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Ten Surprisingly Funny Saturday Night Live Hosts

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Politicians, singers, and football players who all turned out to be natural comedians.

At the beginning of this season of Saturday Night Live, we listed the worst hosts of all time. The show returns from its winter break this weekend with Jim Carrey hosting; while he probably won't rank among the worst, he hasn't been too funny in a while either. But we're always open to pleasant surprises. In tribute, here are ten SNL hosts who bucked expectations and managed to be funnier than anyone expected.

 

1. Ralph Nader (January 15, 1977)

Nader saw his hosting gig as the chance to wrap his ideas about consumer politics in an entertaining package, and as deadly as that sounds, he was willing to meet the people who actually had a sense of humor more than halfway. The show opened with Nader, looking exultant, prowling the halls of the studio in a cowboy outfit vowing that he was "just gonna cut loose." He came closer to fulfilling that promise than you'd have thought possible.

 

2. Bill Murray (March 7, 1981)

The surprise here isn't that Bill Murray was funny but that he, or anyone, could have been funny in these circumstances. Murray was the first former series regular to return to host after the departure of producer Lorne Michaels and the last of the '70s cast members; the first full season of the 1980s had been a disaster, and Murray showed up one week after Charles Rocket had said "fuck" on the air, putting himself, and maybe the show itself, on Death Row. In that grim moment, Murray grabbed the show in his teeth and shook it the hell up. He began the show by teaching the new cast his personal mantra ("It just doesn't matter!") and revving them up in a way that makes you glad he never became a cult leader. Then he powered through to the end, treating the other performers as if he was in awe of their talent and was thrilled to be working with them. At the end, facing the camera, he addressed the other former cast members by name and told them, "I'm sorry for what I've done." Then he squirmed away from Charles Rocket's attempt to hug him. A funny man, a trouper, and one hell of an actor.

 

3. Ron Howard (October 9, 1982)

Howard hosted the show when Night Shift, the first movie he'd directed after leaving the cast of Happy Days, was in theaters, and you never saw a man more eager to publicly drive a stake through the heart of his past life and cut off its head. Whether telling Eddie Murphy, in no uncertain terms, not to call him "Opie Cunningham," or returning to Mayberry to find that it had turned into a cracker Sodom and Gomorrah, this was the funniest Ron Howard would be until the makers of Arrested Development found a way to use him without forcing you to look at him.

 

4. Jesse Jackson (October 20, 1984)

Jackson hosted the show towards the end of a year that he'd spent running for president, and spent the ninety minutes giving a masterly demonstration of how to satirize yourself without sacrificing your dignity or holding your ideals up to ridicule. Suffice to say that the least funny sketch might have been the one where Jesse, on a plane, got trapped sitting next to Ed Grimley.

 

5. William Shatner (December 20, 1986)

To put this in perspective: when Shatner did SNL, he was a past-his-prime TV star who had a hit movie in theaters thanks to the devotion of the fans of that long-dead show. Shatner's whole subsequent career as a self-aware, self-mocking ham has flowed from the moment when he faced a roomful of Star Trek conventioneers and urged them to get a life. ("You — you must be almost thirty. Have you ever kissed a girl?") Much of the credit has to go to Robert Smigel for writing one of the greatest sketches since, well, Michael O'Donoghue's "Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise," but Shatner hit it out of the park. Everything else he did that night was gravy.

 

6. Christopher Walken (January 20, 1990)

The first time Walken hosted SNL, his best-known stab at playing comedy had been his brief role in Annie Hall thirteen years earlier, where he was called upon to make suicidal alienation funny. But by the time he'd sung and danced his way through his opening monologue, it was clear that he had game. He's since made the hosting gig a personal franchise of sorts, doing the show seven times in eighteen years.

 

7. Al Gore (December 14, 2002)

As soon as the sight of Al Gore sitting in a hot tub appeared onscreen, people rushed to their blogs to speculate that the former Vice President had lost his damn mind. That turned out to be a good thing for him: after this show, people started believing him when he insisted he wasn't going to run for office anymore. Indeed, this episode gives you a long look at a man throwing off a great weight and peeing on it. Gore hasn't hosted again, though he's made a few return cameos, memorably in a 2006 sketch in which he reflected on how his presidency had turned out in some alternate universe. (Somehow, though, you know his heart really belongs to Futurama.)

 

8. Justin Timberlake (October 13, 2003)

Sometimes pretty boys can surprise you. The previous holder of this title was probably Jason Priestley, whose nimble hosting gig in 1992 was the only break in the eight-year-long pouting fit that he was required to maintain on Beverly Hills, 90210. But even he has to take a back seat to JT. Timberlake has since hosted twice more (in addition to various cameo appearances). While his best-known bit was probably 2006 Christmas treat "Dick in a Box", by then we'd learned to expect him to be funny; in 2003, it was still startling.

 

9. Peyton Manning (March 24, 2007)

Over the course of thirty-five years, certain natural laws have sprouted up around Saturday Night Live, one of the most immutable being that professional athletes always stink up the stage. It's held true for everyone from O. J. Simpson to Michael Phelps, but apparently Peyton Manning eats Kryptonite for breakfast and shits ice cream. Blissfully unselfconscious, he seemed to be having a great, foul-mouthed time scribbling graffiti all over his golden-boy image, showing off his nerdy white-guy dance moves, and bouncing footballs off the heads of terrified small boys. ("Spend time with your kids," said an announcer, "so Peyton Manning won't.")

 

10. Jon Hamm (October 25, 2008)

When Hamm first hosted SNL, he wasn't known for much besides looking handsome and acting churlish and glum on Mad Men. Even those of an optimistic nature didn't know what to expect, but things turned out so well that he did two return stints in 2010 alone, perhaps to help viewers wash the taste of the January Jones episode out of their mouths. If he learns to pace himself, he may turn out to be the new Christopher Walken.