Saturday Night Live has been an integral part of America’s consciousness for over 40 years now. Other than The Simpsons, it’s hard to think of a show with not only an enduring legacy, but also an ability to constantly stay relevant. Sometimes this is accomplished by the creation of some new, unforgettable character like Stefon or the Target Lady. Other times the show is propelled by the undeniable raw talent of a performer, like Eddie Murphy or Kate McKinnon. Sometimes, however, the show stays in the public consciousness by causing controversy.
While there’s been plenty said about the backstage drama of SNL, what really matters at the end of the day is what appears onscreen; the sketches that savagely mock a political target or deliver a joke that goes well over the line of good taste. These are the things that stick in viewers’ minds, that start conversations with friends and co-workers, and ultimately keep the show vital. Saturday Night Live has long had the remarkable ability to strike a perfect balance in the edgy, controversial sketches meant to provoke by embedding some sort of undeniable truth at the heart of them, even if that truth makes the audience deeply uncomfortable. These are Saturday Night Live’s 15 Most Controversial Sketches.
Sometimes SNL gets in trouble largely by accident, but a lot of times they know exactly what they’re doing. The latter was definitely the case with “Guns,” an ad parody that borrows the familiar trappings of treacly, emotionally manipulative commercials to savagely mock America’s obsession with firearms. Highlights include a couple caressing each other’s faces with handguns, and parents gifting their newborn baby a tiny pistol.
The ad was an immediate lightning rod of outrage, which is undeniably what the show wanted. Host Amy Schumer had been an outspoken gun control advocate since two people were killed and nine injured by a gunman at a screening of her movie Trainwreck months earlier, and this felt like the host attempting to bring attention to the issue in the bluntest terms possible.
14. Leslie Jones’ “Slave Draft” Weekend Update Rant
There may be no SNL cast member more polarizing than Leslie Jones. Loud, brash, and sometimes uncomfortably honest, chances are good you either love her or hate her, with very little middle ground. Jones has become a reliable sketch performer, but really came into her own doing what was essentially her stand up material in Weekend Update segments.
One of the earliest Update spots for the future Ghostbusters star involved her lamenting how modern society viewed her, and that in the days of slavery she would have been essentially a breeding superstar, being the “number one draft pick” of plantation owners to give birth to future NBA players.
Needless to say, this caused an instant backlash as Jones attempted to navigate her newfound fame/infamy, and would ultimately lead to some absolutely reprehensible cyber attacks against her around the time of Ghostbusters’ release.
13. Heroin A.M.
SNL often finds itself courting controversy when it’s telling hard truths. That was the case with “Heroin A.M.” America is in the throes of an opioid epidemic that too many have turned a blind eye to. “Heroin A.M.” brought that epidemic into stark light by advertising the drug the same way companies would advertise allergy and sinus medication. Soccer coaches, working moms, and school bus drivers (including guest host Julia Louis-Dreyfus) grin and laugh as they explain why they need Heroin A.M. to physically and mentally survive their everyday routines.
It is a biting, unflinchingly honest joke premise about a very real problem that garnered incredibly polarizing responses; some people were instantly repelled by the trivialization of such a serious issue, while others found it to be a perfect encapsulation of the issue that likely led to some uncomfortable conversations around the country.
12. Uncle Roy
When one thinks of the most prominent SNL hosts of all time, such luminaries as Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, and John Goodman come to mind (it’s probably time to add Justin Timberlake to that list too). In the early days of the show, the most ubiquitous guest host was Buck Henry, a writer and actor who, even in that era, was not exactly a household name. Henry often functioned more like another member of the cast than as a guest host.
One of his most controversial characters was Uncle Roy, a babysitting uncle who had an unbelievably inappropriate relationship with his young nieces. The creepy sketch was controversial in its day, but it’s difficult to imagine it would ever come close to airing in modern times.
