Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.

If I’m the one making the decision, then Will Ferrell is the best Saturday Night Live cast member of all time.  His seven seasons on the show (1995-1996 to 2001-2002) were marked by character-driven (as opposed to concept-driven) sketches and a spirit of collaboration.  The latter is due a great deal to Ferrell, who, though he was a star during his time on the show, was also one of the best utility players and probably the best team player in SNL history.  He had memorable moments with literally every one of his castmates during his tenure.  When choosing a set of episodes that show off all that SNL has to offer, one thing to keep in mind is that every era has had its mix of good and bad.  Luckily, almost every episode also has that mix, so there’s no need to go out of my way to make sure the particular weaknesses of the era are represented.  These 10 episodes offer a variety of essential recurring and one-off sketches, many of them – though not all – featuring Will Ferrell prominently.

Season 21, Episode 20 – Jim Carrey/Soundgarden (Original Airdate: 5/18/96)
The 95-96 season was the last true transitional season of SNL.  With a young cast and not really any established stars, Carrey was able to stamp his own personal brand of humor onto the show.  While Will Ferrell was yet to be as big a star as he would become, he was already the centerpiece of the cast, and it shows in two classic sketches that could have only occurred in an episode hosted by Jim Carrey – the insanely overprotective Jacuzzi lifeguard and the insanely drug-fueled Jimmy Tango’s Fat Busters.  Also of note is Carrey’s bravura impression of Jimmy Stewart squaring off against Mark McKinney as Carrey in Jim Breuer’s showcase sketch, the Joe Pesci Show.

Season 22, Episode 10 – Kevin Spacey/Beck (Original Airdate: 1/11/97)
The Star Wars screen test audition sketches – with Spacey as Walter Matthau for Obi-Wan and Christopher Walken for Han Solo, Darrell Hammond as Richard Dreyfuss for C-3PO, Ana Gasteyer as Barbra Streisand for Leia, and, of course, Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds for Darth Vader – set the template for all future impression showcase sketches.  Also, Michael Palin and John Cleese stopped by for a recreation of the Dead Parrot sketch.

Season 22, Episode 16 – Mike Myers/Aerosmith (Original Airdate: 3/22/97)
Before a time when every other monologue was a singing monologue, Mike Myers sang about the joys of a former cast member returning to host, and it may just have been the best SNL monologue of all time (bonus points for Tim Meadows having his own verse to decry the pitfalls of 30-year contracts).  This episode serves as a prime example of a returning host bringing back some of his best recurring sketches and sticking the new current cast into them, particularly with Will Ferrell’s Helmut joining Dieter in a “Sprockets” sketch for the “Insane Academy Awards” (George Jetson wins “Best Shegro in a Musical” for My Left Foot).

Season 23, Episode 17 – Steve Buscemi/Third Eye Blind (4/4/98)
When I first started really getting into SNL in the late nineties, there were certain sketches I referred to as “What were the writers smoking?”-sketches.  Appropriately enough, just about every sketch in the 1998 episode by Steve Buscemi fits into this category, particularly the Job Interview, with Buscemi as the most overly aggressive and oversharing interviewer of all time.  He also shone as the most intense Grease fanatic of all time, a school janitor given to taking his pants off, and a hip-hop dance instructor appearing before Judge Judy.  This episode is also an example of a strange trend from the 97-98 season in which the musical guest only performed one song.

Season 22, Episode 9 – Alec Baldwin/Luciano Pavarotti and Vanessa Williams (12/12/98)
This episode features two sketches that have become more or less synonymous with Alec Baldwin on SNL: the 6-year-old who looks like a fully grown man and seduces the hospital clown, and, of course, Schweddy Balls – which interestingly enough, isn’t very representative of most “Delicious Dish” sketches, which mainly made fun of the dry enthusiasm of NPR broadcasters.  This episode was also very much of its time with the commercial parody for the long-distance phone service 10-10-1776-5-28-1830-242-3-316-68-22.  And if you’re going to talk about essential episodes from Will Ferrell’s tenure, you’ve got to have at least one with a Bill Brasky sketch.

