On October 11, 1975, a comedy sketch show called NBC’s Saturday Night started up to fill an otherwise rerun-filled time slot, led by a highly talented cast of comedians, such as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Michael O’Donoghue, Laraine Newman and George Coe. The creator, Lorne Michaels, seemed to have struck gold. Over the first few years, the show grew a decent audience, staying somewhat small but achieving a cult status of sorts. Though the name would need changing to Saturday Night Live, the sketch comedy show was well on its way to becoming one of the staples of weekend television across North America.
Over the years, especially early on, the backstage scene and antics of the Saturday Night Live cast and crew took on a life of its own. It was sex, drugs, rock and roll and constant fighting. Despite all that behind-the-scenes, the SNL stage became a springboard for comedians to turn into superstars. The cast would turn over quite a lot in its more than 40 years in existence, but fans have seen small time comedians become some of the world’s most famous celebrities.
In total, the show has had 145 cast members and countless writers. In fact, some of the funniest comedians in history have written for the show but never showed their face on stage. With all that history and all that hilarity, the backstage, behind-the-scenes stories have become legends and myths in the industry. Sure, some have become more legend than truth, but there are still plenty of good ones that really did happen. Here are 15 secrets you didn’t know about SNL (aka Saturday Night Live).
15. Worst Host? Bieber
It’s safe to say that Bill Hader is a Justin Bieber hater. When asked about who the worst host he ever encountered was, Hader quickly answered: Bieber. “I really didn’t enjoy having Justin Bieber around,” he said. “He’s the only one who lived up to the reputation. I think that’s the only time I felt that way in eight years.” When discussing what it was that drove him nuts, Hader said, “Justin Bieber showed up with like 20 guys. He had a guy holding a slice of pizza. A guy holding a diet coke… Going around stage, you’re trying to fight through all these people to get dressed.” That’s Bieber for ya.
14. Picking Up Pieces Of The Pope
In 1992, Sinead O’Connor, a singer who always had an axe to grind, decided to rip up a picture of the pope as she spoke/sang her song “War” live. The audience was half-shocked and half-dumfounded as they silently watched this weird display. Afterward, cast member David Spade, went on stage and put one of the scraps of the ripped picture into his pocket, not thinking about it. A few days later, it was learned that the ripped-up picture had been reconstructed and sold for $10,000. The studio blamed Spade, bringing him into the office and questioning him. But Spade was innocent. The image of the reconstructed picture was missing one single scrap of paper, the scrap that Spade had held onto. On the next week’s show, host Joe Pesci, presented the fully repaired Pope photo to the television audience.
13. Silverman Stabbed Al Franken In The Head
Back when Senator Al Franken was writing and performing for Saturday Night Live, he had a run-in with a young Sarah Silverman. Silverman doesn’t make any excuses for her actions when she tells the story, but says she was curious about his hair because he “had a really big Jewfro.” She continued, “In my mind, I just thought, I’m gonna stab this through his hair,” she said, talking about the super-sharp pencil in her hand. “But what everyone saw — because this is what happened — was I just went and stabbed him.” This assault caused the future senator to scream out, “Why?” Silverman said, “I would have answered that question but I couldn’t because I was laughing so hard and crying from laughing, which looked even crazier I think… And I somehow wasn’t asked back the next season.”
12. Aykroyd Slept With Lorne Michaels’ Wife
There’s a weird story that always seems to be swept under the rug about Dan Aykroyd and Rosie Shuster in the early years of SNL. The story goes that one of the show’s assistants, Paula Davis, was asked to go to Lorne Michaels’, the show creator’s, home. When she got there, she witnessed Aykroyd getting out of bed with Shuster. You see, Shuster and Michaels were married at the time. Aykroyd was supposedly dating cast member Laraine Newman. A few other of the cast members were dating and trading partners during this time too. Basically, it sounds like the whole troupe were a bunch of swingers.
