12 SNL Sketches That Were So Funny The Cast Broke Character

Sometimes "Saturday Night Live" is so funny that even the cast can't keep it together. They're trying with every fiber in their body not to laugh. Then it happens. The cast breaks character. One of them bursts into laughter, shattering the facade of their fictional scenario in a perfect embodiment of the joy of sketch comedy and the spontaneity of live television.

Sketches in which the cast breaks character are among the most iconic moments in the nearly five-decade history of "SNL." The occurrence is such a signature of the show that it gained its own musical tribute, performed by Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg during the show's 40th-anniversary gala. In that song, Sandler and Samberg mention there are multiple reasons one might break character: Either the sketch is killing (going well), or bombing (doing terribly). If the former, the actors' guards are down, and they are caught up in the comedy the same as the audience. If the latter, breaking might be more of an intentional choice, a last-ditch effort to save the sketch. Sandler and Samberg sarcastically add that Lorne Michaels, creator of "SNL," loves it when the cast breaks character.

Across the show's 48 seasons thus far, there are many sketches in which a cast member broke character. Below are 12 you should check out if you need a laugh. Some of them are classics that I'd be remiss to exclude. Others aren't as famously remembered but just as hilarious.

From the beginning, breaking character was an SNL tradition

Even in early seasons, "SNL" cast members occasionally laughed mid-performance. During "Extremely Stupid," a sketch from Season 2 in 1976, Candice Bergen plays Fern, a woman who helps her friend, Lisa (Gilda Radner), televise "a paid message from the right to extreme stupidity league." Lisa isn't the brightest, but the language used when others talk about her is the point. She wants to encourage the general public to be kinder in describing stupid people.

As Radner pours milk into her purse, Bergen asks, "You're not too bright, are you, Fern?" She immediately clocks her mistake. She's gotten their names mixed up, quickly adding, "Or whatever your name was." That was all she wrote. Poor Miss Bergen leans her head into her palm and laughs, her body shaking uncontrollably.

As scripted, Radner looks directly into the camera and says, "We all can't be brainy like Fern here." Before the audience's eyes, the tables turn on the characters' personas, making the line all the funnier. Bergen is supposed to be the smart one! Radner's fantastic delivery capitalizes on the moment with poised self-awareness — not once breaking.

Tales from New Orleans took out James McAvoy

In "New Orleans Vacation," a 2019 sketch from Season 44, Deidre (Heidi Gardner) and Reynold (James McAvoy) have just returned from the Big Easy. Their trip seems to have transformed their personalities. "We just got back from 'Nawlins,'" Gardner announces to the table, pronouncing "New Orleans" with a drawl. McAvoy adds, "You know, movin' like a gator down Bourbon Street." Their characters' friends aren't amused, but that doesn't stop Deidre and Reynolds from spinning a yarn about their visit, filled with many incorrect fun facts about the city.

After Gardner says, "Even the mosquitos, they sashay through the New Orleans air," McAvoy ever so slightly shows a trace of oncoming laughter. As Gardner continues rattling off details of their trip, McAvoy puts his pointer finger on his nose and appears to bite the inside of his mouth in a subtle attempt not to laugh. By the time Gardner speaks of the "voodoo priestess," McAvoy has all but given up, openly smiling and turning his head away.

McAvoy regains composure, but not for long. He scratches his face a few minutes later and starts giggling again. The audience roars with laughter while the rest of the cast — Melissa Villaseñor, Kenan Thompson, Aidy Bryant, and Beck Bennett — impressively keep it together. Gardner seems to glance knowingly at McAvoy, but she never completely breaks. McAvoy's voice cracks as he hopelessly utters one of his final lines: "That's authentic Nawlins magic, baby." Indeed it is.

John Mulaney constantly tried to make Bill Hader break as Stefon

The cast and crew create "SNL" from scratch each week, so there's not a ton of time for the actors to memorize lines. Writers also frequently revise sketches, sometimes until moments before they air. To help keep things on track, actors read from cue cards during the broadcast. Former "SNL" writer John Mulaney leveraged this as he developed "Weekend Update" appearances for Stefon, a Bill Hader character with tips for tourists visiting New York. Mulaney frequently added new Stefon jokes to the cue cards between the dress rehearsal and the live show. This meant Hader read the lines for the first time live on air and often broke character doing so.

It's difficult to point to one specific moment that shines above the rest, as this bit became a core part of Stefon's character. Hader laughed in nearly every Stefon appearance and so frequently within each that it's hard to tell which jokes adhered to this principle. Hader laughed a lot as Stefon, usually when describing qualities of whatever he considered "New York's hottest club" — like, for example, "a shaved lion that looks like Mario Vitale" or "the outdoor concert from a Zoloft commercial." Stefon covering his face with his hands doubled as both a personality quirk for the character and a way for Hader to hide his ear-to-ear smile.

