The 20 Most Controversial Saturday Night Live Moments of All Time
While Saturday Night Live’s reputation as an envelope-pushing TV comedy institution may stem from decades of rose-tinted memories and self-mythologizing, it’s beyond question that the late-night institution has generated more than its share of public outrage over the years.
While some controversy erupted out of trenchant takes on hot-button issues of the day, more often the NBC switchboards were lit up thanks to everything from accidental expletives to regrettable lapses in comedy judgment to even the manufactured ire of those targeted by SNL.
And while there are plenty of incidents to choose from (Martin Lawrence’s off-script explicit monologue, Donald Trump hosting, so, so many accidental expletives), below are the 20 Most Controversial Saturday Night Live Moments of All Time.
Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase’s Word Association Ends on One Particular Word (Dec. 13, 1975)
Lorne Michael’s call to bring in brilliant and controversial comedian Richard Pryor to host the seventh episode of Saturday Night Live saw NBC scrambling to anticipate and avoid trouble. Pryor was the most outspoken and skillfully profane stand-up in America, leading the network to order an unprecedented 10-second delay on the “live broadcast” (there’s still the question as to whether that directive ever went into effect), but it was the incendiary Pryor’s mere presence on national TV that truly had executives nervous. That unease came to a head in the “Word Association” sketch, where Pryor’s job applicant is subjected to the titular exercise by potential employer Chevy Chase, whose initially innocent prompts (“dog,” “fast,” “rain”) escalate to an increasingly edgy racial territory until the riled-up Chase finally sneers “n-----.” The previously timid Pryor’s unleashed response, “Dead honky,” is met by cathartic laughter from a live audience made increasingly anxious by the gathering air of comedic racial animosity. Even the authorship of the sketch is in debate, with Chase and Pryor’s guest writer Paul Mooney both laying claim to the premise over the years.
Patti Smith Rebuts the Bible ... on Easter Morning (April 17, 1976)
Punk rock pioneer Patti Smith was just one of the bold and adventurous musical guests booked for Saturday Night Live’s inaugural season, but the Horses singer-songwriter made arguably the most incendiary musical statements in the show’s history in her only appearance. Belting out her song “Gloria,” Smith, with signature gusto, kicked off with the lyric, “Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine,” a provocative enough sentiment but even more since Smith’s performance commenced just after midnight, meaning that she was flaunting one of Christianity’s central conceits in the wee hours of Easter morning. Making things even hotter for NBC, that night’s show was inexplicably hosted by Ron Nessen, White House press secretary for Republican president Gerald Ford, guaranteeing a more-than-usual conservative viewing audience caught Smith’s defiant showcase, including the First Family. Indeed, as Smith’s closing refrain, “And the tower bells chime ding dong, they chime / They're singing, Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine,” the NBC switchboard bells were already lighting up.
A Michael O’Donoghue Sketch Provokes a Lawsuit From Singer Andy Williams (April 24, 1976)
Claudine Longet was a singer, actress, and the ex-wife of crooner Andy Williams who had just been arrested for the possibly accidental shooting of her current boyfriend, Olympic skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. Notoriously mischievous SNL writer Michael “Mr. Mike” O’Donogue parlayed the ongoing scandal into a sketch called “The Claudine Longet Invitational,” which saw sports commentators Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin calling the action as a series of film clips of crashing skiers saw the pair repeating variations of, “Oops, he has accidentally been shot by Claudine Longet.” According to Herminio Traviesas, NBC’s vice president of standards, his decision to OK the sketch based on the script — without seeing how the piece would play with the gunshots and Chase and Curtin’s deadpan delivery — was one of his biggest career mistakes and one that nearly cost NBC a lot of money. Williams, an ardent defender of his ex, threatened to sue, with only a disclaimer read by announcer Don Pardo on the subsequent episode heading off the suit. That the tone of the apology was more “Sorry you can’t take a joke” than “Sorry we totally implied that Ms. Longet was a coldblooded ski-murderer” wasn’t lost on SNL’s still-snickering audience, even if it was enough for Williams.
