1. “Tales Of Bill Brasky” (“Alec Baldwin/Tori Amos,” January 20, 1996)
“We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30.” This oft-repeated bit of Saturday Night Live philosophy from the show’s creator and longtime executive producer, Lorne Michaels, elegantly sums up the immediate, ephemeral, and frequently hit-or-miss nature of the show. It also illustrates the origins of the strangest scenes to ever unfold on a broadcast network. The bits and vignettes too bizarre to land a plum, post-monologue or pre-Weekend Update spot in the running order, are instead slotted into SNL’s infamous 10-to-1 position—so named because what’s typically the last sketch in any given episode begins at roughly 12:50 a.m. Any number of scenes and characters have befuddled the show’s live audience in this position; much rarer are those characters, like Bill Braksy’s Buddies, that vault from a 10-to-1 debut to recurring-sketch status. Though the Brasky gang eventually became one of the crown jewels of SNL’s late-’90s revival, its first outing played to confused silence in Studio 8H, a reaction that may have to do with the characters’ inexplicably shared attributes: ruddy faces, buck teeth, and novelty-sized tumblers of scotch. The premise of the Will Ferrell- and Adam McKay-penned sketch—in which Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, Mark McKinney, and David Koechner praise the mythical achievements of unseen frenemy Bill Brasky—is simple and infinitely repeatable. It’s the set-dressing that required multiple tries to win over the show’s viewers.
2. “Bookstore” (“Anna Faris/Drake,” October 15, 2011)
Anna Faris has made a career of doing a lot more with much less than she’s given in this scene, but she still poured her all into the role of a bug-eyed New Englander trolling bookstores for a glance at increasingly grotesque models posing next to Italian cars. The Ferrari-calendar models exist only in Faris and Kristen Wiig’s descriptions, but their characters’ ecstasy does all the visualizing that’s necessary—that and lines like “No. Nose. Just. Holes.” Faris and Wiig’s reactions make for simple games of comedic heightening, but what pushes “Bookstore” into end-of-show territory is the clerk played by Bill Hader, who just can’t land a laugh with his invariably jumbled come-ons. Combined with his scene partners’ hyperventilation, Hader’s underplayed awkwardness makes for a weirder quality than any Ferrari calendar could dish out.
3. “Butt County Dance Party” (“Anthony Perkins/Betty Carter,” March 13, 1976)
In general, Anthony Perkins’ hosting gig was one of the highlights of Saturday Night Live’s first season, fondly remembered for musical guest Betty Carter and such classic routines as “The Norman Bates School Of Motel Management.” It also produced one of the show’s earliest examples of the late-inning WTF? sketch. Perkins, in a state trooper costume and menacing sunglasses, hosts a local teen-dance party show, where the kids boogie to snippets of Silver Convention between floor interviews and computer checks for outstanding warrants. Just when it starts to seem like there must be a point to this or they wouldn’t be doing it, the show cuts away to footage of car crashes from safety-training films. The whole thing may have simply been an early attempt to indulge Dan Aykroyd in his passion for playing with walkie-talkies.
4. “Guy Crazy” (“Beau And Jeff Bridges/Randy Newman,” February 26, 1983)
Between the introductory routine—in which the voice of Lloyd Bridges demands that his sons duke it out—and the sketch in which Jeff plays a masseur who inappropriately touches his brother, this episode is full of awkward moments, and the closing sketch is the crowing touch. Robin Duke, quivering with meek lust, introduces Jeff Bridges as the speaker at a National Organization Of Women luncheon, then blanks out on what he’s saying because he’s such a hunk. After everyone takes part in a fantasy musical number, Bridges finishes his speech (and hurriedly replaces the tie he ripped off while singing and dancing) and Duke snaps back to reality, then excitedly tells the ladies that, next week, their speaker will be—hubba hubba—Mel Gibson. The joke seems to be that it’s somehow ridiculous and hypocritical for women who call themselves feminists to think hot guys are hot—showing that, while some of the sketches collected in this Inventory are amazingly pointless, some of the sketches that do have points might have been better if they hadn’t.
