You’re not supposed to break. It devalues a sketch, alienates your co-stars, and negates the social contract between audience and performer. Lorne Michaels hates it. Giggling in the middle of a sketch is the quickest way to find yourself in the doghouse at Second City, the Groundlings, and any other comedy program worth its salt.
And yet, some of the most iconic moments in television history are made when a performer loses their mind after a really good, really stupid joke. That moment of hysterical chaos, when the narrative is off the rails and everyone is racing for cover, cannot be bottled up by anything that’s written to be funny. That brutal truth has become one of the dark arts of sketch comedy. Players like Jimmy Fallon have built an entire career around walking that tightrope — a professional, a game line-reader, but always the first person to break due to either an overactive funny bone, or the fatal understanding that once you start to laugh, the crowd will probably do the same. As much as you might want to disrespect breaking, you can’t dispute its effectiveness. We wanted to round up the many hysterical ways comedians have compromised their art, so here are the 14 greatest breaks of all time.
(As a note, yes, this list probably could’ve been composed solely of Saturday Night Live moments, but we wanted to make sure that other, less monolithic comedy institutions got their shine.)
The Dead Parrot Sketch, Monty Python (1976)
Michael Palin had undoubtedly heard John Cleese do his aggrieved Dead Parrot character thousands of times when the duo performed it live at Monty Python’s 1976 benefit show for Amnesty International. That, I think, is what makes Palin’s break so funny. Even after the Python mystique had fully assimilated into the cultural lexicon, it’s still shockingly easy to bust up when Cleese is screaming directly into your face.
Tim Conway’s Elephant Story, The Carol Burnett Show (1977)
Half the fun here is watching Carol Burnett do her damndest to not break. This outtake from the mythic Carol Burnett Show — in which Tim Conway tells an off-script, interminably long, and extremely deranged story about a circus elephant — probably remains the most famous sketch from the show’s 11-year run. That was a meta-game between the cast; there were few things Conway loved more than making Burnet break. I don’t know if anyone, before or since, has gotten a louder pop than when Vicki Lawrence finally, mercifully, shut him up.
Andy Kaufman Gets in a Fight, Fridays (1981)
This is the most high-concept break on this list. A belligerent Andy Kaufman, refusing to read his lines during a 1981 sketch on the variety show Fridays, gets the cue cards dropped in his lap by an incensed Michael Richards. Things quickly escalate into a scene-stopping brawl, and one week later, Kaufman returned to the screen with a taped apology. Naturally, Kaufman being Kaufman, this was all part of the plan — another one of the many ways he toyed with the grammar of live television. Nobody revealed that the fight was a set-up until Melanie Chartoff came clean in 2007, but the physical boundaries of what was possible during a sketch show would never be the same.
Matt Foley, SNL (1993)
Saturday Night Live is the greatest watching-celebrities-crack-up show of all time, and that art was perfected forever and ever by Chris Farley’s Matt Foley and a disorientingly young David Spade and Christina Applegate. Spade is barely asked to do anything during the sketch. The job is to sit there, and try not to laugh, as Farley puts on the apex physical performance of his incandescent, cruelly-too-short career. What’s fun about watching someone break is knowing that you’d be doing the exact same thing in their shoes. For a moment in 1993, we were all laughing uncontrollably as Foley took a dive through the living-room table.
Arctic Tern, Who’s Line Is It Anyway? (2002)
Here’s an unpopular Whose Line Is It Anyway? opinion: Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles were the true stars of the “CD Infomercial” game. I could take or leave the Wayne Brady songs. This riff was a classic as soon as it beamed out to tube-TVs across America. (Arctic Terns are actually a real bird, but they certainly don’t sound like the Backstreet Boys.) The show was always at its finest and most chaotic when all Mochrie wanted to do was make Stiles laugh.
