“Saturday Night Live hasn’t been funny in years” is perhaps the most frequently uttered platitude among the ever-growing generations of comedy snobs. Yet Saturday Night Live has been an American institution for over 40 years. Through good and bad years, the show has always been around to comment on the news of the day, showcase emerging musical talent, and offer up whatever beautiful nightmare Stefon has concocted for us. It’s also become a reliable farm system for the biggest stars in comedy.
Any show that runs for four decades is going to occasionally court controversy. Be it a surprisingly sharp political critique, a guest host or band the show can’t quite control, threats of cancellation, or good old fashioned backstage drama, Saturday Night Live has never been short on controversy. Here we break down the moments where the show may have gone a bit too far or lost its way. These are Saturday Night Live’s 15 Most Controversial Moments.
15. Chevy Chase Quits After One Season
Saturday Night Live has become such an American comedy institution that it’s difficult to fathom the idea that one cast member leaving could harm the show in any irreparable way. Indeed, it’s become an integral part of the show’s built in mechanism to constantly renew itself, like some sort of variety show version of Doctor Who. But when the show debuted in 1975, none of these rules existed, and the cast seemed as if they’d be more or less permanent fixtures.
The breakout star of the first season was, with very little question, Chevy Chase. A writer who was added to the cast relatively late in the game, Chase’s natural wise guy charm and willingness to sacrifice his personal health for the sake of a good pratfall made him a household name virtually overnight. His decision to leave early on during the show’s second season shocked audiences and alienated fellow cast members. How could a show endure without its biggest star? As it turns out, pretty well.
14. Martin Lawrence’s Bizarre, X-Rated Monologue
Martin Lawrence’s career seemed to be on an unstoppable upswing in 1994. The popular comedian was the star of his own highly successful sitcom Martin, and was only a year away from starring with future Suicide Squad lead Will Smith in Bad Boys, one of director Michael Bay’s more thoughtful, nuanced character pieces (that’s barely a joke). For an up and coming comedian, hosting Saturday Night Live was something of a coronation; a moment to fully bask in your success.
Why in the world Lawrence chose that moment in his career to push the envelope as hard as humanly possible is a genuine mystery. In a now infamous monologue, Lawrence went on a racy tirade about… well, let’s politely call it “feminine hygiene.” Even two decades later, it would be pretty dirty for anything not on HBO. Lawrence was banned from Saturday Night Live and, directly related or not, his career largely stalled afterward, eventually descending into the comedy purgatory that is the Big Momma’s House movies.
13. Lorne Michaels Quits
After five years of steering the show to incredible success, SNL’s creator/producer Lorne Michaels was approaching burn out. The soft-spoken Canadian was ready to try new things, like producing movies and other television projects. He had not planned on leaving Saturday Night Live in the lurch, however. Michaels intended the show to go on with at least some of the original cast and most of the behind the scenes players still in place, and his best writer (and future United States Senator!) Al Franken as the new showrunner. This was not to be; Franken had done a Weekend Update segment where he lambasted NBC President Fred Silverman for NBC’s then ratings failings, and Silverman refused to give the show over to him as a result. Michaels and Franken both left at the end of the 1979-1980 season, taking virtually all of the cast and crew with them.
The new showrunner was Jean Doumanian, who had the unenviable task of rebuilding the show from the ground up. It was an unmitigated disaster; the new cast was largely without talent, and the writing lost all of its signature end. The series was in real danger of being cancelled, only saved by an unknown 19-year-old featured player by the name of Eddie Murphy.
12. Louis CK’s Monologue About Child Molesters
For many stand up comedians, a laugh is not necessarily the most satisfying reaction. Indeed, for a certain breed, a groan or gasp followed by a laugh is the most rare of comedic gems. Nobody hunts for those bits of treasure with quite as much gusto as Louis CK. Through his masterpiece FX series Louie, CK mastered the art of marrying the highbrow with the lowbrow, more than happy to stage a harrowing indie drama one minute and an elaborate fart joke the next.
Hosting Saturday Night Live for the fourth time, CK decided he was going to test the limits of his uncomfortable brand of humor in front of the biggest crowd possible. The most stinging part of his monologue was a tangent about how child molesters, while morally repugnant and rightly put in jail, must really be on to something to risk so much. It was a bit that was absolutely meant to provoke, and very much did. There was no shortage of outrage the next day, and CK himself half-joked he probably wouldn’t be asked to host again (not to worry there, he’s hosting for a fifth time later this month).
11. Rage Against The Machine Get Kicked Out In The Middle Of A Show
It’s difficult to know if the producers of SNL were being too cute by half or completely, irresponsibly oblivious when they booked this show in 1996. The host for the show was billionaire Steve Forbes, who at the time was running to be the Republican candidate for President. The musical guest, Rage Against The Machine, were a rock band noted for their outspoken liberal political views, essentially calling for a revolution against people like Forbes.