Lisa from Temecula was too much for Pedro Pascal

Sometimes laughter is contagious, and there's nothing you can do to hold it in — even if you're on live television. Ego Nwodim had Pedro Pascal and other castmates in stitches as she portrayed "Lisa from Temecula." The sketch aired in 2023 during Season 48.

Lisa orders her steak extra well done. As she cuts her meat, the entire table shakes uncontrollably. The premise is hilarious — too hilarious. Nwodim's skilled performance, paired with the outlandish effect of the table, makes for a sketch that almost no one made it through with a straight face. Pascal is the first to break, heartily laughing as Nwodim as Lisa takes to her steak. Unluckily for Pascal, he has a lengthy bit of dialogue to get through before he's free to crack up, but he allows himself to pause and laugh multiple times.

As the sketch continues, Lisa's steak-cutting technique sends food sliding and wine spilling all over the table. As Pascal giggles, others join him. Bowen Yang, Punkie Johnson, Devon Walker, and Nwodim herself all laugh along with the audience as events transpire. Molly Kearney is the only actor not to break, keeping a stern face while Lisa's chaos unfolds. It's as classic as they come, a modern "SNL" tour de force.

Kate McKinnon's alien encounter broke Ryan Gosling

It's one thing for comedy to connect with an audience. It's another to distill the essence of what makes a sketch work and evolve it in a way that is funny a second time and doesn't just repeat the same schtick.

Kate McKinnon debuted Ms. Rafferty in the 2015 sketch "Close Encounter." Following an alien abduction, FBI agents (Aidy Bryant and Bobby Moynihan) interview Ms. Rafferty and two other civilians (Cecily Strong and Ryan Gosling). Strong and Gosling's characters have experienced an ethereal, life-changing encounter with aliens. Ms. Rafferty's time went a little differently.

Slouched back in her chair, legs spread apart, and cigarette in hand, McKinnon as Ms. Rafferty shares her version of things — raunchy, crude, and hysterical. Bryant is the first to break, trying not to laugh while McKinnon talks. Gosling is down for the count not soon after, at first just smiling but later shaking with laughter. It's one of those magical "SNL" moments.

The crew boldly tried to recreate the sketch several times and impressively almost always succeeded. After that 2015 Gosling sketch, writers heightened Ms. Rafferty's tall tales and physical demonstrations to be more absurd, resulting in the guest almost always breaking. Ms. Rafferty evolved into one of McKinnon's signature characters. During McKinnon's final episode as an "SNL" cast member in 2022, Ms. Rafferty finally joined the aliens for good.

Cast members rarely made it through The Californians without laughing

Actors constantly broke character during "The Californians," a recurring soap opera parody sketch. The cast performed "The Californians" semi-regularly from 2012-2013, reviving it for the 40th-anniversary show in 2015 and again when Bill Hader hosted an episode in 2018. Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, and Hader almost always laughed at their characters' faux-surfer voices and soap opera antics — usually as one of their characters gave a long-winded explanation of where they had just come from and the roads they just drove to get home.

This was true from the very beginning. The "SNL" social team rarely uploads rehearsal footage on the show's YouTube channel, but the dress rehearsal of the first "Californians" was so funny they had to share it. With his newly minted California voice, Fred Armisen says, "I skipped Wilshire and took Beverly over to Santa Monica and then took that all the way up." That was all it took. Bill Hader was in hysterics from that point forward, bringing Wiig and Armisen along with him. It was the first performance of "The Californians" in front of a live audience, a glorious moment made all the more iconic by the cast's laughter.

Chris Farley crushed it

In the Season 18 sketch "Van Down by the River," two parents (Julia Sweeney and Phil Hartman) have recently found drugs in their basement. Suspecting their teenagers (Christina Applegate and David Spade), they invite Matt Foley (Chris Farley), a motivational speaker, to knock some sense into their kids. The dad tells the children that Foley usually talks to "big groups."

Farley instantly engages the audience with his performance and, in the process, creates a famous "SNL" character. Spade frequently looks down to the floor as Farley rages. At one point, Farley falls on the coffee table, destroying it — a bit that was surely scripted, but the cast appears taken aback by it. From there, they do their best to make it through Farley's intense speech. As Foley yells at the kids, — warning them they'll' end up like him, living "in a van down by the river," if their drug use continues, Spade hangs on by a thread, and Applegate hides behind her hair.

Adam Driver committed to the bit as Pete Davidson's dad

In 2018's "Career Day," Adam Driver gives a performance perhaps more terrifying than Kylo Ren. Driver plays Abraham H. Parnassus, an oil baron who talks to his son's class during the school's career day. Parnassus takes his job very seriously. His life's ambition is to shame his weak enemy, H.R. Pickens.