Season 25, Episode 1 – Jerry Seinfeld/David Bowie (Original Airdate: 10/2/99)
A solid collection of recurring sketches (the daffy talk show Morning Latte, with Seinfeld as a guest pitching the new diet “The Realm,” a Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch featuring a Catholic school vs. Jewish school basketball rivalry) and highly memorable odd original bits (following the series finale of Seinfeld, Jerry is transferred to Oz, where his exploits with the other prisoners resemble classic Seinfeld episodes; after ABC changes the title of 2 Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place to just 2 Guys and a Girl, NBC picks up …and a Pizza Place; the Action 8 News Watch keeps previewing its stories without ever getting to any of them) all done with a  Seinfeldian viewpoint.  And there’s the Seinfeld vs. Seinfeld (Jimmy Fallon) debate on Weekend Update.

Season 25, Episode 3 – Norm MacDonald/Dr. Dre (Original Airdate: 10/23/99)
Considering that Norm MacDonald is one of my favorite funny people ever, this was actually a somewhat disappointing episode, but it is worth mentioning for what may be the best SNL sketch of all time: the Celebrity Jeopardy with Sean Connery, Burt Reynolds, and French Stewart.  It gave us funny oversized hats, “Moo – that’s the sound your mother made last night,” “Ah, ruff, just the way your mother likes it,” Turd Ferguson, Texas with a dollar sign, and many others.  Also memorable was Norm’s monologue, in which he pondered how he could possibly be funny enough to host the show after being fired less than two years ago.

Season 25, Episode 16 – Christopher Walken/Christina Aguilera (Original Airdate: 4/8/00)
The Behind the Music with Blue Oyster Cult, a.k.a. “More Cowbell,” is rightly remembered as a classic, for performances from a mostly affectless Walken and a no-vanity, midriff-baring Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon cracking up before it was an epidemic, and rich dialogue (“Before we’re done here, y’all be wearing gold-plated diapers”).  But “More Cowbell” is not the best SNL sketch with Walken; in fact, it is not even the best from this episode.  That distinction belongs to the census interview, with brilliant straight man Tim Meadows as the interviewer and Walken (at his glued to the cue cards best) as Mr. Leonard, a convicted criminal who lives alone with a bobcat and works 56 hours a week as a street performer.

Season 26, Episode 1 – Rob Lowe/Eminem (10/7/00)
The best SNL season ever when it comes to politics (thank you, Florida) began here, with “strategery” and “lockbox.”  This season premiere also saw the debut of Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey as co-Weekend Update anchors, whose brother/sister-style repartee brought unheard-of mainstream press buzz behind the desk.

Season 27, Episode 9 – Ellen DeGeneres/No Doubt (Original Airdate: 12/15/01)
Another great Christmas episode!  This episode features a bunch of fun (with a capital “F”) sketches.  The Culps Christmas Pageant is perhaps the best appearance of Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer’s “hip” middle-school music teachers.  Ellen falls for Chris Kattan’s exotic dancer character Mango, and it leads to an homage to A Hard Day’s Night.  There is also the family on the road to vacation worrying that they may have left doors open and appliances running at home.  Dad – played by Ferrell – is certain that he left two cans of gas in the sun under a magnifying glass.  Finally, there is the perennial holiday classic “The Narrator That Ruined Christmas,” a pitch-perfect TV Funhouse parody of Rankin-Bass specials.

Ten More: Robert Downey, Jr./Fiona Apple (11/16/96), Sylvester Stallone/Jamiroquai (9/27/97), Ray Romano/The Corrs (3/13/99), Christina Ricci/Beck (12/4/99), Freddie Prinze, Jr./Macy Gray (1/15/00), Charlize Theron/Paul Simon (11/4/00), Tom Green/David Gray (11/18/00), Conan O’Brien/Don Henley (3/10/01), Jon Stewart/India.Arie (3/9/02), Winona Ryder/Moby (5/18/02)

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