5. “Sloths!” (“Forest Whitaker/Keith Urban,” February 10, 2007)
While most of The Lonely Island’s Digital Shorts marched to the beat of the members’ unique comedic drum, sometimes the trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone marched straight off the reservation and into the world of unbridled insanity. So it is with “Sloths,” which features a live intro and outro by Kristen Wiig, but primarily consists of a video ostensibly put together by a group of students in Staten Island Technical High School for a local cable-access program produced by the local zoo. What follows is a mash-up of crude graphics and even cruder lyrics, all backed by a musical track that aims for punk rock but ends up sounding like late-’80s hair metal. The audience clearly has no idea how to interpret the aural and visual onslaught, with only a few moments evoking any audible laughter. The fact that something this bizarre made it on-air at all speaks to Lorne Michaels’ implicit trust in The Lonely Island. Either that, or it speaks to a severe lack of better ideas inside the writers’ room that week. In either case, here’s a 3,000-Bud-Light toast in your honor, “Sloths.”
6. “One Shoe Emma” (“Oprah Winfrey/Joe Jackson,” April 12, 1986)
This starts out as if it were a parody of Southern-gothic melodramas about racism. Danitra Vance plays the title character, who works in Oprah Winfrey’s diner and is cruelly taunted by a gang of redneck louts. But they aren’t picking on her because she’s black; they think it’s funny that she always clomps around wearing one shoe. The rednecks are broadly cartoonish, but Vance, who gets to deliver a mid-sketch monologue about her dream of walking normally, plays her part with the burning conviction of a Broadway actress making her debut on the opening night of Raisin In The Sun. Then Dennis Miller walks in wearing a tinselly crown. He announces that he’s a prince in search of his one-shoed princess, though Miller gives his usual performance as a smug, surly douchebag who’s pissed off that he has to wait until the end of the show to hit the clubs and be recognized as a TV celebrity by attractive young women with no selectivity index. The total effect of the sketch is to thoroughly blur the line between comic absurdism and just doing a half-assed job.
7. “Russell & Tate Law Firm” (“Dana Carvey/Dr. Dre,” October 26, 1996)
A sketch that’s basically an excuse for Tim Meadows and Tracy Morgan to ham it up, “Russell & Tate Law Firm” imagines two thug lawyers who are so committed to getting clients the money they’re owed, they don’t care who they have to offend to get the job done. It’s a fairly straightforward idea, but it aired later in the evening presumably because it includes plenty of cutaways to client testimonials (pretty much every cast member makes an appearance), and because, in spite of its disguised simplicity, it’s actually rich. Morgan and Meadows get into Russell and Tate’s storied history as lawyers, fleshing out the world of a sketch that’s only a few minutes long. That kind of backstory might make for a compelling scene, but not one a mass audience would want to invest in with so little payoff. Still, it’s Exhibit A in how a well-written piece can come alive simply through performances.
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8. “Wedding Dress To Funeral” (“Catherine O’Hara/R.E.M.,” April 13, 1991)
In a drawn-out opening based on the idea that, if Chris Farley gets a line, everybody should get a line, the mourners gathered at a funeral explain that Catherine O’Hara’s character was the longtime girlfriend of the deceased, and she always believed that he would marry her—but he was just stringing her along. Then Mike Myers, his features arranged to form an expression that ought to be the international symbol for flop sweat, comes on as the priest, and O’Hara steps in front of him, wearing a wedding dress and smiling like an insane person. Myers babbles until his mouth runs dry, then O’Hara stops smiling, hyperventilates, puts her ring on top of the casket, and throws her bouquet at the mourners (who react with terrified screams). Ten years earlier, O’Hara was hired as part of the SNL cast but got cold feet and quit before her first show. When she takes the stage for the goodbyes after this sketch and cries out, “Thank you, Lord,” it’s easy to wonder if she’s thinking about the bullet she dodged.
9. “Lampreys” (“Chevy Chase/Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories,” October 7, 1995)
There’s a good chance NBC saw the image of Cheri Oteri covered in face-sucking eels and immediately decreed, “Um, let’s stick this at the end of an episode.” It isn’t a pleasurable image. But “Lampreys” remains an oddly compelling sketch. For one thing, there’s a solid arc to Oteri’s friendship with the titular eels, and the sketch is quick on its feet, travelling to multiple locations to tell that story. It’s also surprisingly poignant; even though the kid is pulling flesh-eating beasts off his face, he’s also losing his best friends. Perhaps the wobbly emotional core is what pushed this otherwise solid sketch to the end of the show.
