In the fall of 1975 a new, different type of comedy variety show premiered on NBC, tucked in the 11.30 p.m. time slot where executives thought it might offer the least offense since few would bother to stay up and watch. Even producer/creator Lorne Michaels had little idea what he was creating or whether it would last on that first night when he watched from the control room as writer/comic Buck Henry uttered that iconic phrase that would define comedy for the forseeable future: “Live from New York! It’s Saturday Night!” Thirty-five years, a legion of comic icons and generations later “Saturday Night Live” remains a barometer of pop culture trends, a watchdog of political shenanigans, and a training ground for some of the most talented and funniest performers and writers. Barely any topic seems off-limits to this band of rogue comics, including the holidays. Take a season dominated by consumer craze, religious fervor, and family angst and what results are ten of the funniest “Saturday Night Live” holiday sketches.
1. “Christmas Eve at the White House,” (1975): It’s a quiet Christmas Eve night at the Whitehouse, until, that is, President Gerald Ford begins putting the final touches on his holiday decorations. During SNL’s first year, comedian Chevy Chase played the mumbling, bumbling, fuzzy-headed Gerald Ford with little more than his voice and gangly physicality. The complete disparity between the two men coupled with the lack of effort to make Chase up in Ford’s likeness quickly became part of the joke. In “Christmas Eve at the Whitehouse,” Chase as Ford rambles on about the meaning of the season to the American people, knocking over decorations, hanging stockings upside down, and culminating with one of Chase’s most famous pratfalls: toppling over the entire Christmas tree as he attempts to attach the star. The sketch is pure playfulness and indulgent silliness, two of the things SNL does best.
2. “Consumer Probe,” (1978): The reprehensible slimeball, Irwin Mainway made his debut during this holiday sketch. Performed by a seer-sucker suited, sunglass-wearing, gum-chewing, fast-talking Dan Ackroyd, Irwin Mainway was the proprietor of wildly inappropriate toys such as “Johnny Switch-blade Action Hero” and “Bag-O-Glass.” Host Candice Bergen played the straight-laced conservative talk show host of the fictional “Consumer Probe.” Her frustration and disgust mounts exponentially at Ackroyd’s hilarious bravado and disregard for justifying some of the most dangerous and perverse holiday toys a horrified parent might find under the tree.
3. “Christmas in Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” (1984): A break-out star on SNL in the 1980s, comedian Eddie Murphy created memorable characters such as the perpetually disgruntled Gumby, the charmingly childish Buckwheat from the “Little Rascals,” the professional paramour Velvet Jones, and the cheerfully edgy, Mr. Robinson. Written to parody the beloved “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” Murphy’s character lives in the projects where he evades landlords and teaches children about the grown-up realities of urban life. In 1984, Christmas came to Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood. Dressed as Santa Clause, Murphy tells the boys and girls in t.v. land that Christmas is a wonderful time of receiving and giving, adding: “Look what Mr. Landlord gave me? It’s an eviction notice!” As the sketch goes on, Murphy teaches children about other words that begin with “x” besides “Xmas” such as “X-Con” and what he and Santa Clause have in common: they both like to sneak into houses late at night.
4. “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Lost Ending,” (1986): It’s one of the most beloved holiday film classics. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, received the SNL treatment in a sketch that proposed a lost ending to the iconic movie. The heart-warming Jimmy Stewart flick closes with George Baily happily reunited with his family, awash in gratitude with the generosity of the entire community who rally around him to save him from financial devastation. Comic heavyweights Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, and Phil Hartman, playing the respective rolls of Baily and company do not waste any time in replacing tears of joy with tears of laughter as they whip their friends into a mob and proceed to hunt down the crooked, town miser, Mr. Potter. Once they find him, they unleash a Christmas thrashing upon the old man, discovering that “he’s a fraud! He’s not even a cripple!” The strains of “Auld Lang Syne” play over the angry bunch who pause briefly in their beat-down to hug and sing along together.
