Season 43 of Saturday Night Live begins this weekend, with Ryan Gosling hosting and Jay-Z as the musical guest. It’s a strong lineup, combining an A-list actor with one of the best rappers of all time who just released his best album in years. This is what we come to expect from the season premieres of Saturday Night Live; it’s the first show in about four months, so there’s plenty of pressure on Lorne Michaels and the cast to make a strong impression on viewers. Over the course of the show’s run, there have been plenty of great season premieres full of memorable sketches, cameos, and musical performances. With that in mind, these are some of the greatest SNL season premieres of all time.
George Carlin/Billy Preston & Janis Ian (Season 1)
It’d be wrong not to include the very first episode ever, which benefitted from having a legendary comedian as its host. Carlin’s monologue featured one of his most beloved routines on baseball and football. This episode is full of essential moments – the first Weekend Update, Andy Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” routine, the first appearance of the Killer Bees, and two more standup bits from Carlin. SNL was still figuring out what it was, but it’s debut episode is incredibly enjoyable to watch just the same.
Billy Crystal/Thompson Twins (Season 10)
Technically, this show didn’t have a host, but new cast member Billy Crystal handled the monologue duties. The best sketch here – and one of the show’s most famous – is the “Synchronized Swimming” sketch with Martin Short and Harry Shearer training for the 1992 Olympics. However, there was also Ed Grimley’s appearance on Wheel of Fortune and Fernando anchoring Saturday Night News (what Weekend Update was called in the Dick Ebersol era). 1984-85 would be Ebersol’s final season before Lorne returned, and it featured one of the strongest casts ever. This premiere was a great indication of how strong the season as a whole would be.
Sigourney Weaver/Buster Poindexter (Season 12)
The 11th season of Saturday Night Live – and Lorne’s first after a five-year exile – was widely considered to be a disaster, so much so that the show was nearly canceled. When the show did make it back for season 12, it mocked the past season with an opening sketch where Madonna (who had hosted the premiere the previous year) tells us that it was all just a horrible dream. This was a clever way of admitting failure, but more importantly, this was the first-ever episode for Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, and Jan Hooks, all of whom became essential cast members for the next half-decade, and in some cases longer. We get the first Church Lady sketch, the first Mr. Subliminal sketch, and of course, the immortal “Choppin’ Broccoli” to close the show. After Lorne’s disastrous first year back, this episode signaled that things were about to get really good again, and it ultimately drove the show into a new golden age.
Tom Hanks/Keith Richards (Season 14)
In the late ‘80s, Tom Hanks became one of the most beloved hosts of all time with a quick succession of great appearances, and this one is probably his strongest outing. We get an appearance from Mr. Short-Term-Memory as well as one of the best game show sketches of ever, “Jew, Not a Jew,” which is pretty self-explanatory. Elsewhere, there’s Hanks and Lovitz as the “Girl Watchers” at their high school reunion (“Hello!…..and goodbye!”), and a presidential debate sketch featuring Dana Carvey’s George Bush and Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis. Finally, on Weekend Update, there’s the classic “All Drug Olympics” bit, where Phil Hartman rips his arms off trying to lift a 1,500 pound weight. Late ‘80s SNL was one of the show’s best eras, and this was a nearly flawless episode.
Steve Martin/Eric Clapton (Season 20)
The 1994-95 season of SNL is considered to be one of the worst in the show’s history, and with good cause. But as cringeworthy as some episodes were, it actually got off to a pretty strong start, mostly because it brought in two of the big guns. Steve Martin comes with a hilarious monologue, where he tells a joke about soup that bombs then spends the rest of the time overthinking it. Elsewhere, with Phil Hartman having left the show the previous summer, the rest of the cast collectively tries out their Bill Clinton impressions, with David Spade doing a
“Hollywood Minute”-style version, while Adam Sandler adds some presidential themes to “The Thanksgiving Song.” The funniest sketch of the night is probably “Steve Martin’s All Natural Penis Cream,” a silly idea that only Martin could sell (think of it as his own Schweddy Balls). There were only a handful of good episodes in SNL’s 20th season, but this premiere was definitely one of them.
Mariel Hemingway/Blues Traveler (Season 21)
If Prince had hosted this show, as was originally planned, it might have been one of the best episodes in SNL history. As it stands, it’s still quite important for being the debut episode of Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Darrell Hammond, and Jim Breuer. Ferrell made his mark right away with “Get Off the Shed,” a sketch about a father gradually losing his temper during a backyard barbeque. David Spade was one of the few holdovers from 1994-95, and his “Hollywood Minute” segment had been expanded into “Spade in America,” a weekly feature where he ranted about whatever was on his mind. Here, he got some shots in at Prince for his decision to back out of hosting the show. Finally, Mark McKinney brought his Chicken Lady character over from Kids in The Hall in the last sketch of the night. Here, SNL had washed off the stench of 94-95’s bloat and entered a great new era.
Rob Lowe/Eminem (Season 26)
This episode is remembered for two things: (A) having Eminem on at the peak of the controversy surrounding The Marshall Mathers LP, and (B) the greatest political debate sketch ever. The showdown between Ferrell’s George W. Bush and Hammond’s Al Gore is a true classic, as “strategery” and “lock box” have firmly entered the lexicon. We also saw Eminem mock his dark persona by doing some Sugarhill Gang-inspired rhyming on Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey’s first Update, while Fallon mocked Dennis Miller’s awkward placement on Monday Night Football. The cold opening is what everyone remembers about this one, but it’s a great show all around, particularly when Ralph Nader showed up to ask Lorne why he couldn’t be in the debate sketch.
Reese Witherspoon/Alicia Keys (Season 27)
Just 18 days after the 9/11 attacks, there was probably more pressure on the SNL cast than ever before. They responded with a memorable episode that handled everything just the right way. The cold opening featured Paul Simon giving a beautiful rendition of “The Boxer” followed by Lorne asking Rudy Giuliani “Can we be funny?” to which he responded “Why start now?” Rudy hasn’t done his reputation a lot of favors in the last 16 years, but that remains a classic moment. Elsewhere, though, it’s just a really funny episode. We see the Culps perform at a lesbian wedding, a “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch with Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery, and a Little Mermaid parody that details the ins-and-outs of mermaid anatomy. This was an excellent premiere, and a reminder that SNL’s irreverent spirit was still thriving after the attack.