Peter Davidson plays Parnassus' son, and he struggles early in the sketch. Calmly but intently, Driver, as Parnassus says, "Look at your father, boy." It's an impossible task. Davidson has to look Driver in the eyes while he speaks in a crazy voice and wears a kooky wig. Davidson doesn't stand a chance and can't help but smile.

Then Parnassus kicks things up a notch. To demonstrate crushing his enemies, Driver stabs a dead raven with a cane. Portraying students, Melissa Villaseñor and Ego Nwodim don't flinch, acting shocked as their characters would be. Others didn't fare so well. Aidy Bryant, as the teacher, smiles in the corner. Davidson convulses with laughter. He does his best to hide his face with a notebook — to no avail. He was weak, like H.R. Pickens.

Kristen Wiig never knew what to expect from Fred Armisen during Garth & Kat

Beginning in 2009, Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig frequently appeared on "Weekend Update" as singing duo Garth and Kat. Always wearing turtlenecks and vests, Garth and Kat performed what they promised were legitimate songs that seemed to be made up on the spot. Garth usually led, with Kat following behind. Their lyrics were nonsensical: "It was snowing again in all the different highways, but the mayor said, 'You guys better come around,' but I hope that marching does the trick." Armisen, as Garth, had half of an idea of what he might say but was perhaps semi-spontaneous in his turning of phrases. It was just as evident that Wiig, as Kat, had never heard these songs before but tried her best to keep up.

The formula was a guaranteed character-breaker every time. Each of Armisen's recitations was more illogical than the last, seemingly designed to make Wiig chuckle. His tactic nearly always worked, making Wiig break, which made Armisen himself break. Garth and Kat appeared 11 times on "SNL," most recently during the show's 40th-anniversary special in 2015.

Maimed Muppets broke Kenan Thompson and Keegan-Michael Key

An inventive sketch from Season 46 in 2021 asks, "What would security guards say to Statler and Waldorf, those old men who always heckle the Muppets from the theater balcony?" If this were an actual venue and a real show, security wouldn't tolerate the pair's rudeness. Kenan Thompson and Keegan-Michael Key portray security guards in a sketch that takes this premise to its inevitable, outlandish conclusions. Beck Bennett and Mikey Day voice the hecklers, who appear as puppets.

When Statler and Waldorf fail to heed security's polite requests not to taunt "this little dragon and his friends" (Kermit the Frog and the Muppets), things get ugly. Security approaches the geezers in the balcony, and Key beats Statler so badly his eyes turn purple as Waldorf shakes with fear. 

The premise is outrageous, especially imagining it happening within the otherwise G-rated antics of "The Muppet Show." It's all too much for Thompson, who can't help but smile at the aftermath of the brawl. He covers his mouth and tries not to laugh, with Key clocking his break and also trying to keep it together.

Jason Sudeikis sent pencils flying

In the recurring sketch "Scared Straight," Jason Sudeikis plays a police officer who questions three misbehaving boys, played by Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Bobby Moynihan. In a 2012 iteration of this sketch during Season 37, Sudeikis sits on top of a desk but seems to misjudge the amount of space he has. He unceremoniously plops down, rattling the desk enough to send the prop pencils careening to the floor. Sudeikis is fully aware of the blunder, grinning and stifling a laugh as he recites his next line, "How old are you three, anyway?" The scene cuts back to Hader, Samberg, and Moynihan — with all but Moynihan in stitches.

A curious detail from the moment seemingly indicates Sudeikis sat down that way on purpose. Just before he flounders onto the desk, Sudeikis' face betrays the smallest trace of a smile. Did he plan to try to make his castmates laugh? Was this smile a hint that he knew what was about to happen?

Debbie Downer's magical trip to Disney World

This is as good as it gets. Arguably the most famous instance of the "SNL" cast breaking character comes from this 2004 sketch featuring Debbie Downer at Disney World. Rachel Dratch portrays Debbie, nicknamed "Debbie Downer" because she brings down the mood of any conversation by mentioning something negative. As Debbie's family tries to enjoy a breakfast with Disney characters while on vacation, Debbie constantly interjects remarks about everything from Florida heat ("If this greenhouse effect keeps up, we'll all be living underwater") to the epidemic of feline aids ("It's the number-one killer of domestic cats").

Throughout the sketch, no one is safe from breaking character. By the time it's finished, everyone, including Dratch, is in tears. Dratch is perfectly cast, and her fellow actors in the scene find it impossible not to laugh. These include Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz, who had a reputation for frequently laughing when paired together. They reflected on the sketch when Sanz stopped by "The Tonight Show" in 2017. Sanz said he recommends the sketch when someone tells him they're sad. "If you're having a hard time or if you're depressed," Sanz says, "just watch that sketch. I promise you, you'll be happy. It's just unadulterated fun." Fallon concurs, "It's just pure joy."

Amazingly, the sketch was Debbie Downer's debut. The chaos that ensued from her first-ever appearance immediately signified the character as a hit and cemented Debbie's legacy among the "SNL" greats.