SNL’s popular digital musical shorts. There have been some noteworthy standouts: the riotous “Permission,” “I Love My Dog,” the Donald Glover rap sendup “Friendos,” and “Come Back Barack,” a hysterical, Emmy-winning torch song to President Barack Obama in the up-is-down MAGA age of Trump.
11. Jay Pharoah
Years on staff: 2010–2016
Comedic style: Mimicry machine Greatest sketch: “Rappers Meeting”
Jay Pharoah was perhaps the most dexterous caricaturist in Saturday Night Live’s storied history. From Will Smith to Obama, his mastery of impersonations was uncanny, a skill put on full display in his Rappers Meeting segment on “Weekend Update.” Set post-Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the sketch is a madcap what-if scenario in which Jay-Z seeks relationship advice from 50 Cent, T.I., DMX, Lil Wayne, Will Smith, Nicki Minaj, and Drake — all played by Pharaoh himself. At least until real-life Drizzy interrupts the routine to complain about the unhinged portrayal.
10. Ellen Cleghorne
Years on staff: 1991–1995
Comedic style: Silly sass Greatest sketch: “Zoraida”
Cleghorne walked so Maya Rudolph could do cartwheels. The first Black female cast member to last more than one season made the most of some pretty cliché moments, turning clumsy characters like Queen Shenequa and feisty Afro-Latina NBC security guard Zoraida into comedy gold. Her “Jamaica Tourism Ad” sketch alongside Tim Meadows was a master class in passive-aggressive rebuke of White privilege.
9. Leslie Jones
Years on staff: 2014–2019
Comedic style: Joyful wrecking ball Greatest sketch: “Naked and Afraid: Celebrity Edition”
She botched her lines. She sometimes couldn’t get through a skit without breaking out in laughter. And early on, she struggled to find her niche. But Jones grew to become a beloved SNL cast member, able to stretch the surreal to its laughable limits. Witness her roughing it in the wilderness with Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage in a side-splitting jab at the Discovery Channel reality series Naked and Afraid. (Dinklage comes prepared with a fire-starting kit to survive their 21-day journey; Jones pulls out a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot sauce). She even brilliantly took on Donald Trump in a facetious send-up that avoided the usual gender and racial ramps. The two-time Emmy-nominated Jones’ manic, brash energy was truly singular, bringing cue cards to life in a way few others could — flubs and all.
8. Michael Che
Years on staff: 2014-present
Comedic style: Everyone’s favorite asshole Greatest sketch: “Gretchen”
Michael Che isn’t afraid to dive headfirst into cringe. As the first Black co-anchor of “Weekend Update” (a lineage that includes Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Fallon), Che’s ongoing racist joke swaps and recurring slander of the city of Boston are tame compared to his most controversial sketch to date. In a nod to Eddie Murphy’s landmark “White Like Me” sketch, the co-head writer goes undercover as a liberal White woman. Yet unlike Murphy, Che doesn’t even bother to whiten his skin or change his voice, opting for a blond wig, crochet hats, a copious number of scarfs, and Lena Dunham books (it was 2017, y’all). May this laid-back anchor continue to hold it down.
7. Garrett Morris
Years on staff: 1975–1980
Comedic style: Cerebral Greatest sketch: “Calypso”
It’s oftentimes a lonely battle when you’re the Jackie Robinson of your field. But for Morris, being the first Black member in the original cast of Saturday Night Live was more than an isolated journey; it was an obstacle course of racial landmines. The fact that his most memorable character was a Dominican baseball player named Chico Escuela who spoke in broken English (“Baseball been berry, berry, berry good to me”) should tell you everything you need to know about his struggle for respectable bits.
Still, the Julliard-trained actor carried on through the bullshit. Morris’ ridiculous News for the Hard of Hearing was a hit. He played Egyptian President A. El Sadat all-the-way-straight until the final eye-winking end. He pulled off heavyweight boxer Ken Norton singing opera. But if you really want to check out Morris’ smart comic sensibilities turned up all the way to 11, watch him perform Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Nur Wer Die Sehnsucht Kennt” conspicuously dressed as a calypso artist. The kicker? After falling in love with a woman he’d just met in Jamaica, who was in the audience, he admits that he’s been living a lie: He’s really Harry Belafonte.
6. Tim Meadows
Years on staff: 1991–2000
Comedic style: Mild-mannered wiseass Greatest sketch: “Ladies Man: Unprotected Sex and Weight Issues”
Meadows lived up to his reputation as one of SNL’s most durable stars, playing the background as the nonthreatening Black guy in a plethora of pieces early on. He hit the jackpot, though, with his “Ladies Man” character, a freaky call-in radio sex therapist who became so popular that Meadows expanded the bit into a 2000 feature film. It’s baffling that censors allowed the “Unprotected Sex and Weight Issues” sketch — which includes an anal sex joke — to air, but Meadows’ amiable sweetness, which he wielded for devastating comic effect, was truly disarming.
