The Best Saturday Night Live Superhero Sketches

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A chronological look at what happens when SNL and comic books do battle….

This week on Cape Crisis, we took a little time in between constantly talking about Spider-man and wondering if inkers still exist to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Not only do we have a regular SNL recap feature here at Laser Time, there are few things I’m personally as big a fan of than Lorne Michael’s enduring, occasionally painful sketch show. So we decided to scour the net for a little comic crossover. On the print side, this happened:

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But we also wanted to see just how many times Saturday Night Live sent up our favorite superheroes. The results? Surprisingly few, once you factor in the show has been on the air for four decades. It would seem that outside of a few early attempts, SNL would prefer to parody comic book movies over heroes on the page.  Understandable, since it’s a lot harder to do an impression of a word balloon, but superhero sketches have happened from time to time, and sometimes they’re even good! And thanks to the advent of SNL streaming technology, you can watch almost any of them any night of the week. Although, sadly, not in a single place. These things are scattered all over the web, so we decided to compile them in one place. Wanna see ’em all?! Let’s begin in chronological order!

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Superhero Party
Date: March 17, 1979
Host: Margot Kidder

This is crazy, comic fans. Here’s a sketch featuring every goddamned SNL cast member from the first five golden years, crossing over DC and Marvel characters aplenty as Superman and Lois Lane have a party. Obviously, the idea is spurred on by that week’s host, Margot Kidder, star of Superman: The Movie, but this sketch is clearly written by and for fans of ALL comic books. I’m sure many of us grew up with a wealth of knowledge surrounding every character here, from Bull Murray’s Superman to Garret Morris’ Ant-Man. However, I honestly can’t tell if comics were as mainstream in 1979 as the writers of the sketch seemed to believe here.

Obviously, this is the kind of thing that would’ve fucking killed in the early days of the internet, yet outside of John Belushi’s Hulk, every single joke dies on the vine. I don’t think you and I will consider any of these gags particularly insular or esoteric, such as why Clark Kent and Superman never appear together or Ant-Man having lame powers (he does NOT!), as they require only a rudimentary knowledge of super heroic powers and aliases. But it certainly doesn’t help that the sketch throws damn near every comedic premise at the wall throughout the course of TEN MINUTES and the only lines most of the Not Ready For Primetime Players seem to remember went right up their noses.

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What If? (What if Superman was raised in Nazi Germany?)
Date: May 12, 1979
Host: Michael Palin

Now… this is absolutely bizarre, yet it does offer a fascinating glimpse at pop culture discussions before the advent of the internet and podcasts. Long before Red Son, this is SNL asking “What would happen if Superman had been raised in Nazi Germany?” You know… as a joke! And additionally, long before Kevin Smith devoted 20 minute blocks of time to such onscreen hypothetical dorky speculation, SNL had seemingly zero idea on how to present the concept to people. The meat of the sketch comes via a framing device that involves Jane Curtin hosting a super-serious panel show, featuring a military general played by Garret Morris and a comic collector played by Gilda Radner… A talk show where they sincerely discuss What If comic book scenarios? Of course my willingness to endure the actual premise of the sketch makes the talk show format feel superfluous, stupid even, but I have no context for whether or not such a show ever existed, nor how to better present the subject matter in the late 70s.

The Superman sketch sandwiched in the middle is pretty great actually. Michael Palin does an outstanding job as Hitler, which is a sentence I never realized I’ve always wanted to write, plus it’s a damned good premise and very much lives up to the edgy reputation of SNL’s first five years. Belushi does a great Brando/Jor-El, Bill Murray is a German Pa Kent and Dan Akroyd’s Claus Kent/Uberman spits some wildly abrasive antisemitic shit that probably wouldn’t gently qualify as humor these days. Somewhat bittersweetly, the biggest laugh comes from Akroyd completely forgetting to remove his slacks during his transition into Nazi Superman, and the sketch concludes grimly with Superman triumphant over the, uh… Jews, before even more awkwardly kicking back to its talk show framing device. Don’t judge, people.

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Superman Audition
Date: April 6, 1985
Host: Christopher Reeve

Here’s one we missed on Cape Crisis, and it’s actually pretty wonderful despite starring James Belushi. The Belush plays Richard Donner casting the role of Superman for his upcoming movie, along with his assistant played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Not to ruin the giveaway, but rather than looking for the person who embodies the emotional core of both Clark Kent and Kyrpton’s Last Son, they instead audition the part based on who has Superman’s abilities. Somebody dies.