Buck Henry’s Uncle Roy Makes America (and NBC) Very Uncomfortable (Three appearances from 1978-1980)
There’s no question that these sketches, featuring frequent early host Buck Henry as the lecherous relative and babysitter of Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman’s prepubescent charges, gave NBC standards and practices the willies so much that its reps actively tried to get Lorne Michaels to mitigate or even banish the sketches. What did air was certainly creepy enough, with the grinning Uncle Roy urging his unsuspecting nieces to play games like “Glass Bottom Boat” (the girls stand on top of a glass coffee table while Roy leers from beneath) and “Ruffy the Dog” (where the girls spank him for being bad). Writers Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts defended their creation by noting the sly public service contained within, as the issue of child abuse from inside families was largely a taboo topic. When they had the girls’ grateful parents call Roy “one in a million,” Henry’s winking response straight to the camera - “Oh, there’s more of me than you might expect” - was, according to the proudly feminist Beatts and Shuster, intended to lead female viewers of all ages to cast a suspicious glance toward their handsy male relatives. Regardless, your mileage may very much vary when re-watching Uncle Roy.
In a Breast Cancer Sketch, SNL Asks, But What About the Husband? (Nov. 17, 1979)
Soon after NBC news correspondent Betty Rollin’s autobiography about her battle with breast cancer, Then, You Cry, was turned into a Mary Tyler Moore-starring TV movie, Al Franken and Tom Davis decided to tackle the issue in their signature, provocative manner. Their sketch, “First He Cries,” instead focuses on husband Bill Murray coming to grips with being married to a “half a woman” after wife Gilda Radner undergoes a mastectomy. The point of the sketch is that Murray’s selfish husband is an asshole (“What about me?” he screams at one point. “I’m stuck with some kind of hideous, deformed freak!”), but Franken and Davis’ sense of humor often failed to register as satire to some viewers in its brashly button-pushing juvenilia, and viewers were outraged that Saturday Night Live appeared to be endorsing such self-involved cruelty concerning a sensitive issue. NBC was flooded with hundreds of calls and letters, and not even a public letter of support from Rollin herself (who said, “I thought the premise of the sketch was terrific”) served to quiet the outcry, with one motivated viewer tracking down that night’s host Bea Arthur to berate her on the phone in her hotel room for appearing in the sketch and a reluctant Murray complaining all week, “Do you know what it’s like to go out there and play something that’s going to make people hate you?”
Charles Rocket Drops an F-Bomb (Feb. 21, 1981)
The late Charles Rocket was singled out as the biggest star in producer Jean Doumanian’s bold, ultimately doomed reboot of Saturday Night Live after original producer Lorne Michaels and the entire initial cast left the show after its fifth season. The snarky and photogenic Rocket got the prime "Weekend Update" slot and many of that woeful season’s sketches were built around his supposed leading man charisma. But that all came crashing down in Season 6’s 11th episode. Built around Dallas costar Charlene Tilton’s hosting duties, a “Who Shot Charles Rocket?” running gag played out over the episode, with the wounded Rocket ultimately recovering enough to sit in a wheelchair for the traditional cast goodnights. Unfortunately for Rocket, the show was running short, and offscreen calls for him to vamp long enough to fill time saw the actor answering Tilton’s question, "Charlie, how are you feeling after you've been shot?,” with an offhand but unmistakable, “It's the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who the fuck did it.” It wasn’t the first f-bomb ever dropped on SNL, and it wouldn't be the last, but considering the already precarious state of Doumanian’s iteration of the show, Rocket’s gaffe sounded the death knell. Doumanian and Rocket were soon fired, along with much of the cast and writers, before Dick Ebersol took the reins for Season 7.
Andy Kaufman Is Voted off Saturday Night Live Forever (Nov. 20, 1982)
Boundary-pushing comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman appeared on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, with the comedian intermittently dropping by over the years to amuse, confuse and, more often than not, intentionally irritate audiences. Always a master of provocation, Kaufman and then-producer Dick Ebersol cooked up a groundbreaking gag in 1982, staging a backstage fight that saw Ebersol make a rare onscreen appearance to apologize for canceling Kaufman’s booked appearance and noting that he just didn’t find the comedian’s confrontational antics up to SNL’s standards any longer. The fact that this was, in the terminology of wrestling provocateur Kaufman, a work was hidden from most everyone at the show, as was the following, Drew Barrymore-hosted episode, in which viewers were asked to call one of two 900 numbers and vote on whether Andy Kaufman should ever appear on Saturday Night Live again. Cast members introducing the bit throughout the show were torn between those assuming this was just another Kaufman bit and those genuinely upset at how Kaufman was being treated, with Eddie Murphy half-jokingly threatening to beat up anyone who voted for the comedian’s banishment and Mary Gross speed-reading the “dump Andy” phone number so people would miss it. In the end, and with a nervous Kaufman watching at home, the vote went against Kaufman, 195,444 to 169,186 (with viewers paying 50 cents per call). True to the joke, Kaufman indeed never appeared live on SNL again before his death in 1984.
