She may not be the most lauded, but the simple fact is that Maya Rudolph is one of the greatest cast members ever to star on Saturday Night Live. Her run as a main cast member ran from 2000 to 2007, she has returned to host in 2012 and 2021, and has appeared as a guest countless times. She's one of the show's great success stories, having parlayed her sketch work into roles on TV and movies, and this week she stars in the new Apple TV+ comedy Loot.
Rudolph's roots are in SNL, though, and looking back at her years on the show, a number of indelible characters emerge. Her specialty was in larger than life figures — which is why she was so adept at impersonating the likes of Oprah, Whitney, and Beyoncé — and in characters who she was able to find through her prodigiously adaptable vocal patterns. Whether they were oft-recurring roles or one-sketch wonders, these ten characters represent the very apex of Rudolph's years on the show.
9 appearances, 2000-2014
Having a performer who can impersonate one of the biggest media personalities in the world is a great weapon to have in your arsenal, and that's exactly what SNL had in Maya Rudolph. Her version of Oprah was a fist-pumping, gift-giving, celebrity-name-dropping media mogul given to sending her audiences into frenzies. Rudolph nailed the shouty cadence that Oprah would use to hype up everything from Julia Roberts to Ugg boots, as well as the mom-dance dorkiness that made her to relatable to the American TV audience.
Brittanica from Gemini's Twin
6 appearances, 2000-2002
SNL's earlist attempt to respond to the Beyoncé cultural moment came with Gemini's Twin, their take on Destiny's Child during their early-aughts years when they were one of many girl-pop groups on MTV. In the recurring sketch, Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer would team up with a revolving door of guest hosts as the third member of the group as they'd host TRL or be featured on an episode of Cribs. Gasteyer and Rudolph would lean hard on the hip-hop slang, overdo it on attitude, and attempt to harmonize every chance they got, skewering the pop climate of an era that would eventually produce Girls5Eva.
Megan from Wake Up, Wakefield
10 appearances, 2001-2006
One of SNL's sweetest recurring sketches was "Wake Up, Wakefield!" a high school morning-news program hosted by the dorky but gallant Sheldon (Rachel Dratch) and the innocently boy-crazy Megan (Rudolph). The sketches featured pubescent teens at their most awkward, and Rudolph created an especially uncanny teen voice for Megan, trying so hard to be prepossessed but forever falling into the rut of her unbreakable crush on Randy Goldman.
13 appearances, 2001-2007
One of Rudolph's earliest recurring impersonations was also one of her most indelible, playing the Italian fashion maven Donatella Versace as a chain-smoking, domineering, and terminally unimpressed icon. Whatever public persona that Donatella may have been able to forge on her own was immediately usurped in the popular culture by Rudolph's larger-than-life version of her, indulging in her extravagant Euro fashion lifestyle and bellowing "GET OOOOUUUT."
12 appearances, 2002-2011
There's a twinge of sadness looking back at Rudolph's Whitney Houston impersonation as it chronicled the singer's troubled years when her main media presence was on Being Bobby Brown. But Rudolph's version of Whitney wasn't some vicious takedown. There was a loving edge to her impersonation, while still poking fun at Whitney's swings between regal comportment and her more chaotic life with Bobby.
11 appearances, 2004-2021
Ask anybody who's attempted to do Beyoncé on RuPaul's Drag Race Snatch Game: it is not easy to get laughs from being Quuen B. So Rudolph gets extra credit for being so consistently funny in her impersonation, nailing Beyoncé's statuesque posture, her soft-spoken authority, and, especially in her later years, her fearsome pop persona. The chracter began as a sidekick on "The Prince Show," but Rudolph's impersonation evolved with Beyoncé's public image, from the birth of Blue Ivy to an imagined recent appearance on "Hot Ones."
1 appearance, 2006
This character only appeared once, but that was all Maya Rudolph needed to be enshrined in SNL history with one of the funniest sketches ever. The "national anthem singer put too much pepper in the sauce" was not exactly a novel concept, but the commitment and creativity Rudolph put into every single riff and run in her performance made it art.
Jodi Dietz from Bronx Beat
9 appearances, 2007-2015
It's insane to think that the very first "Bronx Beat" sketch didn't happen until Maya Rudolph's final year as a regular cast member. The sketch — in which Rudolph and Amy Poehler star as outer-borough neighbors Jodi and Betty who host a talk show despite the fact that they're both entirely too exasperated — aired five times in 2007, plus an additional three in the years after Rudolph left the show. And it's easy to see why, given the seemingly bottomless well of material that Poehler and Rudolph could spin out of mundane small talk. It's some of the best and quickest comedy of that SNL era, and their interplay with the given episodes' host is unmatched, though never better than with a flustered Jake Gyllenhaal.
1 appearance, 2012
The great Mandala theory of Saturday Night Live is misremembering that Maya Angelou was a recurring character for Maya Rudolph, who only played the renowned poet once, when she came back to host the show in 2012. But that one performance was indelible, as Rudolph's Angelou played pranks on the likes of Stephen King and Morgan Freeman, her regal delivery helping to cushion the blow of her whimsical japes at their expense. Enjoy this deliriously silly sketch once more and then have some pizzas delivered to Jonathan Franzen's house.
1 appearance, 2012
There isn't much to the character of Shonda, one of a pair of spokesmodels (along with Kristen Wiig's Vonda) in this absurd game-show sketch whose concept is a mystery but which devolves into utter chaos as they show off the prizes. As Wiig and Rudolph increasingly lose their composure, the prizes are as mundane as ever (gold clubs, luggage, a mantle clock) but between their unplaceable accents and everybody but Vanessa Bayer losing it, the sketch goes off the rails in the best way. Rudolph eventually has to dodge a runaway golf cart while staying (more or less) on script, and it's glorious chaos and one of Rudolph's most memorable SNL moments.
Maya Rudolph's new Apple TV+ series Loot premieres this Friday, June 24.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.