Lorraine Goes to the Dentist, MADtv (2003)
It had neither the live kinetic energy nor the all-star glitz of Saturday Night Live, but I think most children of the ‘90s have a special place in our hearts for MADtv. One of its all-time highlights? Mo Collins as the acerbic high-maintenance geriatic Lorraine, paired with the forever underrated Michael McDonald. They were dynamite together. Watch as Lorraine takes a trip to the dentist, stifling her laughter, as McDonald is softly rude to the worst patient in the world.
Prince Charles Scandal, The Daily Show (2003)
It’s not the most sophisticated bit in the world, but there’s something about watching Jon Stewart crack up as Stephen Colbert deepthroats a banana that reminds us of a kinder, simpler time.
Debbie Downer, SNL (2004)
It doesn’t work. The entire character distillate of Debbie Downer is that she’s a pathological bearer of bad news with a rigamortis frown on her face. But during her debut in 2004, Rachel Dratch couldn’t help but twinge out some involuntary laughs during her depressing factoids about mad cow disease, train derailments, and that flatulent trombone blaring off from the band pit. Those giggles slowly roll through Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, and guest host Lindsay Lohan, (Fred Armisen, in typical fashion, mostly keeps it together), and the sketch absolutely kills despite the fact that its fundamental premise is ruined. That’s the magic of breaking!
Stefon, SNL (2008-2013)
Stefon represents the only time an SNL character was specifically built around breaking. The cue cards would famously be rearranged or rewritten for each onomatopoeic club name up until the moment the show went live, forcing Bill Hader to say, like, “Hooyagoosyoughoooou” with no rehearsal. No actor has ever struggled through a difficult script more admirably, and it really speaks to Hader’s charm that simply watching him laugh was enough to build a legacy.
Munchma Quchi, The Colbert Report (2011)
There is so much joy in watching Stephen Colbert lose his mind in the middle of an extremely stupid pun. We always appreciated how the teleprompter could completely blindside the legend during his Comedy Central days, leading to long, hands-over-mouth pauses as Colbert attempted to ground himself back into his stoic O’Reilly form. The best part about this joke? It’s pretty easy to imagine a Fox News blowhard taking “Munchma Quchi” at face value.
Place in Edinburgh, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (2011)
Craig Ferguson improvised constantly during his after-midnight tenure on The Late Late Show, so there are plenty of lunatic sequences of brilliance to choose from. But this riff, centered around some bizarre conceit about Geoff the Robot owning vacation homes around the world, is a ten-car pile-up of a joke. Ferguson breaks simply because he can’t believe he’s allowed to be this silly on network television. We couldn’t believe it either. That’s always been crucial to his appeal.
The Californians, SNL (2012)
What a ridiculously simple premise: Californians giving directions. It’s funny, because Californians love giving directions, and this miraculous ensemble of modern SNL royalty (Armisen! Hader! Wiig!) could not hold it in as they graciously roasted their adopted home state. The sketch that aired live was great, but true breaking aficionados prefer the dress rehearsal take, where things come to near-screeching halt after some impassioned traffic advice from Armisen.
Close Encounter, SNL (2015)
Everyone has their own favorite genre of Saturday Night Live breaks, but there’s no doubt that Lorne Michaels pioneered the often-imitated, never-replicated art of getting an allegedly serious actor to lose their mind during a hosting stint. (More on that later.) Ryan Gosling, as it turns out, is no match for a chain-smoking Kate McKinnon monologue about getting abducted by the horniest aliens of all time.
Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson, Live in Front of a Studio Audience (2019)
This is the most recent break on this list, and also the most trans-dimensional. Jamie Foxx took up the George Jefferson mantle for ABC’s ‘70s sitcom throwback special Live in Front of a Studio Audience. Foxx flubs a line, and briefly slips out of character to shame himself while the rest of the cast members quietly cackle in the dark. For the viewer, it’s an alternate reality where we got to witness a version of The Jeffersons where Sherman Hemsley breaks the fourth wall, which we imagine would be a much different show.