“Saturday Night Live” is celebrating its milestone 40th anniversary this season and as a huge fan of the show I wanted to celebrate it with a list of what I consider to be the show’s 40 most memorable moments. Trying to condense a show like “Saturday Night Live” into 40 memorable moments for its 40 years on television is a fool’s errand. One-hundred moments wouldn’t be enough. So there are going to be moments throughout this list that cause controversy because they are included when others aren’t, but that’s what happens when you have such a legendary show and it’s the debate caused by those moments chosen and those left out that truly makes a list fun and worthwhile.
#37. Extremely Stupid (Dec. 11, 1976)
Breaking character is always going to be an issue with live television, particularly live comedic television. Sometimes the jokes you say or the humorous antics you have to perform for a live audience and the millions watching instantaneously at home are just too funny not to laugh to or at yourself.
‘SNL’ fans have always had a love/hate relationship with performers breaking character on the show. Some are strict in their opinion that professionals should never break character while others love the fact that cast members occasionally crack themselves up and admit that at times breaking character actually makes a sketch much funnier than it would have been otherwise.
There have been many memorable instances of breaking character on the show from the almost-never-to-crack Phil Hartman doing so in Frankenstein makeup to Bill Hader’s hilarious crack-ups at last second joke inserts by writer John Mulaney during Stefon bits on Weekend Update. The most famous “breaking character” cast members were Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz, whose frequent crack-ups were a common annoyance to those who hate seeing such things.
Perhaps the best timed flub in the 40 year history of “Saturday Night Live” came in its early years and started a crack-up so hilarious that it almost completely brought the entire sketch to a standstill … and in doing so turned what certainly would’ve been a long forgotten sketch into a classic.
It happened on Dec. 11, 1976 during the show’s second season and the third episode of the series hosted by actress Candice Bergen in just a year and a half span. It was a simple plot. Bergen was supposed to be the straight woman in the sketch about a message from the Right to Extreme Stupidity League about how all Americans deserve their right to extreme stupidity. Gilda Radner was to be the American diagnosed with “extreme stupidity.”
Bergen’s character is named ‘Fern’ and Radner’s is named ‘Lisa,’ but at some point in the sketch Bergen mistakenly flip-flops the names and says, “You’re not too bright are you Fern [breaking character by laughing at her mistake] Whatever your name is! [continues laughing].” Radner interjects “Lisa!” to which Bergen continues with the sketch as written, “As a matter of fact you’re extremely stupid.” Radner says, “Well, you’re right Fern. And, you know I’m proud of it. [At this point she turns to the camera for emphasis] You know, we all can’t be brainy like Fern here … [the emphasis she puts on the name is something only a comedic genius like Radner could do].” At this point Bergen absolutely loses it to the point where she is in tears and can barely continue the sketch.
I’m not sure whether the “we all can’t be brainy like Fern here” line was written as part of the sketch or improvised on the spot by Radner, but it feels totally improvised when you watch it, and it makes it seem all the more hilarious.
I’m sure if you asked ‘SNL’ fans what their favorite memory of Radner is from her time on the show they’d probably name one of her memorable characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna or Emily Litella, but her quick wit and perfect timing upon Bergen’s misfortune in this sketch is my favorite memory of her.
#38. Five-Timers Club
#39. We’re Cowboys & We’re Proud
#40. Wilford Brimley for Liberty Medical