11. Sandler and Farley Got Fired
For a good portion of SNL fans, both Adam Sandler and Chris Farley were the greatest comedians to ever go through there. Say what you will about Sandler’s recent work, the man is a comedy legend and to say otherwise is just stupid. Well, those two were a hit. Every time Sandler did a song sketch, it was a success, and Chris Farley stole every sketch he ever took part in. That’s why it was so strange to hear Sandler reveal that they didn’t quite leave the show to do their own thing– they were fired. “We kind of quit at the same time as being fired,” Sandler said. “It was the end of the run for us. The fact that me and [Farley] got fired? Who knows. We were on it for a few years, had our run, and everything happens for a reason. We kind of understood because we did our thing. It hurt a lot at the time because we were young and didn’t know where we were going, but it all worked out.”
10. Bob Odenkirk Created Matt Foley
Nowadays, Bob Odenkirk is best known for his character of Saul in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but he was a writer on Saturday Night Live for about five years in the late 80 and early 90s. He was also part of Second City in Chicago, where he met Chris Farley. In 1990, he created one of SNL‘s greatest characters, Matt Foley, the motivational speaker, a character acted to perfection by Farley. “I’ve written many things and many sketch shows,” said Odenkirk. “[Foley] was one that just came out the way it was done. And then Chris — and my little daughter asked me a few years ago, ‘Dad, what was your favorite thing in show business that you’ve ever done?’ And I thought about it for just a second, and I said doing that sketch. I don’t think she had seen it yet. The motivational speaker, Matt Foley, with Chris Farley every night at Second City. Him this far from your face, doing that character. Oh my God.”
9. Celeb Jeopardy Was Stolen From SCTV
When people think of the best all-time SNL sketches, many point to “Celebrity Jeopardy” with Norm Macdonald and Will Ferrell, playing Burt Reynolds and Alex Trebec, respectively. Unless you were an SCTV fan, a Canadian sketch comedy show, you probably thought that Macdonald, or maybe some other SNL writer created the bit, but that’s not the case. As Macdonald tells it, “I came up with the idea of Celebrity Jeopardy years ago by stealing it, note for note, from an SCTV classic, ‘Half-Wits.’ [Steve] Higgins and I co-wrote the first one years ago and I waited for Martin Short to host so I could ask permission to steal. He said that Eugene Levy had written the original. We received permission and beside Darrel and I, the talented Mr. Short played Jerry Lewis.”
8. The Debbie Downer Origin
Some people walk around this planet using the term “Debbie Downer” without ever wondering where it came from. Long time SNL cast member, Rachel Dratch, is the one behind both the idea and the character. Downer was an amazing recurring character on the sketch show, often interrupting happy social gatherings with depressing or awkward news and information. The inspiration for the character came to Dratch from a real-life Debbie Downer. “I was on a vacation,” Dratch said, “and there was this communal dining table and someone was like, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ and I said ‘New York,’ and then they said, ‘Were you there for 9/11?’ And everything just screeched to a grim halt. I didn’t think of it that second, but then a week later it just popped into my head, this character Debbie Downer. I wrote it with Paula Pell. I brought the idea to her and we were trying to write it and we set it in an office but it wasn’t really working, so we thought we needed to set it somewhere really happy and we put it in Disney World.”
7. Chevy Chase Fought Bill Murray
There aren’t a whole lot of people in the industry who have nice things to say about Chevy Chase, and many of the bad feelings stem from his days on SNL. Chase was one of the founding members and, truthfully, he was hugely important to the show. That’s why it was so crushing when he walked off the set after a few episodes in the second season and never came back. Bill Murray was brought on to essentially replace Chase. The cast hated Chase and would constantly badmouth him, infecting Murray at the same time. When Chase came back to the set, he and Murray got into it, at first trading insults and then getting physical. It all went down in John Belushi’s dressing room with Belushi in the middle, a sloppy comedian fist fight.
6. John Belushi The Misogynist
Many of the women on the SNL team spoke out against John Belushi’s treatment of them and other women back in the day, but times were different and he was a star, so no one cared. One of the most vocal was cast member Jane Curtain, who called Belushi a misogynist and was very critical of his actions. In one interview, Curtain talked about the uphill climb the women had to face on the show daily, “Their battles were constant. They were working against John, who said women are just fundamentally not funny,” she said. “So you’d go to a table read, and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice. He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces written by women.” Belushi apparently refused to do any sketches that a woman wrote. Remember, too, that Gilda Radner, the woman being held in the picture above, is probably the only reason that Belushi was hired, as it was she who lobbied to get him signed.