5. “Hanukkah Harry,” (1989): Not to be outdone by Santa Clause, Jon Lovitz’s Hanukkah Harry makes it his mission to spread Hanukkah joy and magic to all the good little girls and boys. In this holiday sketch, the stakes get raised when Harry is called in to replace an ailing Santa. Not only must he visit all the children of the world in one night (oy vey!), but he must explain to many confused children why they are receiving dreidels and gold coins rather than talking dolls and skateboards.
6. “Steve Martin’s Christmas Wish,” (1991): No one does comedy with a serious face quite like Steve Martin. The comic, writer, and musician has hosted SNL more than five times in its 30-year history. In a segment titled “Steve Martin’s Christmas Wish,” Martin delivers a sincere monologue about his one genuine wish for the holiday season: for all the children of the world to join hands and sing in a spirit of peace and harmony. However, Martin continues, if he had two wishes, two small wishes for the holiday season they would be, of course for all the children of the world to join hands and sing in a spirit of peace and harmony, and for 30 million dollars to be given to him, each month, in a tax-free Swiss bank account. Lest he be mistaken for an awful, holiday Scrooge, no matter how wild his wishes become (power over all his enemies, a month-long sexual experience) as the monologue progresses, Martin always makes sure to remember that first, hearfelt wish, for all the children of the world to join hands and sing in a spirit of peace and harmony.
7. “Chanukah Song,” (1994): “David Lee Roth, lights the Menorah.” SNL’s resident goof-ball, Adam Sandler propelled himself into the spotlight with his irreverent, childish characters, and his love for a simple song played on his guitar. “The Chanukah Song” premiered on a Weekend Update segment in which Sandler paid tribute to the “eight crazy nights” of Chanukah and many of the icons and celebrities that help make Chanukah cool. The song became a staple of Sandler’s stage performances, and even spawned an updated version of new celebrity Jews.
8. “A Mary Katherine Gallagher Christmas,” (1996): Funny and creepy are the two best words to describe Molly Shannon’s bizarre take on a Catholic school girl outcast, Mary Katherine Gallagher. Host Rosie O’Donnell and musical guest Whitney Houston performed together in a holiday sketch that had Mary Katherine Gallagher competing against Houston for a solo in the school choir. Shannon plays her character to a deliciously annoying level, physically and musically muscling in on Houston’s solo, and eventually breaking into one of her classic, bizarre monologues from a made-for-television movie. The Mary Katherine Gallagher sketches always end the same way, with Shannon propelling herself through a wall, table, or other immovable structure, and this sketch was no different. However, watching the comedienne slip, slide, and tumble over folded, metal chairs as Houston and O’Donnell struggled not to laugh was a nice touch.
9. “Delicious Dish,” (1998): It was the sketch that gave us new reasons to snicker over hand-knit sweaters and NPR-style radio programming. Alec Baldwin as Pete Schweddy joined hosts Margaret Jo McCullen, played by Ana Gastnyer, and Teri Rialto, played by Molly Shannon, of the fictional NPR-like cooking show, “Delicious Dish,” to discuss his holiday delicacy: Schweddy Balls. The jokes and puns practically wrote themselves, but part of the hilarity came in the deadpan delivery, monotone style with which all three comics delivered their lines. Good times.
10. “Dick in a Box,” (2006). Andy Samberg’s digital shorts have become the new Schiller Reels of the millennium. For this holiday short, he enlisted the help of smooth, pop crooner, Justin Timberlake to record an R&B/Rap-inspired styled short about a young man giving his sweetheart the ultimate gift: his junk in a box. Timberlake is pitch perfect as a hipster player crooning about how far he’ll go to prove his love to his woman. Without a doubt the high point of the video comes when Timberlake sings out the instructions on how to make and wrap this most perfect gift: “One: cut a hole in the box.” Now that’s gift that keeps on giving, laughs that is!