11. “The Blue-Jean Committee (“Jason Segel/Florence + The Machine,” November 19, 2011)
Plenty of late-episode sketches attempt to push the boundaries of what an SNL segment can contain. Sometimes, these are absurdist pieces intentionally designed to split the audience down the middle. Other times, the show attempts to evoke a mood above all else. So it is with “The Blue Jean Committee,” which doesn’t have a single punchline in its three-and-a-half-minute running time. Fred Armisen attempted another musically based anti-sketch the previous year in the form of “The Bjelland Brothers,” but while that sketch was about testing the audience’s patience, “The Blue Jean Committee” offers up a much more laid-back vibe, inviting the audience both in-studio and at home to join in with the song “Massachusetts Afternoon.” While Armisen and host Jason Segel offer up semi-nonsensical verses between the insanely catchy choruses, the audience at the small-town bar in which they perform never mocks The Blue Jean Committee. Everyone is into the proceedings, and that includes Paul Rudd and The Muppets. Why are they in the bar? Who cares! They are drawn to the music, as are those watching at home. Some episodes of SNL leave the air desperately clinging for attention. This episode glided off into the sunset, with the scent of cinnamon beer in the air.
12. “Goodnight Saigon” (“Will Ferrell/Green Day,” May 16, 2009)
It’s one thing to end an episode on an odd note. But what about an entire season? That’s what happened in this sketch, in which host Will Ferrell led a cavalcade of previous hosts/friends of the show/anyone who happened to be in the general area that night in a rendition of Billy Joel’s classic Vietnam War-themed anthem. The sketch breaks through the fourth wall, then invents a fifth, only to blow straight through that one as well. And yet, within the logic of the sketch, it all makes a sort of sense. Sure, Ferrell’s character isn’t actually having a flashback to his days in Vietnam, but rather to a vacation he took years earlier. But the show eventually claims this isn’t the only time he’s summoned Paul Rudd, Anne Hathaway, Norm Macdonald, and Artie Lange to help him croon some classic rock. Ferrell’s dinner guests lament that he’s once again managed to leave without paying, which suggests an odd but rich backstory in which moments like this are a semi-regular occurrence.
13. “Pirate Birds” (“Judge Reinhold/10,000 Maniacs,” February 27, 1988)
Two pirates debate the merit of having birds other than parrots on their shoulders: What’s not to like? It’s understandable that this sketch might be too high-concept for someone randomly tuning in to Saturday Night Live in the middle of an episode, but it’s the kind of sketch the show might benefit from doing more of. Its premise can be pared down to just one sentence, and its actors, Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey, are fully committed to the ridiculousness. Thus the idea of a penguin or a swan on a pirate’s shoulder, however ridiculous it might look (thanks to the show’s excellent props department), isn’t as far-fetched as one might think. The best ideas shouldn’t be second-guessed.
14. “Ethel’s Diner” (“Brandon Tartikoff/John Cougar,” October 8, 1983)
Some oddball sketches are the result of a deliberate attempt to do something unconventional. But sometimes, a weird sketch turns out to be building laboriously to an obvious, lame punchline—which makes it seem all the stranger that anyone thought it was worth putting so much work into something that yields so little reward. Mary Gross is Ethel, who is the last person in town to know that she’s suffered a series of calamities. Rather than hit her with it all at once, her friends take turns entering her diner, one by one, gradually breaking the news to her: Her fiancée has married someone else, her house has been destroyed, and her entire family has been killed by horses and some Marines. (“I guess that lightning made the horses crazy, but those Marines are just mean.”) In response to each bit of bad news, Ethel shrugs that she “should have expected it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Even after the doctor comes in and tells Ethel she only has a week to live, she remains philosophical, and tells everyone to look on the bright side: “Business is sure picking up.” Apparently, that line is what it was all for. You can practically hear crickets chirping.
15. “Hooked On Sushi” (“Fred Savage/Technotronic,” February 24, 1990)
Tom Schiller wrote and directed a series of horror-tinged shorts (see also: The Chris Farley vehicle “Hidden Camera Commercials,” the “Sprockets” spin-off “Dieter’s Dream”) to air at the end of Saturday Night Live in the Kevin Nealon days, and one of his most memorable ones involved Nealon discovering the terror of a rogue sushi restaurant. Nealon intends on having a nice dinner and winds up as the main course of the next sucker’s meal, his body parts all cut up and ready to be served. Shot entirely in black and white, it’s equal parts silly and disturbing, and without a natural political or pop-culture hook, the sketch was rightfully held for the hour when drive-by viewers had already turned in for the night. But it’s a gem, parodying horror tropes and allowing Nealon to overact in the effortless, natural way for which he’s known.