Dana Carvey Loves Playing an Offensive Asian Stereotype (Seven appearances from 1986-2000)
Saturday Night Live has had to grow up over the decades when it comes to deploying racial caricatures for laughs, with one of the most bewilderingly long-recurring characters from Dana Carvey standing out as particularly egregious. Debuting a broken-English jabbering Chinese shopkeeper named (sigh) Ching Chang back in 1986, Carvey was inexplicably able to bring the broadly objectionable exercise in yellowface back six more times, including even lobbying to resurrect the character after a 10-year absence when Carvey came back to host in October of 2000. Carvey’s sub-Jerry Lewis style caricature loves chickens, wears a slicked-down black wig, speaks in an exaggerated approximation of first-gen Chinese immigrant patter and generally serves as an ugly blemish on Carvey’s SNL tenure. Some efforts were made to respond to criticism of Carvey’s minstrelsy over the years, although having fellow white cast member Nora Dunn pretend to be Asian while her character upbraids brother Chang for his stereotypical behavior is problematic in its own right.
Conan O’Brien Takes the Word “Penis” and Runs With It (Oct. 15, 1988)
With the FCC finally relaxing its restrictions on certain words that could be heard on the public airwaves, young SNL writer Conan O’Brien saw an opportunity. So, with a game Matthew Broderick pulling hosting duties and his career-spanning penchant for subversive silliness, O’Brien penned “Nude Beach,” a sketch where the naked but obscured male cast members repeat the word “penis” more than 40 times. In a case of giving Conan an inch, the sketch sees Kevin Nealon, Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey all comment on the state and condition of each others’ genitals, before conversationally noting how small Broderick’s penis is. Nealon finally breaks the fourth wall to upbraid the audience for snickering at such an everyday word, with the assembled cast all happily singing the sketch out with the rousing chorus, “Penis, penis, penis, penis song! Penis, penis, penis, penis, penis all day long!” The sketch drew about 40,000 letters of complaint. That’s approximately 10,000 per “penis.”
Nirvana Makes Out (Jan. 11, 1982)
Grunge rockers Nirvana made no bones about the trio’s disdain of homophobia, misogyny and bigotry during their meteoric rise to stardom, with frontman Kurt Cobain famously telling such self-proclaimed Nirvana fans, “Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” When the band was booked on a live television show, Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic leaped on the opportunity to put their anti-hate sentiments into action and, after tearing through anarchic performances of their Nevermind songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Territorial Pissings,” all three band members used the unstructured goodnights to very visibly make out with each other in turn. Intending to provoke any homophobes watching across the country, Novocelic first passionately kissed Grohl before turning to French kiss Cobain, who’d dyed his hair (reportedly with strawberry Kool-Aid) a shocking pink for the performance. Whether homophobes themselves or in fear of those in the viewing audience, NBC took Nirvana’s bait, censoring the three-way make-out from all reruns, with even the streaming Peacock version substituting the kiss-less dress rehearsal credits in its place.
Sinead O’Connor Tears Up the Pope’s Photograph (Oct. 3, 1992)
It was the rip heard ‘round the world when Irish singer Sinead O’Connor produced a picture of pontiff John Paul II after a stirring a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” and tore it into pieces. The outspoken singer had intended her gesture to bring attention to the Catholic church’s now well-litigated history of condoning and enabling child sexual abuse, but all a 1992 audience saw was red as O’Connor, urging viewers to “Fight the real enemy,” defaced the image of a world religious leader on live television. The backlash was violent and immediate, with any intention on O’Connor’s part to spark debate drowned in a tsunami of wrath, canceled appearances and death threats. Despite O’Connor appearing during the goodnights and being embraced by host Tim Robbins, few at Saturday Night Live were fans of the singer’s unannounced gesture, with O’Connor never being invited back and the next week’s host, actor Joe Pesci, not just taping O’Connor’s torn photo back together but announcing his desire to “smack” the young singer. O’Connor, who was booed off of Madison Square Garden’s stage at a tribute concert for Bob Dylan a few weeks later, survived the controversy, even if she never again reached the same level of American success.
Robert Smigel’s “Conspiracy Theory Rock” Inspires Censorship Conspiracy (March 14, 1998)
Using his TV Funhouse segments to smuggle in some touchy subject matter was always Robert Smigel’s jam, but even the provocative and prolific writer found himself belatedly reprimanded for some especially pointed bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you material when his Schoolhouse Rock-styled parody aired on March 14, 1998 ... and never again. A musical revue on the subject of media consolidation and associated corporate censorship (including that by NBC), the piece was a point-by-point recreation of the beloved educational cartoons, complete with annotated examples of parent companies ordering their owned TV news divisions to hush up or downplay stories critical of corporate interests. (And upbraiding SNL viewers for buying those SNL advertisers’ products.) The sketch went over well enough, but was then pulled from all reruns and syndication, reportedly at the order of both Lorne Michaels and future NBC president Rick Ludwin, then a General Electric executive (GE being one target of the piece). Michaels claimed, in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live that Smigel’s piece just wasn’t funny enough to include later, although considering the multiple clunker sketches littering Peacock’s hand-edited episodes, the excuse rings strangely like — dare we say it? — a conspiracy.
