Q: What is the all-time best performance by a guest host in an SNL skit? I've been trying to get to the bottom of this question for a while now ... you know, instead of actually working while I'm at work. If you omit every ex-cast member, athlete, man in a dress, woman who's only on the show because of her breasts, celebrities playing themselves and every Alec Baldwin sketch (there's just too many, and frankly it's not fair to the rest of them), what do you have left?
SG: First, it's not fair to penalize Alec Baldwin -- for me, his performance in the first "Tony Bennett Show" sketch was Hall of Fame material. What could possibly top his asking David Gest, "I don't get it ... why would you build a cherry orchid when you like bananas?" Or his doing the Dr. Scholl's ad with the story, "I once made love to a woman's foot for seven hours ... and then the nurse tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Mr. Bennett, she's gone.'"
Anyway, to come up with a list like this, only one rule applies: Nobody else would have been as good in the skit but that particular guest host. And there have been a bunch of memorable ones -- Justin Timberlake as Robin Gibb, Christina Aguilera as Kim Catrall, Gwyneth Paltrow as Sharon Stone, Baldwin as Robert DeNiro, Tom Hanks in the "Mr. Belvedere Club" sketch, Sarah Michelle Gellar in the "Dodge Stratus" sketch, Roseanne Barr in the "Misery" parody, etc. -- but only five stand out (in reverse order):
5. Joe Montana in the "Masturbate" sketch
I can't even describe what it was like, in the mid-80s, to watch a Super Bowl MVP (and somewhat of a dud by all accounts) rattle off the words "I'm going upstairs to masturbate" in a sketch. It was like seeing a UFO land. Even if his career ended the next season, he still would have gotten my Hall of Fame vote for that moment.
4. Richard Pryor in the "Racial Interview" sketch
This was like SNL's 10th show ever -- Pryor was hosting back when he was Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock rolled into one. So this was an event. And they have this sketch in which Chevy Chase is interviewing Pryor's character for a job, and they start playing word association, only Chase starts throwing out racial insults that get worse and worse, and Pryor's character gets angrier and angrier ... even when you watch it 30 years later, you can feel the tension. I can't imagine anyone but Prior selling that idea as well ... mainly because he probably really was getting ticked off. An electric moment.
3. Christopher Walken in "Trivial Psychic" and "More Cowbell" (tie)
Funny ideas, perfect guy each time. Isn't it strange that he's now known more for "SNL" than "The Deer Hunter," which only won about five Oscars? An entire generation knows him for lines like "You're gonna have an ice cream headache ... it's gonna hurt real bad" and "Come on, guys, I put my pants on one leg at a time ... it's just that I go out and make gold records."
2. Baldwin in "The Tony Bennett Show"
One of the best five SNL skits ever.
1. Stevie Wonder in "The Stevie Wonder Experience"
This one happened in the early '80s, right as Eddie Murphy was peaking on SNL and seemed poised to become the biggest superstar on the planet (which ended up happening two years later when "Beverly Hills Cop" came out). Just the fact that Stevie hosted the show was interesting because Eddie was doing a wicked impression of him at the time. Who knew what would happen on the show? In this particular sketch, Joe Piscopo (playing an agent) brought Stevie (playing a celeb impersonator) to audition for Murphy (who was a music executive) ... with the catch being that Stevie's character bills himself as the Stevie Wonder Experience. Excellent setup.
So Stevie does his Stevie "impersonation," and it's terrible. Truly awful. Murphy ends up interjecting, "No, no, you're doing it all wrong," then proceeds to slip on a pair of sunglasses as the crowd goes crazy. And he does Stevie with Stevie standing right next to him.
(Note: I remember being like 12 or 13 when this happened, and you can think I'm crazy, I don't care. But the most exciting TV moments of the early '80s were A) this sketch, B) Letterman taking his show to L.A. and having Carson as a guest, C) Michael Jackson singing "Billie Jean" and doing the moonwalk on the Motown 25 special, D) Reagan getting shot by Hinckley, E) Roddy Piper smashing the coconut into Jimmy Snuka's head. I'm telling you, this was the Mount Rushmore of Random/Exciting Non-Sports TV Moments in the Early '80s. I won't even accept any other arguments. Save your time.)
Anyway, Eddie brings the house down with his impression of Stevie singing "Ma Cherie Amour." Unbelievable. Stevie's standing right there. The crowd settles down and Stevie "tries it" again ... still terrible. Eddie does it again ... kills again. After the crowd settles down, the scene shifts back to Stevie's "character" for one last "attempt" at an impression. Only this time, Fake Stevie suddenly turns into Real Stevie and belts out an a cappella version of "Ma Cherie Amour" that was like ... I mean, I can't possibly describe how good this was. Nobody had a voice like Stevie in his prime. And when he nails the last note, the crowd erupts like someone just made a midcourt shot to win an NCAA Tournament game or something -- if you watch the tape, even Piscopo breaks character and lets out a yelp. That's how remarkable it was. I know he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a musical icon, but I can't imagine Stevie Wonder ever brought the house down quite like that.
Of course, Eddie never breaks character. He waits for the applause to die down, waits for an extra second and finally says, "No, man, it still sucks."
Perfect ending to one of the best SNL sketches ever. And it doesn't happen without Stevie Wonder.
I actually liked Baldwins "You're Burned" sketch better than the Tony Bennett Show, though that was classic. I also thinks he missed Baldwins and Sandlers "Canteen Boy" sketch, talk about a classic. Also figuring into the discussion is Jim Carey's Life Guard sketch and any John Goodman Linda Tripp impression.
But I agree on the Walkens, Pryor and Stevie Wondern sketches (I haven't really seen the Montana sketches), those were phenominal. I recently saw the Wonder sketch for the first time and it blew me away.