As a form of protest against Forbes, the band adorned their amplifiers with upside down American flags as they readied to play their first song. Just before returning from commercial, SNL stagehands were able to remove the flags at the request of the incensed producers. Before they were able to play the customary second song, the band were ordered by NBC officials to vacate the building, and were permanently banned from the show.
10. Charles Rocket Curses On Air
Pretty much everyone involved with Saturday Night Live was on very thin ice in early 1981. Following the mass exile of the original cast and crew, the show was in a creative death spiral and ratings were dire. New producer Jean Doumanian seemingly had no idea what she was doing. Eddie Murphy was beginning to emerge as a genuine talent, but there was no guarantee that he was enough to save the show.
During a sketch parodying Dallas’ famous “Who Shot J.R.?” storyline, cast member Charles Rocket shocked everyone watching (and seemingly his fellow cast members) by deliberately uttering a word you are very much not allowed to say on television. NBC panicked and put the show on a month long hiatus to determine whether it was worth the trouble anymore. Rocket and a handful of other cast members were fired, as well as Doumanian herself. The show was handed over to veteran producer Dick Ebersol, who managed to keep it afloat until Lorne Michaels ultimately returned in 1985.
9. Andrew Dice Clay Hosts
Andrew Dice Clay is an idiot. He’s a cartoonish dullard who spouts hackneyed, misogynistic jokes and dresses like the world’s least intimidating biker. The question for most his career was if this idiocy was part of an intentionally ridiculous persona, or the genuine worldview of, well, a moron. At the height of his popularity in the late 80s, it didn’t really matter; millions of people were taking his sexist jokes at face value, and either loved “The Diceman” or despised him.
Clay was invited to host Saturday Night Live in 1990, and an unexpected media frenzy ensued. Lorne Michaels had to be part of very serious discussion panels on shows like Nightline, defending himself and explaining why SNL would give such a prestigious platform to such a seemingly hateful individual. Even the show’s cast was notably polarized: Nora Dunn refused to participate in the episode. Clay turned out to be a pretty lousy host, and the outrage eventually helped erode his career anyway, but it wouldn’t be the last time SNL courted controversy with an extremely polarizing host.
8. Punk Band Fear Stage A Riot
Fear really had no business being on Saturday Night Live. A highly influential hardcore punk band, they were never any sort of real commercial force, and SNL was not taking the sort of big chances on controversial guests as they had in their earlier heyday by 1981, when they were just desperately trying not to get cancelled. Original cast member John Belushi was a huge fan of the band and, after a deal for them to provide the soundtrack for a movie he was producing fell through, Belushi pulled some strings to get them on SNL as something of an apology.
What ensued was, quite frankly, chaos. The band had brought along a cabal of moshers (including Belushi himself) who wreaked havoc on the set. Frontman Lee Ving proclaimed “it’s great to be in New Jersey!” to lusty boos from the New York studio audience. Disregarding the rules of live television, the band decided to play long past their allotted timeslot, forcing the show to go to commercial and run them off the stage. They caused thousands of dollars of damage to the stage and were (obviously) permanently banned from the show. It was, without question, the most punk rock thing to ever happen on SNL.
7. Lorne Michaels Fires Almost The Entire 1985 Cast
After Jean Doumanian’s disastrous tenure as showrunner, Dick Ebersol steered the show for a few years, largely subsisting on Eddie Murphy’s sudden stardom. After the 1984 season, Ebersol was ready to move on, and to the surprise of many, Lorne Michaels was welcomed back into the fold by NBC. The show had become safe and stale, and the network was sure Michaels could reignite the spark that had been so elusive in his absence.
But it didn’t really work out that way the first year. The revamped cast was stacked with future stars (including Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.), but none of them really connected, and the series seemed to yet again be in peril. At the end of the season, Michaels made a desperate, last ditch effort to salvage the show: he fired all but three members of the cast. Only Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Weekend Update anchor Dennis Miller would survive to the 1986 season.
It turned out to be a genius move, as the 1986 season saw the additions of such SNL royalty as Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, and Kevin Nealon. It was the last time SNL was in any real peril of cancellation, all thanks to a brutal but necessary decision.
5. Chevy Chase and Bill Murray Get In A Fistfight Backstage
About a year after abruptly leaving the show and alienating more than a few of his fellow cast members, Chevy Chase became the first former cast member to return and host Saturday Night Live. If you think Chase returned with grace and humility, you probably don’t know much about Chevy Chase. His replacement on the show was a young man by the name of Bill Murray. Through reasoning that has never been made all that clear, Murray was more or less nominated by the rest of the cast to confront Chase over his arrogant, primadonna behavior. The argument between the two men became physical, though as Murray would recall years later, it was “a very Hollywood fight”: there was a scuffle, but no one was actually hurt.
