By Kevin Rutherford and Shannon Carlin
Hosts of Saturday Night Live come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life—provided, of course, they’re famous. So with its 40th season kicking off this weekend (Sept. 27), the time is ripe for a look back on the history of hosts on the groundbreaking comedy show, from the shockingly worst to stunningly best.
Of the the hundreds who’ve hosted SNL since its debut in 1975, many are actors, and they’re always flanked by a musical guest who takes a turn in the spotlight just before “Weekend Update” and shortly prior to the episode’s end.
But sometimes it’s a musician who is tapped to host the show. In these cases, the artist steps out from behind the mic and takes his or her place at center stage, often admitting during the opening monologue that he or she hasn’t done much comedy before, but screw it, let’s do this.
In all, dozens known primarily for their music have taken the SNL hosting gig. So in honor of the show’s 40th anniversary season premiere on Saturday, we have compiled a list of every single musical host—from Paul Simon to Paul Shaffer, MC Hammer to Drake—and then ranked them. Live from New York, it’s completely subjective ratings time!
Below is our ranked list of 43 different hosts from SNL’s first 39 years. You’ll find certain hosts have been combined into one overarching entity for their ranking, like Mick Jagger/the Rolling Stones and Jessica Simpson/Nick Lachey. Simpson and Lachey hosted together on their season 29 episode, while the Rolling Stones were a package deal in season 4 but only Jagger was asked to host again in season 37.
Additionally, certain musical hosts have been left off this list, the criteria being that while they are indeed musicians, they were known most prominently for their acting, with music more of a secondary occupation. As such, Jamie Foxx, Jack Black, Karen Black and others are not included. Queen Latifah, however, is included because she was at the time of her hosting spots primarily a rapper. Zooey Deschanel is on the list, too, because much of her career even in movies and TV involves music. And since the Smothers Brothers are a comedy act known for their music, so they are included as well.
43. Desi Arnaz
Season 1, Ep. 14
By the time Desi Arnaz found his way onto SNL, the show was beginning to hit its stride in its first season out, gaining momentum as America began to know names like Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner. But the former Ricky Ricardo’s spot on the show at nearly 60 years old—far past his prime, certainly—has to be a step back. Besides fumbling over lines and mugging for the camera, he just seemed out-of-touch, an old dinosaur who couldn’t quite keep up with what TV had become. But hey, unlike fellow comedy icon Milton Berle after him, Arnaz at least looks like he’s having fun, whether he was getting laughs or not.
Best Moment: “Cuban Acupuncture” The sketch as a whole is middling, but the premise is funny enough because of course a Cuban acupuncturist’s medicine would be to stick cigars in a person’s every orifice.
Worst Moment: “Literary Recital” This is a one-joke sketch that’s ho-hum to begin with: Arnaz is Cuban, so he says things weird! Isn’t that craaazy?! Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is butchered, but it’s not because of the dude’s accent. – Kevin Rutherford
42. Kris Kristofferson
Season 1, Ep. 24
We should all be glad to know that Kris Kristofferson later confirmed he was in fact drunk during his first and unsurprisingly only hosting gig in 1976. But seriously, Kris, it really wasn’t that hard to tell. You seemed lethargic, unable to focus and a little paranoid in the skits you actually appeared in. Turns out, you’re a functional, but not very funny drunk.
Best Moment: “Samurai General Practitioner” John Belushi plays a samurai administering a physical to a rather dimwitted patient, played by Kristofferson. Belushi shows off his sword skills, while Kristofferson bumbles through jokes about not being able to fill a specimen cup and wanting a prescription that is a little more potent than an apple. But we can’t help but wonder whether Kristofferson was really in on the joke, or actually thought Belushi was his doctor.
Worst Moment: “Real Bobby McGee” Gilda Radner plays the real Bobby McGee, who has gone a little square since the days of the song. Though Radner and John Belushi (as Bobby’s husband) try, Kristofferson gives them absolutely nothing to work with. Even when Belushi pokes fun, mistaking Kristofferson for Paul Simon, Kris can only muster up this retort: “I may not be a folk singer, but I’m not stupid.” Unfortunately, we have to disagree with him here. Paul Simon would have been smart enough to nail a softball joke like that. –Shannon Carlin
41. Ricky Nelson
Season 4, Ep. 12
Ricky Nelson is clearly a component man who can read cue cards, but when it comes to selling the jokes written on said cue cards, Nelson could have used a little help. Throughout the night, Nelson often played himself—a rather boring, very vanilla version of himself who delivered jokes in monotone. Laughter did not tend to ensue.