5. Chris Rock
Years on staff: 1990–1993
Comedic Style: Never scared Greatest sketch: “Martin Luther King Day Rant”
The greatness of Rock is such that the comedy icon considered his time on SNL a complete bust, and yet he still produced some pretty uproarious moments. As part of the famed 1990 crew of Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Rob Schneider — dubbed “the Bad Boys of SNL” — the irreverent funnyman knew how to push buttons.
The comically militant Nat X still kills. His White comic’s guide to surviving a night at the Apollo never gets old. And Rock’s classic Martin Luther King Day diatribe is as insightful on the absurdities of racism as it is gleefully brutal (he wonders aloud why Arizona residents voted down MLK Day as a national holiday, effectively denying themselves an off day in a hot-ass climate). It’s all enough to make you forget that Rock was actually fired by SNL when it was discovered that he was plotting a move to In Living Color. The punchline? The Fox rival was canceled just one month after he joined.
4. Tracy Morgan
Years on staff: 1996–2003
Comedic style: Brash knuckles Greatest sketch: “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet”
The unlikeliest SNL star, Tracy Morgan garnered acclaim on his own ’hood-propelled terms. When he was in his bag, dude could do no wrong: A bonkers King Kong parody, the absurd Astronaut Jones, a preposterous portrayal of the great poet Dr. Maya Angelou.
Of course, the uncompromising Morgan’s biggest contribution was the blissfully wacky Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet, which offered ridiculous quotables (“I wanna see that dog catch a Frisbee!” he says upon meeting a miniature horse) and cemented one of SNL’s best-known catchphrases (“Hi, I’m Brian Fellow!”). Morgan, who went on to enjoy skyrocketing fame on the Emmy-winning 30 Rock, is still going strong on his hit TBS series, The Last O.G. And despite a near-fatal car accident in 2014, his in-your-face delivery hasn’t piped down one bit.
3. Maya Rudolph
Years on staff: 2000–2007
Comedic style: Limitless versatility Greatest sketch: “Donatella Versace’s Pockets”
It’s little wonder why Rudolph dominated SNL broadcasts: The woman was scary good. In fact, the daughter of five-octave songstress Minnie Riperton was never in a bad sketch, as she’d regularly elevate mediocre material. Just witness Rudolph jump from mimicking bronzed Italian fashion designer Donatella Versace hawking her own line of champagne-flavored Hot Pockets to unleashing a pitch-perfect Beyoncé co-hosting a head-shaking talk show with Prince to an Oprah impression that has yet to be topped. Bask in her glory.
2. Kenan Thompson
Years on staff: 2003-present
Comedic style: A daily double of heart and soul Greatest sketch: “Black Jeopardy”
If hosting the joyous recurring “Black Jeopardy” sketch was Keenan’s only contribution to the SNL canon, he’d still have a first-class ticket to the funny AF afterlife. A former Nickelodeon child star, Thompson has carved out a pop culture space in sketch comedy that few can rival. The 42-year-old comic has shown unlimited range in his Saturday Night Live run, whether portraying the no-self-awareness-having talk show host Diondre Cole, an all-too graphic Scared Straight inmate, or a shady Reba McEntire imposter. Thompson’s sheer charm is so inviting that he can even pull off parodies of disgraced R&B pariah R. Kelly.
At times, Thompson’s consistent brilliance has been taken for granted because he’s become a mainstay, putting in a remarkable 17 seasons. Saturday Night Live’s consummate glue guy and longest-tenured cast member finally won his first Emmy in 2018, once again proving he’s all that — and more.
1. Eddie Murphy
Years on staff: 1980–1984
Comedic style: Polished yet raw Greatest sketch: “White Like Me”
Murphy saved Saturday Night Live. That’s a deadass fact. Following the end of the original Not Ready for Prime Time gang’s run, SNL’s sixth season featured an all-new cast that included Eddie Murphy, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo, Ann Risley, Charles Rocket, and Denny Dillon. The ratings tanked. Murphy told TV Guide that producer Jean Doumanian “had tried to Garrett Morris me … turn me into the little token nigger.” When the smoke cleared, only Murphy and Piscopo survived, but it was the 19-year-old Brooklynite who led the show’s return to greatness.
Murphy’s list of legendary characters and sketches have now become part of television folklore: Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, Gumby, Velvet Jones, James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party, Clarence Walker (the Black Fifth Beatle). Murphy turned the negative stereotype of The Little Rascals’ Buckwheat on its head with his mock assassination. In his most potent skit, “White Like Me,” he disguises himself as a Caucasian man to hilariously break down racial inequities. “Slowly I began to realize that when White people are alone, they give things to each other for free,” he says in amazement after he’s given a stack of newspapers for free. When a Black passenger exits a bus, White folks literally throw a party. He even lands a bank loan despite having no credit.
Of course, you know the rest of the story: Murphy went on to become one of the most celebrated stand-up comics of all time, also dominating the box office with blockbusters like 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor, and Shrek. After a falling out with SNL, the prodigal son in 2019 made a triumphant return to the show that he gave so much to. All hail the king!
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