4. Ashlee Simpson’s Lip Sync Meltdown
This should not come as a galloping shock to most people: lots of singers lip sync on television. When record companies are developing pop stars, “singing ability” is often surprisingly low on the check list of qualities they’re looking for. While icky, this in itself is not a huge scandal. What can be a bit more problematic is when something goes horribly wrong with the backing track, as happened to poor Ashlee Simpson in an infamous 2004 incident.
When Simpson and her band took the stage to perform their second song, the vocal track to the first song they had performed began playing. Simpson understandably panicked, giving up the illusion she was actually singing and performing a bizarre dance as her confused band continued playing and the show cut to commercial.
To her credit, after some rather lame attempts at explaining the rather obvious situation away, Simpson came clean and admitted her humiliation. It’s hard to fault Simpson too much, as she was never billed as the sort of once-in-a-lifetime talent as, say, Mariah Carey. Oh, wait.
4. Elvis Costello Goes Rogue
Elvis Costello was decidedly not lip syncing during his 1977 Saturday Night Live performance. Relatively unknown in America at that point, Costello and his band, The Attractions, were booked as a last minute replacement for The Sex Pistols. Both NBC and Costello’s record label intended for him to play his current single at the time, “Less Than Zero.” A few seconds into the song, Costello dramatically ordered his band to stop playing, told the audience “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here,” and launched into “Radio Radio,” a song criticizing the commercialization of the airwaves at the time.
This bit of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion may have earned Costello a ban from the show (which was lifted in 1989), but it also jumpstarted his career in the United States. It also turned out to be a tribute to one of Costello’s idols, Jimi Hendrix, who had pulled a similar stunt on a BBC show years earlier.
Appropriately, indie rock goddess St. Vincent paid homage to the moment on Conan in 2012, playing the first few seconds of “Radio Radio” before dramatically stopping her band, apologizing to the crowd, and playing her single “Cheerleader.”
3. Norm MacDonald Gets Fired
SNL luminary Tina Fey once said that Norm Macdonald was the last dangerous cast member. Indeed, it was difficult to ever predict what mischief Macdonald was going to get up to behind the Weekend Update desk in the mid-’90s. While comedians like Louis CK live for the “groan then laugh” audience reaction, Macdonald was more than happy to just get the groan. Ahead of his time in a lot of ways, Macdonald indulged in non-sequitur gags about Frank Stallone and David Haselhoff, as well as more cutting anti-jokes about the likes of Michael Jackson and, most infamously, OJ Simpson.
Macdonald unforgettably began the Weekend Update following Simpson’s acquittal with the line “Well, it is finally official: murder is legal in the state of California.” This incensed NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer (a personal friend of Simpson’s), who began a crusade to get Macdonald fired from the show. Ohlmeyer eventually managed to get him pushed out, much to Lorne Michaels’ rage. It was the last time Michaels would allow NBC to pressure him into a creative decision.
2. Donald Trump Hosts
In late 2015, the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States still felt largely like a punchline. The real estate mogul had threatened a career in politics numerous times over the years, always in an effort to promote whatever project he was currently pushing, such as his long running reality show The Apprentice. When he entered the presidential race in earnest in 2015, he was seen as a long shot for the White House, to put it charitably. What was much more concrete were the controversial things he had to say about immigrants, minorities, and women. Even more so than most presidential candidates, Trump was an extremely polarizing figure, even a year out from the election.
SNL’s invitation to let Trump host during this tempest was immediately met with harsh, widespread criticism. The show’s willingness to embrace Trump and play along with him in things like a silly spoof of a Drake video, while not directly engaging with his more controversial statements, led many to perceive this as SNL normalizing or dismissing some of his more offensive stances. The show’s credibility took a genuine hit in some circles.
1. Sinead O’Connor Tears Up A Photo Of The Pope
Sinead O’Connor likely had some idea that what she had planned was controversial. It’s unlikely she realized she was about to both derail and define her career. O’Connor appeared on SNL in 1992, performing an a capella version of Bob Marley’s “War.” At the end of her performance, O’Connor lifted a photo of the Pope to the camera, tore it to pieces, and told the audience to “fight the real enemy.” The studio went deathly silent as the show’s producers (who were unaware of what O’Connor had planned) scrambled to deal with the fallout. NBC received thousands of complaints, and the show would officially apologize for the performance the following week.
The incident effectively ended O’Connor’s career as a pop star. And while her protest was intentionally provocative, her intentions were good; she was trying to shed light on the sexual abuse scandal that was brewing inside the Catholic church. Ultimately, her only real crime was that she was protesting something that most people were still not fully aware of, and sadly wouldn’t be for many more years.
What controversial Saturday Night Live moment do you remember best? Let us know in the comments!