As with most SNL sketches, the best gags come first and the rest stretches thin, but at least it doesn’t go anywhere near as long as SNL’s previous attempts at superhero humor up to that point. Plus, it’s really nice to see Christopher Reeves alive and beautiful again… even if he did almost lose his most famous role to Rich Hall.

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Superman’s Funeral
Date: November 21, 1992
Host: Sinbad

Man, I have no idea how this sketch escaped me. Not only was I firmly embroiled in the Death of Superman saga, I consider this my goddamned cast. This would’ve been the year I got into SNL, only to become absolutely obsessed a year later. Here we’ve got Marvel and DC characters separated to the right and left like someone’s getting married, with all of the cast members I came to love in 1993-1994 bringing them to life. Farley, Hartman, Sandler, Spade, Rock, and the inclusion of Dana Carvey, already a senior member of the cast in the throws of his few remaining days.

As we’ll see in this feature, not only is a sketch based on comic book characters is a rarer thing than one would think, it’s equally rare that there’s a piece that gives the entire cast a shot in the spotlight. Thankfully, the results are much better thirteen years after Superhero Party’s first attempt. There are more than a few solid jokes here, although I’m sure some of you hardened nerds out there think they’re too surface level. But let’s remember, this years before Family Guy and Robot Chicken turned such mockery into big business, and its pretty great to see the almost all the gag land, thanks in no small part to the much more committed performances. Senator Al Franken’s turn as Lex Luthor is a particular highlight for me, since it’s hilarious, marks Franken playing his second Superman character in two decades, and is probably the only time an elected politician has willingly dressed like a supervillain in public. The only real drawback here is the overly-long amount of time given to that week’s host, Sinbad, who let’s be honest, is a national treasure and can normally do no wrong.

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Clark Kent
Date: March 18, 2000
Host: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Of all the sketches on our list, this here’s my favorite. For one, I’m pretty sure it shows off The Rock’s comedic talent slightly before the rest of the world was on board with the ultra-charismatic Samoan. Second, and more importantly, it spawns from an upped ante at something… I’ll just go ahead and dub “post modern superhero humor.” It’s okay, I just cringed too.

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Yes: we’re all aware of how stupid it is for no one to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman. But the sketch takes a rather clever spin on that notion, highlighting Clark as the moron here, not the people of Metropolis. Chris Parnell, Molly Shannon and Jimmy Fallon play Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, laughing at the ruse Clark thinks he’s pulling successfully on the world, and takes it to a wonderful, revelatory extreme. Hell, even the tights popping out of Rock’s suit make me giggle.

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Moleculo: The Molecular Man
Date: March 10, 2001
Host: Conan O’Brien

There’s fewer people I love more in the universe than Conan O’Brien. And given his history as a writer on SNL, and that his Late Night digs were located just downstairs from SNL’s 30 Rock HQ, it’s a wonder the guy didn’t host SNL more than once. Either way, once he finally did, it was a truly splendid affair indeed. As you might expect, Conan’s unwavering commitment to silliness knows no bounds, so there are many reasons to love this episode and Meleculo: The Molecular Man is certainly up there.

What probably sounds on paper (or in HTML) like a one-note joke involving a a superhero who can’t stop himself from screaming a catchphrase, is actually a wonderfully surreal bit of absurdist humor , and it’s one that requires a live studio audience and a television audience to fire on all cylinders. (The scream doesn’t work without the zoom!) That’s a venue few places other than SNL can offer, plus the spirit of the whole piece feels very much within Conan’s wheelhouse.

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Superman’s Fortress of Solitude
Date: December 8, 2001
Host: Hugh Jackman

Jackman plays the Man of Steel, and unlike some of the other SNL superhero sketches above, the silence is intentional. Pretty appropriate for this intentionally awkward bit featuring Will Ferrell and May Rudolph as The Els. Pretty funny, and a painfully accurate reminder that talking to your parents is terrible. Even when they’re dead.

Click to Watch (Sorry, no embed)

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James and Willam Dafoe (Spider-man 2 parody)
Date: September 8, 2008
Host: James Franco

Here’s one of those sketches almost lost to time. But that’s what happens when a sketch airs in the 12:50 spot. Half the viewing audience is asleep, and it frequently gets cut out of syndication. However, that faithless slotting is also home to occasionally brilliant weirdness, or non-traditional, and not catchphrasey enough to air before Weekend Update. But this little riff on Spider-man 2 is actually quite divine.

I’m very happy we played this on the podcast, because you can’t really tell just how great Bill Hader’s Willam Dafoe impression is when you’re looking at him. There’s no make up in the world that could convincingly turn Hader into a heroin-addicted skeleton during the time between commercials, so it’s oddly distracting, and honestly looks a lot more like Al Pacino. Hearing the impression, however, shows you how fucking great it actually is, as Hader and James Franco reenact the mirror scene from Spider-Man 2.