11. Canteen Boy
After enjoying an era of relatively smart, highbrow material in the late ’80s (the heyday of such SNL royalty as Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, and Jon Lovitz), SNL was aiming for shock value and toilet humor again by the early ’90s. The most outrageous of these attempts was likely “Canteen Boy.” Guest host Alec Baldwin played a scoutmaster who made clear, unwanted sexual advances toward Adam Sandler’s Canteen Boy– ostensibly an innocent adolescent– nuzzling the boy’s neck and taking his shirt off by the campfire.
NBC was inundated with complaints that the sketch was homophobic and trivialized pedophilia. Today the sketch lives on in a very strange no man’s land, where many people consider it an absolute classic, while others consider it to be the show at its very worst.
10. Rosetta Stone: Thai
“Rosetta Stone: Thai” starts as a fairly straight take on a Rosetta Stone ad, as people talk about why they’re using the product to learn a new language, such as trading recipes with foreign relatives or communicating better with co-workers. Things take a turn when Bill Hader’s creepy character says he’s learning Thai so he can go to Thailand to “do a thing.” What follows is a deeply uncomfortable line of gross men who are clearly learning Thai so that they can better communicate with underage male prostitutes when they travel to the country.
Thailand’s government was so outraged by the sketch that their culture minister demanded it be taken off the internet, arguing it damaged the country’s cultural image. It’s not often SNL garners international outrage, but this one certainly merited it.
9. Samurai Stockbroker
SNL sketches usually court controversy through a provocative premise, or a joke with a slightly meaner punchline than usual. But sometimes, they just screw stuff up. One of the most notable instances of this happened early in the show’s run. John Belushi’s Samurai was one of the show’s first breakout characters; a man who would carry out several different mundane occupations with his katana and scream in (fake) Japanese.
Guest host Buck Henry was generally the Samurai’s customer, and on one occasion Belushi accidentally struck Henry in the forehead with the katana. Henry would appear moments later in another sketch with a bandage on his head, as he was genuinely injured by the incident. In a show of twisted solidarity, the cast members would all sport bandages on their heads as the show went on.
8. Dick In A Box
Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg’s SNL musical collaborations have become such inescapable cultural touchstones that it’s hard to imagine there was ever any real controversy surrounding them. The ’90s R&B inspired music videos are some of the show’s most celebrated 21st century creations, and cemented Timberlake as one of the best, most versatile hosts the show has ever had.
While “Dick In A Box” may not have caused much of a public outcry, there was a major internal conflict over it. Timberlake and Samberg took the idea to show producer Lorne Michaels, who in no way understood the appeal and thought the concept was too crass. Michaels eventually relented, but pleaded with them to tone down some of the saltier language, as the sketch would, hilariously, air during that season’s Christmas episode.
7. Tiger Woods
You’d be hard pressed to think of a swifter fall from grace than the one endured by Tiger Woods in 2009. A golf superstar who had made the sport something approaching cool (though not quite cool), Woods was not only a dominant athlete, but a wholesome pitchman and a universally liked American sports icon in the vein of Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter. That all ended when Woods was revealed to have routinely cheated on his wife, Elin Nordegren, with multiple mistresses, effectively obliterating his wholesome reputation.
SNL’s angle on the incident involved the rumor that Woods’ recent car accident had involved his wife physically attacking him. The whole thing plays out as a lazy, boneheaded take on domestic abuse, and seemed to vilify Nordegren in an incredibly unfair way. It was SNL at is casually cruelest, and it wasn’t nearly funny enough to justify.
6. Father/Daughter Ad
Another ad parody that borrowed liberally from the tropes of commercials that tug at the heartstrings to sell a product, “Father/Daughter Ad” immediately sparked massive outrage. Clearly set up as a father sending his daughter off to college, Taran Killam’s father character tearfully drops off his daughter (played by host Dakota Johnson) at an airport, but instead of boarding a flight, the daughter jumps in pickup truck full of masked men holding machine guns: she’s joining ISIS. The father whispers “you take care of her” as the man in the truck whispers back “death to America.”
