Saturday Night Live (SNL) is about as iconic as TV shows get. There have been 809 episodes over the last 41 seasons that have served as an archive of our pop culture as much as entertainment. But not all SNL episodes are created equal. We previously chronicled the 10 worst hosts of all time. Now it’s time to look at the cream of the crop. Amongst the 809 episodes airing before this current season, we found the 10 best (well actually 11 since there was a tie). To come up with an objective measure to compare each show we looked at IMDB user score for every single episode of SNL (which typically included a minimum of 20 ratings). And so we present to you the 10 best episodes of SNL. Ever.
#10a Larry David with musical guest The 1975, Season 41
IMDb rating 8.4/10
Larry David’s season 41 episode technically holds a tie with Peyton Manning so we will include both in our list. This episode came in the heart of the 2016 Democratic Primary, throughout which David played Bernie Sanders. The combination of a beloved actor playing a well-liked politician certainly helped drive the popularity of this episode. The skits range from oddball to predictable (David as Sanders in a Curb Your Enthusiasm spoof) but they pretty much all hit the mark.
#10b Peyton Manning with musical guest Carrie Underwood, Season 32
IMDb rating 8.4/10
Peyton Manning’s 32nd season turn as host marks the only non-actor/entertainer to crack the top 10. Manning’s is the highest rated episode hosted by an athlete with Charles Barkley being next at 7.7 out of 10. Manning drew the advantage of being surrounded by one of the most talented casts in the history of the show. This episode also featured some hilarious commercial spoofs, which is fitting considering Manning’s continued run of prolific endorsements. As a host, Manning holds his own pretty well. If you need proof check out the sketch where he and Kristen Wiig play a couple sitting on the porch, Wiig appears to crack several times while Manning stays frosty.
#9 Justin Timberlake with musical guest Ciara, Season 34
IMDb rating 8.5/10
Get ready to see this name a few more times on the list. This episode from season 34 was not Timberlake’s first time hosting, nor was it his top rated, but it holds down the 9th highest rating overall. It’s not necessarily a strong episode from a content standpoint, but Timberlake is able to muscle it into the top 10 by pure charm. He sings, he dances, he hangs out with The Target Lady, his BFF Jimmy Fallon stops by. The best sketch involves Timberlake playing his own fictitious grandfather headed to America and detailing his aspirations for his future grandson Justin.
#8 Richard Prior with musical guest Gil Scott-Heron, Season 1
IMDb rating 8.6/10
This episode is the only one from the early seasons to appear in the top 10. That doesn’t necessarily mean that early season episodes were not actually good, they just have the disadvantage of being on the air before IMDb was created. Therefor, anyone rating these episodes is going back to re-watch them and is not seeing them in the era for which they were created. Richard Pryor’s 1975, season 1 episode is classic Pryor. He’s expressive, charming, and magnetic. In his opening monologue he pretends to be drunk and on acid, fairly convincingly. It’s interesting to go back and watch these early episodes. In some ways, the show has remained very similar over the years (the iconic “Live from New York it’s Saturday Night”, the photos for the intro, the opening monologue), but in some ways things have changed a lot. The early years were less fully scripted, leaving more room for improvising and physical comedy. Richard Pryor falls right in with the Not-Ready-For-Primetime players. The sketch featuring Pryor and Chevy Chase lobbing racial slurs back and forth is an all-time classic. The whole episode is loaded with race based humor.
#7 Jim Carrey with musical guest Sound Garden, Season 21
IMDb rating 8.7/10
This was the season finale for season 21, it was Jim Carrey in the 90s when he was at the peak of his career (The Cable Guy was just about to come out). Carrey’s always done well on SNL, his hosting gigs in season 36 and 40 were also highly rated. His skillset as a former variety show comedian naturally lends itself to SNL.
#6 Justin Timberlake with musical guest Lady Gaga, Season 36
IMDb rating 8.7/10
Timberlake again. This time in the Season 36 finale. Timberlake landing on this list as many times as he does is made possible by the peak of his career overlapping with a really strong SNL cast from the late 2000s. In this particular episode Timberlake is serviceable, but it’s the cast that carries the water. Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Fred Armison are excellent. The dick in a box guys make their third appearance.
#5 Jimmy Fallon with musical guest Michael Buble, Season 37
IMDb rating 8.7/10
This episode opens with the “Boston kids” sketch that was a recurring favorite during Fallon’s time on the show. It’s also a Christmas episode, which are traditionally are a little more popular on average. They really cut Fallon loose on the impersonations, which has always been his strongest area. Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Chris Kattan, Horatio Sanz, and Tracy Morgan all return to help their old cast mate out.
#4 Justin Timberlake host and musical guest, Season 38
IMDb rating 8.7/10
Timberlake pulls double duty for this one, which is not that different than if he were just the host or just the musical guest since he typically winds up all over the show anyhow. Timberlake punched his pass into the 5-timers club with this episode and some other famous hosts joined him to mark the occasion. The dick in a box guys return once again. Stefon kills, as always.
#3 Justin Timberlake host and musical guest, Season 32
IMDb rating 8.8/10
Ok, so Justin Timberlake has been on this list a lot. But THIS episode, this is the original Dick-in-a-box! It’s a Christmas episode, which always seems to give a little boost. Even though it’s just Timberlake’s second time hosting they really give him a lot more of the spotlight than an average host. And for the most part, he delivers. There’s one of those skits where Timberlake wears a foam suit and changes the lyrics of pop songs to make them about food, which everyone seems to go nuts for. He joins Kirsten Wiig’s Target lady. Of course Jimmy Fallon comes by and they do the Barry Gibb Talk Show (a recurring skit that nobody seems to enjoy as much as Fallon).
#2 Jimmy Fallon with musical guest Justin Timberlake, Season 39
IMDb rating 9.0/10
The Fallon-Timberlake bro-mance that we didn’t really ask for continues with another Christmas episode. Timberlake impersonates Fallon, pretty convincingly, on a Family Feud parody where the two crack several times. This episode features the “Do it in My Twin Bed” music video which represents the start of a shift toward the more female-centric cast that SNL has today. Madonna shows up, for some reason. Also, the real Barry Gibb stops by the Barry Gibb talk show. It’s weird. Kate McKinnon and her delightful impersonations were starting to get their deserved air-time during this era including a hilarious Billy Jean King impression in this episode. The episode is worth a watch just for Fallon and Cecily Strong’s rendition of “Baby it’s Cold Outside” which is not crack-up funny, but just downright charming.
#1 Betty White with musical guest Jay-Z, Season 35
IMDb rating 9.1/10
Betty White’s season 35 episode holds the highest ever IMDb score for an SNL episode at 9.1. This episode was really the perfect storm for late-night comedy. White was experiencing a late-career resurgence at age-88 and demonstrated her veteran sense of comedic timing throughout the show. The episode aired the night before Mother’s Day and White was joined by a slew of popular returning cast members including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolf, Anna Gasteir, Rachel Dratch and Molly Shannon. The episode featured many of the most popular sketches from this era including MacGruber, Bernice, NPR Ladies (Dusty Muffin), Sally O’Malley. They even brought back “Really!? w Seth and Amy”. Oh, and Jay-Z as a musical guest didn’t hurt either.