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Live from New York – SNL’s Best Hosts

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Hard to believe, but this weekend marks the start of the 37th season of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s seen good casts and bad casts, times of national relevance and times when it seemed out of sync. Through it all, the key ingredient that elevated an episode to brilliance was the host. Here’s a look at the best ones.

STEVE MARTIN

I’m not sure SNL would have survived beyond the first few years without Steve Martin as a frequent host, great as that early cast was. Martin’s popularity was phenomenal, and his appearances on the show were electric. He was one of the Wild and Crazy guys, Theodoric of York and, of course, King Tut.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

NBC would do well to pay this guy whatever it takes to keep him hosting an episode every season. He’s that good. Here’s a recording and film star who’s willing to dress like a cup of soup and an omelette and then just nail a sketch. That’s when he’s not doing a spot-on Robin Gibb impersonation, filling in as the musical guest and starring in digital shorts such asĀ  “D**K in a Box.”

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN

Walken is sublime when he hosts. In some sketches, such as “The Continental,” all you have to do is point the camera directly at him and let him work. My goodness – “Cowbell,” “The Census Taker,” “The Walken Family Reunion” – just amazing.

CANDICE BERGEN

Bergen set the perfect tone for the 1970s version of SNL. She was comfortable in her own skin, yet more than willing to be controversial. Most viewers remember her as the intrepid host of “Consumer Probe” opposite Dan Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway, and for the endearing way she dissolved into laughter during a sketch with Gilda Radner.

TOM HANKS

He actually could have been a cast member of the show, judging by the way he consistently commits to his characters in sketches. On SNL he’s gone from “Mr. Short Term Memory,” to parodies of stand-up comedians and nerds to doing a hilariously dumb version of himself in a “Jeopardy” sketch.

DANE COOK

Speaking of stand-up comics, the much maligned Dane Cook has given SNL a couple of jolts of needed energy in recent years. Cook’s absolute exuberance, plus his ability to turn the opening monologue into a comedy gem, earn him a spot on the List.

JOHN GOODMAN

Kind of an unsung hero of the show. Goodman was the perfect team player when he hosted, as well as when he appeared in cameo bits on other episodes. My favorite Goodman SNL sketches? His impersonations of Linda Tripp (during the 1990s Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal), of course, and his obnoxious businessman from the “Bill Brasky” sketches.

BUCK HENRY

Buck Henry was this absurd, intense, subversive force packaged in the body of a little guy with glasses. He didn’t have to do funny voices when he hosted SNL; he just delivered cutting, intelligent lines amid the craziness of skits such as John Belushi’s “Samurai” epics. For a while, it was customary for Henry to host the last show of the season. As for the last person on this List, it’s…

ALEC BALDWIN

He’s the King of All Hosts. Baldwin has headlined the show more than anyone else (this weekend’s opener is his 16th appearance as host), and he clearly loves it. His work in the “Canteen Boy” and “Schweddy Balls” sketches is classic, but I think I laughed just as hard at Baldwin’s crazy impression of Charles Nelson Reilly. Bravo, sir.

Enjoy the new season, everyone.