This is one where SNL clearly knew they were going to make people angry. It’s just about funny enough to justify the outrage, and was actually a savvy commentary on the real world phenomenon of young westerners joining up with terrorist groups.
5. Kellyanne Conway Fatal Attraction Sketch
It’s fair to say the Trump administration has been a gift that keeps on giving for SNL. Virtually everyone in Trump’s administration has been comedically eviscerated on the show, but other than Trump himself, SNL’s most consistent target has been White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Played with a sort of dead-eyed intensity by the legendary Kate McKinnon, the show portrayed her first as a long-suffering employee in over her head, and then as an amoral opportunist whose only real drive is to be on television a lot.
The apotheosis of the show’s take on Conway came in this Fatal Attraction spin, where Conway breaks into the house of CNN anchor Jake Tapper and attempts to violently seduce him after he wouldn’t book her on his show. As with most politically charged sketches, it caused more than a bit of outrage, and was seen by some as too mean-spirited toward Conway. But if you’re going to take a job in the White House, you should be ready for SNL to take its shots.
4. Governor David Paterson
There was plenty of ground for SNL to mock New York Governor David Paterson on political grounds; he became governor after his predecessor resigned amid a sex scandal, and Paterson didn’t exactly handle the transition smoothly. However, SNL’s take on Paterson was decidedly one note: he was blind. Portrayed by Fred Armisen during Weekend Update segments, he would look at the wrong camera or unknowingly walk into frame after his segment had ended, as anchor Seth Meyers attempted to move him out of the shot.
Paterson was understandably not happy with this portrayal, and many more people saw the sketch as an offensive stereotype of disabled people. Paterson would eventually come around on the sketch, as he would go on to appear on the show with Armisen, making essentially the same jokes at his own expense.
3. Nude Beach
You might expect a sketch called “Nude Beach” to have caused controversy with some kind of wardrobe malfunction, but no body parts were shown that weren’t supposed to be. The sketch (which aired in the comparatively innocent days of 1988) became notorious for the fact it utilized the word “penis” literally dozens of times. The nude beach friends discuss each other’s penises like they would chat about the weather or the news. It is an absolute barrage of “penis.”
The sketch turns from silly adolescent humor to something much smarter when Kevin Nealon turns to the camera, discussing the dissolution of NBC’s standards and practices department and lamenting the audience for giggling at a word they’re trying to treat like adults, while the other cast members sing a jaunty tune whose lyrics consist of nothing but, you guessed it, “penis.”
2. Word Association
One of the show’s first genuine controversies, “Word Association” was clearly intended to provoke. In the sketch, Chevy Chase plays a word association game during a job interview with guest host Richard Pryor. The routine starts innocently enough, but slowly escalates as the words Chase parrots to Pryor become more and more racially charged, climaxing when Chase spits the n-word at Pryor, before they both regain composure and continue the interview. The somewhat awkward conversation that takes place after the slur is the real punchline of the sketch.
It’s a startling clip to watch in 2017, as the language used is just simply not something that would be allowed on broadcast television today. Written by Pryor’s comedy cohort, Paul Mooney, it still stands as one of the boldest, most shocking jokes ever told on live television.
1. Djesus Uncrossed
If you’re looking to anger as many people as humanly possible in as little time as humanly possible, religion is probably your best friend. Saturday Night Live’s greatest (and most controversial) swing at a religious joke was definitely “Djesus Uncrossed,” a movie trailer spoof about Jesus’ resurrection, but reimagined as a bloody, violent Quentin Tarantino movie. The show had the good fortune of having guest host Christoph Waltz, a frequent Tarantino collaborator, play Jesus. References to Kill Bill and Django Unchained are plentiful, and the whole thing has a surprisingly sharp production quality.
It’s not only a wry commentary on the violence in religious stories, but also in the ever growing trend of wild, graphic violence in mainstream movies, which owes a not insignificant debt to Tarantino. The show clearly knew the sketch would anger a lot of people, but when the results are this good, they usually don’t care.
What do you think of these controversial sketches? Sound off in the comments!