You can never really control what will happen on live television, and Saturday Night Live has proven that time and time again. No matter how many times you read through lines or rehearse a set, there’s always room for the unpredictable. Which everyone from John Belushi to Sinead O’Connor know well.
Dropping F-bombs, destroying the stage, going off script, those are all par for the course on SNL, and they’re also a huge part of what’s made the sketch show unforgettable over the past 40 years. Take a break from watching VH1 Classic’s “SNL Rewind: 2015-1975 Mega Marathon,” and remember the 15 most shocking things to happen on Saturday Night Live.
Chevy Chase Conducts a Racist Word Association Game With Richard Pryor (Season 1, Episode 7)
SNL was unlike anything on television during its first season in 1975, so it’s fitting that what many consider its most shocking sketches happened during season one. Until SNL, television past 11 p.m. was basically nonexistent, and Johnny Carson himself wrote off the sketch show as crude. He wasn’t wrong, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t game-changing. Chevy Chase played a man interviewing Richard Pryor for a job, and they went into a word association game. Each question and answer grew more and more vulgar as the tension built. It’s a perfect example of how SNL found its voice and earned its rightful spot on TV.
John Belushi Cuts Buck Henry in “Samurai Stockbroker” (Season 2, Episode 6)John Belushi was an animal, on set and off. He was unpredictable and wild, but he was always a professional on stage. The sixth episode of the second season was Chevy Chase’s goodbye to the show, but more people remember Belushi’s Samurai Futaba sketch with host Buck Henry. Belushi swung his katana wildly to cut through a wall and accidentally cut Buck Henry on the forehead. Henry took it in stride, and wouldn’t let Lorne Michaels cut the sketch short. Through the rest of the show, Henry wore a bandage on his head, as did other cast members in solidarity, proving that anything can happen live.
Elvis Costello Plays “Radio Radio” Against Lorne Michaels’ Wishes (Season 3, Episode 8)People just can’t tell Elvis Costello what to do, he’s an artist. When he appeared on SNL, he wanted to play “Radio Radio” but his record company insisted he played “Less Than Zero” to hype up his new album, which wasn’t released in the U.S. yet. He played nice and played “Less Than Zero” all through the dress rehearsal. However, during the live show, he played the song for 10 seconds before cutting it off and saying, “I’m sorry there’s no reason for us to be playing this here,” and went into “Radio Radio” instead. Lorne Michaels, not a fan of surprises from guests, banned Costello from the show. That is, until the Beastie Boys were on and played the first few seconds of “Sabotage,” and Costello came out to play “Radio Radio” again.
Check out a full episode from a Saturday Night Live veteran who knows all about stirring it up, Alec Baldwin:
Fear Performs Offensive Songs as Their Dancers Wreck the Stage (Season 7, Episode 4)Hindsight is 20/20, but maybe when a guy like John Belushi asks to have his buddies perform on stage, you should try to meet them first. Belushi originally wanted Fear to make the soundtrack for his film Neighbors, but they were dropped. To make up for it, he got them the SNL gig. On stage, they received boos by exclaiming, “It’s great to be in New Jersey,” before playing “I Don’t Care About You,” “Beef Bologna,” and “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” straight through. Once they began to play their fourth song, “Let’s Have a War,” they were cut and the program quickly switched to commercials. Oh, and they also had a mosh pit on stage, John Belushi included, which caused $20,000 worth of damages.
Sinéad O’Connor Rips Up a Photo of Pope John Paul II (Season 18, Episode 2)If you hear the name Sinead O’Connor, the first thought that comes to mind is probably her infamous SNL performance. Likewise, if you think of a shocking SNL moment, you think of Sinead. The two go hand-in-hand. During O’Connor’s second song, she sang “Fight the real enemy,” and tore Pope John Paul II’s picture in half. It shocked viewers, and outraged many. Lorne Michaels ordered not to light up the “Applause” sign at the end of the performance, and she went out in silence until the lights faded. Her career suffered immensely from the act, but if it happened today, would it be the same? Free speech is more important than ever, and the Irish singer allegedly ripped the photo of the Pope in half to draw attention to the physical and sexual abuse in Catholic schools.
Cypress Hill Smokes Joint and Destroys Stage (Season 19, Episode 2)It seems obvious now, but of course Cypress Hill would pull a stunt like their appearance on SNL. They joined the list of SNL’s banned performers when DJ Muggs lit up a joint on stage and said, “Yo, New York City, they said I couldn’t light my joint, you know what I’m saying? Well, we ain’t going out like that!” After performing “I Ain’t Going Out Like That,” they trashed their instruments and the set. Seriously, Lorne, what did you expect from a group with songs like “I Wanna Get High, “Hits From The Bong,” and “Legalize It”?
