Actor and comedian Griffin Newman (credit where credit is due) has a theory: that Bob Odenkirk is unquestionably the greatest sketch comedy actor of all time. By that he means he’s not necessarily the greatest sketch comedian of all time (though Odenkirk would easily be a contender for that title as well). But instead, Odenkirk’s the sketch comedian who most commits to and invests in the reality of a sketch as if it was Shakespeare. This kind of acting elevates all sketch comedy, and also adds a degree of legitimacy to an art form that’s had to deal with unfairly reductive criticism and praise. It’s an interesting metric, and one we’re running with today, counting down the greatest acting in the modern history of sketch comedy.
Only fair to start with the man himself. People were surprised when Odenkirk was able to pivot seamlessly from sketch comedian to supporting dramatic actor in Breaking Bad, and even more surprised when he pivoted just as seamlessly to bona fide leading man in Better Call Saul. But they shouldn’t have been. From the early days of Mr. Show, Odenkirk never sold out a sketch he was in, bringing his trademark hair-pulling frustration and no small amount of sleaze with a light touch and real pathos.
John Cleese has a type. His kind of fussy, uptight Brit who’s easily thrown off their game made its way into most of his Monty Python characters and definitely into the protagonist/antagonist of Fawlty Towers. But with it came with an unusual specificity, easily mocked by affecting Cleese’s sputtering diction but never replicated. He never got lazy and let go of the imperative that he find out why someone wanted to mess with him.
Lots of artists are lionized after their deaths, especially if that death was untimely and tragic, but it never felt that way with Phil Hartman. He was just too grounded as a performer (and, by all accounts, as a person) to feel that distant after he was gone. His Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer plays on a cliché and draws on Hartman’s extremely distinctive voice, but even saddled with makeup and prosthetics, everything about that character was somehow both tossed off and tactical. Hartman played such good scumbags because he didn’t play the idea of trying to con you, he just leaned on his charm and did it for real.
The Carol Burnett Show’s vaudevillian roots disguised how precise it was in performance. What allows The Carol Burnett Show to hold up so well as a self-consciously showbiz-centric show, with a dizzying amount of guest stars, etc., is that it never felt forced or fake. It never felt presentational. It could wink at the very show it was inhabiting all at once. The linchpin of this balancing act was Carol Burnett herself.
In her sketch work, Maya Rudolph paints with broad strokes, from “Bronx Beat” all the way to Maya Angelou. But that doesn’t mean she’s out of control. In every impression, especially, Rudolph pulls off the impossible feat of being of the joke and in on the joke at the same time. She’s the most classically comedic of any of these performers—she could crush in any era—and yet she’s distinctly modern. But in conducting all this, she never lets you see the strings.
Stick with me. The Muppet Show was more of a variety show than a proper sketch show, but the versatility and life that it’s performers and puppeteers brought to each individual Muppet, I think, qualifies them as sketch comedians in their own right. Jim Henson brought the most to the characters he created and nurtured. His innovation of using the closeness of a TV format to make puppets more expressive than they could be onstage changed that medium for good. It’s why The Muppet Show was so emotionally affecting, an accomplishment for any sketch show, where that’s generally just not the prerogative, but especially in the context of a children’s show that pulled it off without becoming cloying.
Stephen Fry has grown into his current reputation as more of an erudite raconteur than an actor’s actor, but Hugh Laurie took the latter path. He’s also one of the few British actors who can really, really pull off an American accent (Idris Elba and Andrew Garfield won’t be showing up on this list). A Bit of Fry & Laurie pulled off a bunch of hat tricks, but Laurie was particularly adept whenever the actors would become themselves in the middle of a sketch. Laurie could make the transition seamless, and it helped quietly unify every episode.
Bill Hader is just beginning to show off serious acting chops with his fantastic performance on Barry, but the seeds were always there. It’s kind of a shame that Hader’s best known SNL character is iconic for breaking so much, when every other performance is characterized by how deathly seriously he takes the circumstances of a sketch. It’s another reason why Hader, who was never the most chameleonic impressionist, still sold every impression he had to do—because he knew we ultimately care about the character way more than the voice.
It definitely feels unfair to pick one half of a duo, especially one as symbiotic as Key & Peele. But there’s just something about Jordan Peele’s performances that stick out to me as being sort of cautious where most sketch comedians take any excuse to go over the top. Peele’s characters specifically don’t want anything bad to happen to them, which is why the stakes on Key & Peele felt unusually high for a sketch comedy show.
Other than Home Alone, Catharine O’Hara is mostly known for her improvised performances as part of the Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest ensemble, playing women with painful heartland optimism trying to make the best of it. But the core of those performances exist in bite sized form in every sketch she did during the SCTV days. She’s also a bottle rocket actress who can push your buttons and make you really uncomfortable, but she has an astounding amount of control over each erratic choice, where another actress would let it get away from her.
Kate McKinnon is the reigning MVP of SNL at the moment because she is sidesplittingly funny even in the most lukewarm sketches. But for all the wide-eyed manic energy, her characters have a rich internal life. The “Hallelujah” opener after the 2016 election was extremely tone-deaf and emotionally manipulative as a concept, but the only reason it worked at all in the moment is because she brought her Clinton impression to an aggressively melancholy place without abandoning any of the mannerisms that gave it shape. It was a tight-rope walk that should have been impossible.
Molly Shannon’s characters were always characterized by desperation. That’s part of what made her performance in Other People so upsetting: we were finally seeing her resigned to a fate, and we didn’t know how to handle it. That performance would be effective in any case, but it was leant a lot of extra heft from the legwork Shannon had done her entire career, playing people who were going to exhaust every option before giving up, and people who cared deeply about every character and absurd premise she encountered, no matter how heightened it got.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.