5. The Infamous Pee Jar
30 Rock fans will recognize this story as an episode in the Tina Fey written show. Turns out, it’s inspired by a real-life SNL story, as much of 30 Rock is. The story goes that some of the male writers at SNL, instead of going to the bathroom, would just pee in cups or jars in their offices, like Frank in 30 Rock. Fey discussed this in her book, saying “If you saw the piss jar and dared to ignore it and continue into the room, you were welcomed. Welcomed is too strong a word. You were… one of the guys? Nope, you know what? The more I think about it, I’m just projecting. It couldn’t have been a test, because they really didn’t give a f— whether you came in the room or not.”
4. Eddie Murphy Wouldn’t Diss Bill Cosby
When news broke that Eddie Murphy would finally return to SNL for the 40th anniversary show, all the writers were going crazy trying to write a sketch for the star that would slay the audience. The idea they came to was to have Murphy do a Bill Cosby impression as part of the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch. This would have been great because Murphy was known for doing Cosby impressions, the two men have had a bit of a feud and Cosby was hugely topical at the time, with all the accusations and sexual abuse scandals. Murphy was to appear in the sketch in a video daily double, acting as a bartender mixing drinks. Unfortunately for fans of funny stuff, Murphy declined the invite to do the sketch, as told by Norm Macdonald, “Eddie decides the laughs are not worth it. He will not kick a man when he is down… [He] is not like the rest of us. Eddie does not need the laughs. Eddie Murphy is the coolest, a rockstar even in a room with actual rockstars.”
3. Chevy Chase Slapped Cheri Oteri
Chevy Chase did a lot of crazy crap in his time with SNL, but he wasn’t fully banned from hosting the show until 1997. Apparently, the week of rehearsals were a nightmare with Chase. He would hurl insults at anyone who did things different than what he was used to, and tensions were high. This all spilled over late in the week when Chase slapped cast member Cheri Oteri, in the back of the head. Will Ferrell, who has witnessed the entire thing, stormed down to Lorne Michaels’ office and demanded something be done about the comedian. Michaels then questioned Chase, who said he did it “out of fun.” Though Chase was able to host the episode on February 15th, 1997, he was banned from hosting future episodes.
2. The Eddie Murphy Feud
It’s not exactly clear what all went on between Eddie Murphy and SNL, but the comedian who saved the show refused to come back to it for many years. This all escalated one night, when David Spade decided to take a shot at the comedian in his “Hollywood Minute” sketch. In the bit, Spade would make a quick jab at famous celebrities. Since Murphy had just released two films that flopped horribly, Harlem Nights and Vampire in Brooklyn, Spade thought it would be alright to make fun of Murphy’s failing career. In the bit, he simply said mentioned Murphy’s name and said, “Look, kids, a falling star! Quick, make a wish . . .” It seemed harmless, but Murphy was having none of it. He held onto a grudge against Spade for a while and against the show for much longer. It’s not the only reason he never came back, but the fact that the heads of SNL let them take a cheap shot at the guy who saved the show wasn’t looked on too kindly by Murphy.
1. Sarah Palin And The Sneaker Uppers
A “Sneaker Upper” is what the SNL cast call the real-life versions of the characters they impersonate. It stems from when a cast member is doing an impression of a person and then that person shows up, sneakering uppering on them and surprising them. Apparently, this happened more often than you would think. When someone does a quality impression and a sneaker upper shows up, they usually get what’s called a “two-shot,” a photograph with the impersonator and impersonated side by side. Well, one of Tina Fey’s best impressions was of the politician Sarah Palin. When Sarah Palin came to SNL to do a two-shot with Fey, it didn’t go as planned. Fey did the impression, but then the camera went backstage to show Palin standing beside Lorne Michaels watching a TV monitor of Fey doing the impression. Why was it done this way? Fey supposedly refused to do a two-shot with the politician because she didn’t want it to seem like she was endorsing her.