16. “Wooden Spoons” (“Seth MacFarlane/Frank Ocean,” September 15, 2012)
In a season première largely populated by sketches showing off Seth MacFarlane’s vocal characters, the button on the first episode of SNL’s 38th year is noteworthy for its sweetness, brevity, and oddness, as well as for highlighting new cast member Tim Robinson. In the sketch, two Amish artisans plug their new website, spelling out the URL in “symbols” to type in “on your lightbox.” The descriptions of letters are mostly takes on various types of snakes (“hurt snake,” “fine snake,” “fat snake with a sex penis”) and other types of natural ephemera, with the funniest and saddest part being the moment of head-hanging silence MacFarlane takes for “The river what took my son.”
17. “Barry White’s Big And Tall That’s All” (“Bill Russell/Chicago,” November 3, 1979)
The fifth-season episode hosted by NBA star Bill Russell gave SNL bandleader Howard Johnson the rare opportunity to stretch his comedic wings as R&B superstar Barry White, crooning a commercial for his new chain of clothing stores: “If you’re big / And if you’re tall / And you want style / Then don’t you stall / Come to Big And Tall That’s All.” In spite of this catchy number, the actual premise of the sketch—one of many from the show’s first five years that’s set in the perpetually floundering Cedarcrest Mall—is rather dour, with the store’s salesmen, Duke (Russell) and Lonny (Garrett Morris), bickering amongst themselves about the failure of their ad campaign. Duke bemoans how they’re only reaching half of their key demo with their commercial, since big people head to the refrigerator during ad breaks. Lonny, meanwhile, can’t resist reminding his business partner, “I wanted to buy that Arthur Treacher’s over there on the turnpike.” After one set of potential customers is disgusted by the thought of the behemoth that would wear a size-48 belt and another grows so disconcerted by the salesmen’s enthusiasm that he makes a hasty retreat, the sketch descends into—and eventually closes with—a conversation between Duke, Lonny, and fellow mall merchant Jenny Rocker (Gilda Radner), who’s just gotten back from giving suit salesman/convicted arsonist Floyd Hunger a haircut in prison. In other words, just another day at Cedarcrest Mall.
18. “Michael O’Donoghue’s Tony Orlando Impression” (“Buck Henry/Gordon Lightfoot,” May 22, 1976)
The mind of Michael O’Donoghue was a dark and wonderful place, but many of the sketches that emerged from his imagination proved divisive to viewers, causing his efforts to regularly be relegated to the final minutes of SNL, even those popular enough to earn recurring status. One of O’Donoghue’s favorite gags was to offer impressions of various pop-culture figures, with a twist that could only come courtesy of Mr. Mike. After an introduction from host Buck Henry that features the profound understatement, “This fella does impressions that are unlike any other,” O’Donoghue wonders aloud, “What if someone took steel needles, say, um, 15, 18 inches long—with real sharp points—and plunged them into Tony Orlando—and Dawn’s—eyes?” After necessarily adding, “I think it might go something like this,” O’Donoghue, accompanied by two women looking not coincidentally like Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, clutch their hands over their eyes and began screaming and writhing on the floor in agony. While not as elaborate as his later impression of someone plunging steel needles into the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s eyes, nor as touching as his similar tribute to Elvis Presley in the wake of the King’s passing, O’Donoghue’s Tony Orlando proved to be the most definitively ’70s impression in his repertoire.
19. “Happy Birthday Song” (“Jack Black/The Strokes,” January 19, 2002)
In the early ’00s, SNL’s final segment was frequently given over to the second performance by the show’s musical guests, meaning an episode’s concluding sketch often wrapped before 12:50 a.m. Even so, this showcase for Jack Black’s powerful pipes and jokey prog-rock pretensions bears the marks of a vintage 10-to-1 bit—marks like Will Ferrell’s punchline of a pageboy wig and Horatio Sanz as a weary traveler known only as “Eternity.” (It also sprawls across multiple stages, so the sketch’s late-show placement is due to logistics as well as its bonkers concept.) The joke is that no reveler would ever prefer Black’s multi-part epic to the simplicity of “Happy Birthday To You,” but the sketch needs its druid robes and clock of eternity to truly sell the madness of Black’s vision. And the viewer knows just where to get such accessories, thanks to the credit-card-order still that crops up at the end of the episode as a reminder that “Happy Birthday Song” is ostensibly a commercial parody.