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The Ambiguously Gay Duo
Date: May 14, 2011
Host: Ed Helms

Here’s a little history: The Ambiguously Gay Duo began on The Dana Carvey Show, Carvey’s short-lived primetime ABC sketch show, and Ace and Gary were brought to life by relatively unknown cast members, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, as written by Robert Smigel. Following Carvey Show’s swift and unjust cancellation, Ace and Gary then graduated to SNL as part of Smigel’s Saturday TV Funhouse, and has unarguably overtaken Mr. fucking Bill as SNL’s most famous animated creation.

I chose the above video to highlight since it’s pretty goddamned special and acts like a series finale for AGD, as they’ve never appeared since. The live-action send off cast Jimmy Fallon and Jon Hamm playing Ace and Gary, as well as Colbert and Carell IRL. There are certainly funnier Ambiguously Gay Duo moments out there, but at least we now know to never ask for that Ace and Gary movie again.

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The Avengers
Date: November 17, 2012
Host: Jeremy Renner

I’m sure we all assume an Avengers parody is a no brainer, and words regarding Earth’s Mightiest Heroes probably flow to the page like rivers to a sea. However, I don’t envy the poor union asshole who has to stage such a thing on a live TV sound stage with on a minuscule budget with three days notice. That’s important to mention because once you know a little more about SNL’s process, this Avengers sketch is infinitely more enjoyable.

Renner half asses his way through what basically amounts to a vessel for a ceaseless wave of “Hawkeye is lame” jokes, but I genuinely love the staging of the sketch. Note how they make it appear that Sudeikis’ Iron Man flies out of frame, and have the Bobby Moynihan’s Hulk battle midget Chitarui for scale. Other than those throwaway sight gags, the piece is pretty underwhelming and you can probably see why your Avengers lovin’ buddies never bothered to share it with you.

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Spider-Man’s Kiss
Date: May 9, 2014
Host: Andrew Garfield

If you’ve gotten this far in the article, I can only assume you’re a dork like me. I can also assume, like me, you have a lot of pent up anger at Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man movies, so I’m in no mood to find this sketch amusing. And thanks to recent events, heaping shit on it feels like speaking ill of the dead. It isn’t even about Spider-man anyway, and little more than an excuse to have a celebrity couple tongue twist for five minutes… I actually kinda feel bad for Garfield and Stone now.

But what say you?! And please, let me know if there are any SNL superhero sketches I missed in the comments below and I’ll update the article.

8 thoughts on “The Best Saturday Night Live Superhero Sketches

  1. thanks for putting this together Chris, always loved that Rock and Moleculo sketches had not seen any of the others so this is great.

  2. *Sighs* Sadly, it seems that even for older footage, SNL REALLY hates any country that isn’t the US, and refuses to let me watch any of the clips ):

    Well, save the Moleculo sketch, which was pretty enjoyable XD

    1. Well, you can try one of those browser addons that emulate a different country. I’m using Chrome and Hola Unblocker (which can also use different servers if the first one doesn’t work on the video).

      However, that alone can’t save Hulu from being shit. The James Franco Spiderman clip above shows me the right thumbnail, bit plays another sketch that is a “Hulu Preview” and therefore doesn’t even play to the end. That is also funny but in a sad way.

      Well, here’s a sequel to the sketch to make up for it:
      http://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/James-Franco-Bill-Hader-Mock-Spider-Man-Funny-Die-8959039

      Loved Conan as Moleculo. I can’t figure it out why his newer stuff isn’t as fun to watch, even with good writers on board.

  3. This is great and couldn’t believe the number of clips! My cat broke his leg, so I was at the vets office watching this while they did X-rays. When the vet walked in, she gave me a look of horror because I was smiling while my cat was in pain. Wanted to explain but ended up just letting it be. Thanks for taking my mind off my 200 dollar vet bill and my cat Bella Lugosi is doing great due to the painkillers they gave him. He is currently meowing the lyrics to Ina gada davita. Thats a good sign right?

  4. I think your comments on the What If superhero sketch (and dislike of the framing talkshow format) sort of misses the cutting edge aspect of what SNL was doing. In those early seasons they did a lot of daring sketches with a lot of scene changes mid-sketch, content, and loads of ideas. These days, sketches (although i like them) are usually a single scene on a single theme. I’d love if they went back to framing devices like this, requiring costume changes, multiple sets, etc. Feels riskier, even if some of the elements end up falling flatter (What If) than others.

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