Saturday Night Live Hosts’ Best Recurring Characters, Ranked

Jonah Hill and Vanessa Bayer on Saturday Night Live. Photo: NBC

When Jonah Hill hosts Saturday Night Live on November 3, it will be his fifth time doing crazy make-’em-ups, as fellow repeat host Christopher Walken might say. For SNL nerds, this represents his entry into the Five Timers Club, that elite designation for folks who have hosted the show five times or more. It’s a big deal, but as Saturday Night Live has continued past the 40-season mark, five-timer inductions have become less rare. When the concept was formally introduced on the show back when Tom Hanks hit his fifth time in 1990, there were only around five members total; in 2017 alone, Melissa McCarthy, Dwayne Johnson, and Scarlett Johansson were all welcomed into the club. But before Hill steps onto the stage again, he already belongs to an arguably more exclusive club: SNL hosts who have their own recurring character.

While the Five Timers Club has around 20 members, only 11 different hosts have managed this feat (though some, incredibly, have managed it more than once). Here, in anticipation of a possible reappearance from Hill’s delightful Adam Grossman character, we have ranked each host-assayed recurring character from throughout the show’s history.

First, some ground rules: To count for this list, the character in question has to appear in multiple sketches on the actual show, preferably in episodes hosted by that performer. Tom Hanks has appeared as David S. Pumpkins in one sketch, multiple cameos, one misbegotten animated TV special, and countless impromptu Halloween costumes, but despite its cultural ubiquity, the character was only really the subject of a comedy sketch in a single Hanks-hosted episode.

Also, if a host appeared as some kind of ancillary or spinoff of previously established recurring characters (e.g., George Wendt’s appearances in the “Superfans” sketches, which he did not originate but did repeat after stepping in during a hosting gig), it doesn’t count, even if the host did this more than once. Call this the John Goodman Exception, as Goodman appeared in multiple Superfans, Blues Brothers, and Bill Brasky sketches without originating any of them (and sometimes without actually hosting).

Finally, we’re not counting political impressions, because by their nature those are roles that are often recast in a way that a proper recurring character never would be. As much as Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer have been distinctive fixtures on recent seasons of the show, the fact is that these figures and those like them would have appeared on the show whether Baldwin or McCarthy or other super-famous guest stars were available or not. Something like, say, Christopher Walken’s “The Continental” does not have the same practical inevitability. For better or worse, these characters are yoked closer to their performers than to any particular current events of the day.

17. Omeletteville Pitchman (Justin Timberlake)

Number of appearances: 5

Strictly speaking, this Justin Timberlake bit about an elaborately costumed street pitchman who sings parodies of popular songs in order to upstage his similarly elaborately costumed professional rivals is not centered only on Omeletteville, the breakfast joint he stumps for in his first appearance back in the fall of 2003. But because the dynamics of this crowd-pleasing but mostly terrible sketch never change beyond the commissioning of a new funny get-up for Timberlake to mug in (a big beer bottle for Liquorville; a giant cup of soup for Homelessville), it’s easy to categorize him as the Omeletteville Guy. This is Timberlake at his self-regarding worst, displaying a kind of pointless virtuosity in service of something that’s barely a joke: a guy in a costume dances to popular songs as the audience screams in delight. It’s not even SNL’s best silly-dancing character. Moving on.

16. Uncle Roy (Buck Henry)

Buck Henry as Uncle Roy on SNL. Photo: NBC

Number of appearances: 3

Buck Henry plays a man who takes creepy and suggestive delight in babysitting a pair of prepubescent girls (Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman) because, it is implied, he is not just an avuncular family friend but an actual pedophile. So, yeah, yikes. Obviously this character really doesn’t play as particularly funny today. There’s at least a modicum of bleak satire in illustrating how monstrous proclivities can be overlooked when they’re presented with even the most basic veneer of cutesy respectability, but it’s not really worth the trouble of seeking this skin-crawling material out (NBC seems to agree, as clips don’t appear to be available in its SNL archive).

15. Robin Gibb (Justin Timberlake)

Number of appearances: 6

Celebrity Hosts a Weird Talk Show has been an SNL go-to for ages, and while the idea of Barry Gibb as a short-fused political wag is agreeably silly, this isn’t one of the better examples of this sketch genre (though the audience clearly disagrees, having turned it into one of the most-recurred bits on this list). Still, credit to Timberlake for underplaying as Barry’s quietly melancholic brother Robin — when he can keep a straight face, anyway.

14. Mr. Short-Term Memory (Tom Hanks)

Number of appearances: 3

The crazy thing about Tom Hanks is that he doesn’t even need David S. Pumpkins to make this list four times. The least interesting of his characters is this Conan O’Brien creation, one of the show’s tongue-in-cheek jingle-laden gimmick characters from its second golden age. Memento, Dory the fish, and 50 First Dates have cooled the novelty factor of this slightly, though Hanks does a fine job with the rapid-fire silliness.