Martin Lawrence Delivers a Sexist Monologue (Season 19, Episode 14)
Martin Lawrence is a comedian who, apparently, won’t go down without a fight, and he’s willing to take everyone with him. During his monologue, he went off his script and explained that the censors were coming down on him hard, and went on to discuss Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who cut her husband’s penis off, and how women don’t know how to wash downstairs. Reruns of the episode cut the monologue, but inserted a slide that explained what he discussed and how it almost cost numerous people at SNL their jobs. Unsurprisingly, Lawrence has never been asked back to Studio 8H.
Ashlee Simpson Gets Caught Lip-Syncing (Season 30, Episode 3)The cringe-factor of Ashlee Simpson’s appearance is strong. Like, level 100 in terms of secondhand embarrassment. It’s well known that pop artists sometimes lip sync their performances, especially when there’s a lot of heavy dancing going on, or their exhausted from touring. It’s not a big deal, as long as it’s not obvious, right? Ashlee’s first performance, “Pieces of Me,” went well, but during her second set, when she was supposed to perform “Autobiography,” the vocals for “Pieces of Me” started to play, when the microphone wasn’t anywhere near her face. The cherry on top of the cake was, when she realized this was bad, she did an awkward Irish jig off stage. Ugh, it’s painful to even talk about.
Lorne Michaels Apologizes For Skit Saying Bank Owners “Should Be Shot” (Season 34, Episode 4)Oops. It’s hard to be perfect in a world where everything is covered by the media. Case in point: a sketch featuring a couple, Herb and Marion Sandler, who built and sold Golden West Financial and made a cool $24 billion. Underneath the characters was a graphic that read, “People who should be shot.” Except, Lorne Michaels didn’t realize that they were real people and not made up characters. Lorne humbly apologized for what some people could consider a threat, and blamed his ignorance on the issue.
Fred Armisen Insults the Blind as Governor Paterson (Season 34, Episode 11)
The SNL cast and writers are no strangers to making fun of political leaders, and when they poked fun at New York’s Governor Paterson, basically making him a real life Mr. Magoo, it should’ve been no different. Armisen squinted at the camera, bumped into things, and couldn’t find his way off stage. Hilarious, if not for the fact that Paterson is actually legally blind. The impression drew a lot of attention, namely from the National Federation of the Blind and the governor himself.
Jenny Slate Drops the F-Bomb (Season 35, Episode 1)Using the king of swear words isn’t new to SNL. In fact, the mantra, “Don’t say the F-word, don’t say the F-word,” must be so ingrained in a cast member’s head that thinking about it so much makes he or she want to say it. Paul Schaffer, Charles Rocket, and Norm MacDonald all dropped it back in the day. But when Jenny Slate did, it was her first appearance on the show. Heartbreakingly, she only lasted one season.
Kenan Thompson’s Tiger Woods Sketch Draws Criticism for Making Light of Domestic Violence (Season 35, Episode 8)When a woman suffers from domestic violence, it’s a sad and disgusting crime. When men suffer from domestic violence, it’s… hilarious? According to some writers at SNL, it must be. When Tiger Woods cheated on his wife, Elin Nordegren, she allegedly beat him up. The sketch featured Kenan Thompson appearing more and more bruised and broken each time he admitted to his wife (played by Blake Lively) another sexual betrayal. The sketch made light of domestic violence, and promoted the sexist ideology that men cannot be victims of domestic violence. To make matters worse, the musical guest that night was Rihanna, a victim of domestic abuse.
Jason Sudeikis Plays Jesus in a Tim Tebow Sketch and Christian Groups Go Crazy (Season 37, Episode 10)
The sketch was originally supposed to make fun of Tim Tebow and football fans who pray to the Big Man for their team to win. But then they added Jason Sudeikis as Jesus Christ. Christian groups lost their minds, and famous televangelist Pat Robertson even went as far as saying it was “anti-Christian bigotry that is just disgusting.” Lighten up dude, you think Jesus hasn’t heard a good Jesus joke?
Rosetta Stone Parody Commercial Upsets Thailand (Season 38, Episode 12)
SNL’s parody of a Rosetta Stone commercial starts off pretty simple, as it introduces characters who want to learn a second language for reasons like talking to their grandmother in another country. Then, men start explaining they want to learn Thai, but not giving any reason as to why. The sketch comments on Thailand’s sex trade industry and made the country’s Minister of Tourism protest to get the clip taken down from the Internet.
“DJesus Uncrossed” Freaks Out Christian Groups (Season 38, Episode 14)
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was already pretty controversial as a slave-revenge fantasy film. But the SNL writers took it one step further when they created the parody of a Jesus-revenge film. Jesus went on an ass-kicking spree in the trailer, and drew plenty of criticism from the American Family Association, who advised Sears and JC Penney to pull their ads from the show.
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