Best Moment: “Helium” Dressed in a suit fit for a nightly news anchor in 1979, Nelson stars in a PSA where he addresses the growing problem of depression in our country, usually caused by bad news. His solution? Suck on a little helium before you tell your loved ones that you lost their life savings. As Nelson explains in a high, squeaky voice, “It makes your voice sound silly, and the bad news not seem so bad.” Sure does.
Worst Moment: “D&R Men’s Stylists” Nelson and Bill Murray work in a flailing men’s salon where they spend a lot of time talking about how the big mall in town is putting all the mom and pop shops out of business. Nelson’s biggest joke is when he talks about a kid who keeps calling and asking if you need an appointment to get a haircut. “When you say, ‘Yeah,’ he starts laughing,” Nelson says with a shrug. “I don’t know. He must think it’s funny, or something.” Perhaps he does, but we think this skit is very unfunny. –SC
40. MC Hammer
Season 17, Ep. 8
When people begged Hammer not to hurt ‘em, we’re now thinking it was in relation to his rather poor comedic performance on SNL. Hammer tried, he really did, but it was too much. He should have 2 legit 2 quit while he was still ahead.
Best Moment: “Remembrances of Love with Wilt Chamberlain” Hammer plays basketball Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain as he reminisces about love and his many, many conquests–13,986 to be exact. Watching Hammer maneuver his very, very long, and very, very fake legs in bed certainly warrants a good chuckle. But let’s be honest for a minute, the best moment was really when he sang “Addams Groove.”
Worst Moment: “Bad Haircuts” In a brief, but unfortunately memorable cameo, Hammer makes a lot of wild hand motions to convince his girlfriend that he truly thinks that her bleach blond pixie cut looks good—spoiler, it doesn’t—and then overreacts as the others in this support group for bad haircuts pick on his finely shaved hairstyle. “This is a look.” Whatever you say Hammer. Whatever you say. –SC
39. Olivia Newton-John
Season 7, Ep. 20
Olivia Newton-John’s turn on the May 22, 1982, episode of SNL is one of the more telling examples of the show’s early ’80s impact as a whole. There are muddled, half-baked ideas, many sketches without the host even featured, and a shining, perhaps brilliant moment or two—in this case, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy’s take on “Ebony & Ivory” as Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder, respectively. Newton-John isn’t given a lot to do, but when she is, she’s still just kind of there, like a cast member given a role to play with zero funny lines. And that’s with the writers practically gift-wrapping a Grease sketch for her.
Best Moment: “Ladies’ Restroom”As far as Newton-John’s appearances on this episode go, the show peaked at its start. Playing herself, she’s visited by a woman in the ladies’ restroom (“Olivia Newton-John in the john!”) who idolizes the singer, even apparently taking part in a lookalike contest despite having little more in common than the same headband and “similar shoes,” as Newton-John points out.
Worst Moment: “Grease” Again, the Grease sketch should have been a shoo-in for a few laughs from Newton-John; after all, she was playing Sandy! Perhaps it’s the awkward, mildly irritating characters of Robin Duke and Mary Gross, around whom the sketch is centered. Her entrance as Sandy should have been more than simply nostalgic. -KR
38. Johnny Cash
Season 7, Ep. 17
Johnny Cash is one hell of a good sport, which is evidently clear after you watch this episode in 1982. Unfortunately, he hosted during the show’s dark period, so the Man in Black was given very little to work with besides playing himself. One skit even had him playing “Johnny Cash” in a fake commercial for a dandruff shampoo, in which a girl shakes her head over Cash’s all black ensemble to see if the shampoo is working. But at a different time with a different cast, who knows the laughs Johnny could have delivered.
Best Moment: “Train Poet” This rather cerebral sketch features Cash on a train reciting a poem that expresses his love for the rails to a fellow passenger. The joke being that the passenger was interested in knowing the train’s destination not Cash’s passion for train travel. But, Cash’s rambling poem ends with a bit of commuter wisdom, “Like my father told me, you take the train to work, you won’t enjoy the ride.” Truer words were never spoken.
Worst Moment: “Frankie’s Last Request” In essence the skit is funny: As his final request a Death Row inmate, played by Eddie Murphy, asks that Johnny Cash play him a song. That song being “999,000 Bottles of Beer.” But, the skit goes on too long, leaving us anxiously awaiting the moment when Cash will reach that final bottle on the wall. In the end, Murphy gets led to the chair, and Cash advertises his latest album, Johnny Cash: Live on Death Row. – SC