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The 10 most groundbreaking “Saturday Night Live” stars

The 10 most groundbreaking “Saturday Night Live” stars (photo)

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“Saturday Night Live.” It’s a comedy franchise unparalleled, launching the careers of dozens of legends of the industry. As it heads into its 36th year, there are so many stars of this show that have become comedy staples and heroes to comics everywhere that it’s hard to contain them all in a list. Stalwart geniuses like Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks and many more have their esteemed place among the beloved, reliable and versatile cast members, but here’s a quick list focusing on the most innovative talents in the show’s history – the people who changed how things were done.

1. John Belushi (1975 -1979)

We should really put the entire original Not Ready For Prime Time Players on this list (plus Bill Murray, who replaced Chevy Chase after the first year) for starting it all, but that would crowd everybody out. So we’ll go with Belushi, star of the first ever sketch, who grew into a primal force of nature and a whirlwind of creativity alongside Dan Aykroyd, and who also set the precedent of SNL stars dying young. Just think about the things he did. The Blues Brothers would not be possible today. Could any two other cast members ever go rock out on the road and perform blues songs earnestly with barely a hint of winking comic irony? That’s how strong his presence alone could be.

2. Eddie Murphy (1980 -1984)

People tend to forget about the early 80s SNL era, but it sported such notable names as Billy Crystal and Martin Short, and brought us the revelation that was Murphy. A talented mimic, he balanced his street-smart sensibility (evidenced by his going undercover as a white man) with a love of getting completely goofy (he’s Gumby, dammit!) and his high energy brought a really different feel to the show. Murphy is likely the main reason SNL survived the departure of the “Golden Age” original cast members and made it to its late-80s, early-90s “Silver Age,” so to speak.

3. Dana Carvey (1986 -1993)

Here’s the amazing thing about SNL’s most renowned impressionist – he didn’t really impersonate people, at least not in the chameleon-like way guys like Darrell Hammond would later. Instead, he dove into their sound and mannerisms, picked up a few things and cranked those up to 11, making everybody else’s impressions just an inferior version of his. He turned George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot into a series of nasal noises and it worked. Seriously, he got the actual President Bush to say “Nah gah dah.” Carvey was a character factory and a catchphrase machine, and he really spearheaded the SNL Silver Age.

4. Dennis Miller (1985 – 1991)

Say what you will about his post-SNL career, but Miller put his signature on the show every night he did Weekend Update. What used to be a straight-up parody of news shows transitioned (with the help of early-80s anchor Brad Hall) into the haven for cutting-edge comic voices who were not really the kind of people that belonged in sketches. With dry-wit commentators like Al Franken and A. Whitney Brown doing guest spots, Miller’s endless sarcasm about the week’s top stories and his deeply stylized delivery gave SNL a place where the writers could put the bombastic characters aside for several minutes a night and just speak their minds between the jokes. Not that Miller wasn’t a bombastic character in his own right – check out Carvey’s brilliant impression of him for proof of that.

5. Adam Sandler (1990 – 1995)

Sandler’s freshman class came in at just the right time to stretch out that Silver Age a few more years, and you know the rest. That twitchy little persona vascillated from quiet nerd to loud and absurd, never afraid to completely humiliate himself in the stupidest of ways… and then he’d pull out an acoustic guitar and singing dorky-sweet holiday songs. His egghead (not intellectual egghead, but his head is actually shaped like an egg) sensibility was all over the show in the early 90s, and his singular popularity really cemented the show’s transition from the edgy underdog into the mainstream mainstay.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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