Saturday Night Live has been around for nearly 40 years, and the iconic sketch show has featured numerous hosts, musical guests and cast members in that time period. The show is known for counting the most popular comedians of the day among its regular cast and it’s a consistently popular formula but as with all irreverent comedy shows, controversy is never far behind.
Things haven’t always gone smoothly at 30 Rockefeller Plaza where the legendary comedy show is filmed. Since the show’s start in 1975, there have been plenty of controversial moments that have left audience members and home viewers – if the gaffes made it to air – in shock. Since the show is taped live, curse words have made it to air numerous times but were cut from later broadcasts. Most of the cases of cursing were slip-ups that were not really the fault of any of the performers, but sometimes they were musical acts refusing to self-censor their songs.
Indeed, some of the controversial incidents in the show’s history were so shocking that producer Lorne Michaels banned the perpetrators from ever returning to the show again – there are said to be 14 celebrities banned from appearing on Saturday Night Live following controversial transgressions. Elvis Costello is the only celebrity to have a Saturday Night Live ban lifted. Some of the shocking moments in the show’s history were politically motivated and some resulted in costly fines for the network. We’ve taken a look at the ten most shocking of these controversial moments in Saturday Night Live history.
10. Jenny Slate Drops the F-bomb
In 2009, Saturday Night Live added Jenny Slate to the cast as a featured player. During her first episode she performed in a sketch with the now legendary Kristen Wiig. She and Wiig played white trash biker women who would constantly use the word “frick.” Unfortunately for Slate she let the actual f-word slip from her tongue instead of the slightly more polite and semi-censored version. The flub was noticeable and bleeped from later broadcasts, but the damage was done. Slate lasted the entirety of the season, but the following year she was no longer a cast member.
9. Norm Macdonald Says SNL Sucks
Many consider Norm Macdonald to be the greatest news anchor in SNL Weekend Update history, but he was generally not liked by NBC head honcho of the time Don Ohlmeyer. Lorne Michaels was forced to fire Norm Macdonald as Weekend Update anchor because Ohlmeyer thought he was not funny. Many speculate the real reason was Macdonald’s constant jokes about O.J. Simpson, who was good friends with Ohlmeyer. Either way, he was let go from Weekend Update and didn’t last much longer as a cast member either. Surprisingly, Macdonald was asked back to host SNL just a year and a half later and the quick-witted Canuck made light of the situation during his monologue by saying the only reason he had been asked back was because the show had become terribly unfunny since he left.
8. Martin Lawrence’s Sexist Rant
Norm Macdonald’s monologue may have been shocking, but it was still aired in later broadcasts and was viewable on Netflix when SNL aired on the streaming service. Martin Lawrence’s entire monologue, on the other hand is nowhere to be found, and you’ll likely never see it in full unless you were lucky enough to tape it on VHS during its initial airing. Lawrence began by describing Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis. After that, he went into great detail about how women of the 90s failed to properly wash their genitals. This portion of the monologue was cut from subsequent airings and replaced by a message from SNL writer Jim Downey explaining how the rant almost got SNL crew members fired. Lawrence has since been banned from ever appearing on SNL.
7. Ashlee Simpson Caught Lip-syncing
Here’s proof it doesn’t pay to try and get away with not actually singing. During this 2004 episode, Simpson was set to perform ‘Autobiography’ as her second song of the night. However, an audio gaffe resulted in the music AND lyrics from her first song of the night, ‘Pieces of Me,’ being played. Simpson awkwardly did a hoedown and sauntered offstage. She later claimed the reason she lip-synced was because of acid reflux.
6. Don’t Tell Elvis Costello What to do
Costello was scheduled to play his song “Less Than Zero” during an episode of SNL in 1977. He and his group, The Attractions, started to play the song, but after a few seconds he decided to scrap that notion and instead he instructed the band to play “Radio, Radio.” The record company had not wanted Costello to play the song and Michaels was upset Costello went off queue and sang the song – which protests the media – even if the song switch up was completely harmless. Costello was banned from appearing on SNL ever again, but the ban has since been lifted. Costello went on to play the song “Radio, Radio” again, this time with the Beastie Boys, on SNL during the show’s 25th anniversary special.
5. Jimmy Fallon plays Scrooge as an effeminate homosexual
During this recent sketch, Jimmy Fallon played the younger version of Christmas Carol character Ebenezer Scrooge as an extremely flamboyant gay man. The ghost of Christmas past – played by Kenan Thompson – showed the elderly Scrooge, played by Taran Killam, a vision of his younger self: Jimmy Fallon lisping and speaking in a high voice and frolicking around in a foppish manner. The twittersphere blew up with viewers offended by Fallon’s clichéd performance of a gay man.
4. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic French kiss
During Nirvana’s performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992 everything went according to plan during the musical numbers, except for the band trashing their instruments after performing “Territorial Pissings.” The closing monologue was when things started to get really weird. While host Rob Morrow was thanking the cast and crew, Cobain and Novoselic decided to French Kiss each other, despite the fact neither was gay. They later said they did it just to ‘piss off the rednecks and homophobes’.
3. Chevy Chase says the n-word
If this had happened today it would have been much higher on the list, but the codes of political correctness hadn’t quite caught up to modern standards in the 70s. During the famous “racist word association interview” sketch, starring Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, the two characters shout increasingly offensive racial epithets at each other. Chase’s character is interviewing Pryor’s character for a janitorial position and the two try out some word association. It starts out innocently enough with words like fast, slow, tree and dog, but soon it’s nothing but racial slurs. There’s no way this racially charged SNL sketch would ever be allowed on air today.
2. Sinead O’Connor tears up the Pope’s picture
In late 1992, O’Connor appeared as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live and sang a cover version of Bob Marley’s hit “War.” She performed the song as an acapella, and at the end of the performance pulled out a picture of Pope John Paul II and tore it up. She did this to protest the way the Vatican handled the child abuse scandals of the time. It was reported that NBC received hundreds of complaint calls about the incident.
1. Punk band Fear completely trashes the SNL set
John Belushi wanted Fear to perform as musical guests during the 1981 season of SNL to compensate for the fact they were fired from being involved in the soundtrack for Belushi’s film Neighbors. NBC brass agreed to let the band perform during the Halloween episode, but little did they know the group and its mosh-pit loving fans would cause an estimated $20,000 worth of damage to the set and nearly instigate a riot. The band’s performance was cut short and the television feed dropped when things really started to get out of control as Fear started to play “Let’s Have a War.” Fear was banned from SNL and had trouble booking gigs following the disaster; promoters were afraid the band would trash their venues.