13. Matty from Brother 2 Brother (Chris Hemsworth)

Number of appearances: 2

Hemsworth the Greater is the rare contemporary star to host SNL twice in a calendar year, and both of his gigs included this quick-hit Disney Channel show about “twin” brothers (Hemsworth’s Matty and Taran Killam’s Marty) whose shenanigans are instantly detectable due to the many discernible differences in their physique, such as Matty’s “golder skin and golder hair.” It’s a very funny sketch, but Hemsworth mostly steps back and lets regular cast members emasculate poor Killam.

12. Paul (Tom Hanks)

Number of appearances: 2

In a late-’80s bit, stand-up comics converse in an endless series of Seinfeld-style “Hey, what’s the deal?” routines, as was the custom at the time. The comedy style being parodied is indeed somewhat dated, but the concept of pro comedians as permanently, insufferably on is evergreen, and if anything, the anti-comedy of unfunny comics has only gotten more pervasive. Fittingly, the ever-versatile and game Hanks revived this not especially beloved or well-known character to accompany Kyle Mooney’s fantastically depressing Bruce Chandling character on Weekend Update in 2016; even more fitting, the appearance was cut for time.

11. Uri Shurinson (Tom Hanks)

Number of appearances: 2

A very New York parody of perpetually going-out-of-business electronics stores penned by Robert Smigel casts Hanks as an emphatic Israeli salesman pushing off-brand VCRs (with “Sony guts, Sony guts”), which may be why this is another sketch not easily located in the archives. But Smigel writes this material — one home-shopping spoof and one Price is Right riff — with such clear affection that it’s hard to begrudge Hanks playing around with a pretty specific stereotype. Smigel revisited some of these jokes years later, sans Hanks, in the underrated Adam Sandler vehicle You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.

10. Tony Bennett (Alec Baldwin)

Number of appearances: 5

Before he squinted and snarled his way through an increasingly tired Trump imitation, Alec Baldwin had a more accurate impression up his sleeve: the smoothly rat-a-tatting Tony Bennett who, of course, has his own talk show. If Trump draws on Baldwin’s real-life bluster and his presumably genuine loathing of his target, Bennett pivots the fiery performer toward great, great, great, great positivity. “This cat can really wear the bejesus out of a suit,” he enthuses about a grim-faced Dick Cheney (Darrell Hammond) in a sketch from 2005, taking his glad-handing to hilarious extremes.

9. Sheila Kelly (Melissa McCarthy)

Number of appearances: 2

Given her five hosting appearances, additional guest spots, and virtuosic talent for slapstick, insults, and commitment, it’s frankly surprising that Melissa McCarthy doesn’t have more signature SNL bits. Her one repeated non-Spicer character is Sheila Kelly, a distaff variation on male authority-figure rage. Kelly first appears as an abusive basketball coach inspired by Mike Rice, then somehow gets elected to Congress (spoofing Staten Island bully Michael Grimm). McCarthy is typically great in both pieces; the character is only diminished because she’s done this shtick equally well elsewhere.

8. The Continental (Christopher Walken)

Number of appearances: 6

Perhaps the most famous host-driven recurring character (at least pre-Timberlake) is actually a parody of a 1950s CBS TV series with a bizarre format: point-of-view shots from an unseen woman explore the seductive lair of the oily, incompetent Continental. Regular cast members probably could have pulled this off once or twice, but it takes a Walken-level presence to turn it into a beloved miniature institution — and to make a catchphrase out of “wowie-wow-wow-wow!” Walken has appeared in plenty of great SNL sketches in his day (think not just the cowbell sketch, but the Top Chef parody where he moans “Who knew from knives?”), but the Continental alone is probably enough to inspire a litany of affectionate cast impressions.

7. Gene’s Meathead Friend (Dwayne Johnson)

Number of appearances: 2

This is a weird one. Johnson appeared in what seemed like a one-off sketch back in 2015 as an uncouth fellow in a loud shirt with British singer girlfriend Gemma (Cecily Strong) who bothers his old jury-duty acquaintance Gene (Kenan Thompson) and his wife (Vanessa Bayer). This sketch was repeated twice with other hosts playing equally rude former acquaintances, always accompanied by Strong’s Gemma (a low-key candidate for one of the show’s best recent recurring characters). But Johnson returned in 2017 — Bayer’s last episode! — to bring things full-circle with a proper reunion. The sketch worked fine without Johnson, but his blasé meathead talk about erections really elevates his two installments.

6. Lexi (Scarlett Johansson)

Number of appearances: 4

It starts off as a 30-second walk-on in a two-minute sketch: Mike (Fred Armisen), proprietor of Mike & Toni’s Chandelier Galaxy in Lynbrook, throws to his daughter Lexi (Scarlett Johansson) to testify further about the luxury and opulence of chandeliers, which she does in all of her Long Island–accented, vaguely dispassionate glory (“Look at dis one, look at dat one”). But there was something memorable enough for this sketch to return with subsequent Johansson hosting gigs (and for her to make one non-hosting cameo to reprise her role), as Mike and Lexi stump for marble columns, porcelain fountains, and ceramic busts, all of which can trick people into thinking you are a millionaire. Lexi doesn’t exactly grow up across the four fake ads, but she does become more assertive, opening her pitch for ceramic busts with “Just get these already,” a seasoned local adwoman with continually fabulous sleevework. Obviously this part speaks to Johansson in some way; would it be naïve to suggest this may have been the basis for her character in Don Jon?

5. Girl-Watcher (Tom Hanks)

Number of appearances: 3

The most indelible of the four Hanks characters on this list is the simplest: Just an unnamed dork hanging out with another unnamed dork (Jon Lovitz), checking out ladies, failing to score, and acknowledging that failure. A sketch based around de facto catcalling sounds irritating, but the Hanks Everyman quality mixed with ruthless self-analysis makes this study of loser-dom oddly winning. Lines like “The ladies just don’t like me; my face is just too wide” read as self-pitying on paper, but Hanks delivers them with a matter-of-fact bravado worthy of, well, Jon Lovitz. This may be the only time a multiple Oscar-winner and fantasy presidential candidate earns top marks for emulating Lovitz, but that’s the genius of Hanks.

4. Dick in a Box guy (Justin Timberlake)

Number of appearances: 3

Here, finally, is Timberlake’s masterpiece; working alongside Andy Samberg turns out to be a better outlet for his enthusiasm than working with giggle-prone Jimmy Fallon. Though the two follow-ups to the original parody of early-’90s R&B aren’t quite as amazing or as full of seasonal cheer as the original (what could be?), the continuity between these three Lonely Island music videos is hilariously tight, as each one begins moments after the previous one ends. You really wind up on a journey through these guys’ weird sex lives, a perfect squandering of Timberlake’s musical cred.

3. Georg Festrunk (Steve Martin)

Number of appearances: 6

Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s Festrunk Brothers (better known as the Wild and Crazy Guys, per their extremely Martin-y catchphrase) are, of course, Saturday Night Live royalty. It’s a testament to Martin and Aykroyd’s insane comic skill that the characters remain recognizable and beloved decades after their origins — Czech immigrants enthusiastically mangling the swinging ’70s dating scene — should have become dated. It only fails to rank higher because, like the “Dick in a Box” guys, it’s so clearly a double act with a regular cast member.

2. Adam Grossman (Jonah Hill)

Number of appearances: 3

Speaking of double acts: That describes a lot of these characters, which makes sense — it takes a lot of confidence and on-camera history to get to the point where a performer can tackle a showcase sketch, and even then it can turn out to be that thing Cheri Oteri just screams “Simma down now!” over and over. So it’s especially impressive that Jonah Hill has established a singularly memorable character, a 6-year-old who deals zingers at his local Benihana like an insult comedian from the Catskills. Though the setting, setup, and catchphrase (“I’m 6!”) remain the same in classic recurring-character mode, Adam’s family situation evolves over the course of three sketches, and the accumulation of his 6-year-old tastes and cranky 50-something sensibilities provides enough variation to keep the joke fresh. The most recent installment even ends on a semi-sweet note, evoking cast-members-as-kids sketches like Judy Miller or Kaitlin and Rick. Hill clearly wants to win an Oscar someday, but in the meantime, favorable comparisons to Gilda Radner and Amy Poehler are nothing to sneeze at.

1. Theodoric of York (Steve Martin)

Number of appearances: 2

It’s sketches like these that convince casual SNL fans beyond a shadow of a doubt that Steve Martin was a cast member on the show when he was not, though he did typically host several times per season in the show’s much-vaunted (and frequently rerun) first five years. Theodoric of York appeared twice during that tenure, first as a medieval barber who gives medical treatment that primarily involves heavy bloodletting, and later as a medieval judge who tries cases via violent torture. It’s a recurring bit that fully justifies his mistaken rep as an actual Not Ready for Prime Time Player. Martin’s guileless delivery is inimitably his own, but he also blends perfectly with the ensemble; in the first installment alone, he riffs with Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. It’s so seamlessly integrated into the history of the show that it could have been done once or a dozen times and it would still probably wind up on best-of reels for Martin, season three, or the whole of the series.

Saturday Night Live Hosts’ Best Recurring Characters, Ranked