Jimmy Fallon’s Blackface Chris Rock Impression Takes 20 Years to Blow Up in His Face (March 11, 2000)
Call this one a too-long-delayed comeuppance for a regrettable longtime entertainment practice. Jimmy Fallon did a solid impression of pal and SNL alum Chris Rock in a sketch that also saw the white comic slathered in brown makeup to portray the decidedly not-white Rock. Glacial as the nature of cultural enlightenment is, the sketch passed with a minimal outcry, even briefly popping up on 2005's Best of Jimmy Fallon DVD. That changed when the clip resurfaced in 2019 after NBC finally fired former Fox figure and blackface defender Megyn Kelly, with Kelly’s supporters suddenly pretending to care about the actual issue of offensive racial cosplay by calling for Fallon to be similarly let go from The Tonight Show. In the end, Fallon belatedly apologized, Rock claimed no offense at his friend’s long-ago impression and Megyn Kelly fans went in search of the next tortured example of white grievance to cynically exploit.
Adrien Brody Dons Dreads, Ad Libs and Gets Shown the Door (May 10, 2003)
Since musical guest Sean Paul was from Jamaica, host Adrien Brody thought it was a great idea to introduce the singer in long fake dreadlocks and do a stereotypical Jamaican accent. Cultural appropriation and insensitivity aside, what truly torpedoed the Oscar winner was his additional decision to go off script with a long, rambling, slang-filled introduction, lasting some 45 precious seconds of the live broadcast’s running time. Lorne Michaels, an avowed hater of ad-libbing on SNL, reportedly told Brody to lose Saturday Night Live’s number. He’s never appeared on the show since.
Christoph Waltz Tarantinos Jesus (Feb. 16, 2013)
With Django Unchained Oscar winner Christoph Waltz in the house, SNL decided to adopt director Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist cineaste history approach in re-telling the greatest story ever told. Waltz plays a vengeance-hungry savior in the trailer for Jesus Uncrossed, emerging from his tomb all out of cheeks to turn. Waltz’s Jesus is all about swords and guns and pithy pre-kill one-liners, while the cast chips in with impressions of Tarantino alums like Kenan Thompson’s Ving Rhames, Jay Pharoah’s Samuel L. Jackson and Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt, here transported into Pontius Pilate, Judas and a redneck St. Peter, respectively. The bloody sketch is as much a parody of Tarantino’s film-geek excesses as it is the Bible (although a review states the Jesus-y kill-fest at least isn’t as gory as The Passion of the Christ), but that didn’t stop NBC from receiving complaints from both Christian groups and the Council of American-Islamic Relations, with major advertisers caving to pressure from evangelical political action groups to pull their ads from streaming reruns.
Fred Armisen Repeatedly Mocks New York Governor David Paterson’s Blindness (Ten sketches from 2008-2013)
New York's governor at the time, David Paterson, is legally blind, which led to Saturday Night Live and Fred Armisen thinking that portraying the politician as a bumbling, Mr. Magoo-esque figure on "Weekend Update" was comic gold. Armisen’s impression is one part classic New York political mockery and about four parts Armisen squinting cross-eyed into the wrong camera, and it drew enough ire from advocates for the sightless that Paterson himself appeared on the Season 36 premiere episode alongside Armisen’s iteration, making fun of Saturday Night Live outstaying its welcome before noting earnestly, “But while I have a good sense of humor, jokes that degrade people just for their disabilities are sophomoric and stupid.” While Paterson played along, he responded to apologies from Armisen (still doing the impression directly to his right) and anchors Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers by delivering the solid exit zinger, “You should be sorry. You’ve poked so much fun at me for being blind that I forgot I was Black.”
SNL Thinks Child Molestation Is Hilarious Enough to Do It Twice (April 11, 2015, Jan. 23, 2016)
Age-old double standards concerning sexual abuse are the basis for these two courtroom sketches, both centering on Pete Davidson’s underage high school student testifying about his sexual relationships with various adult female teachers. In the first, the predatory educator is Cecily Strong, while the return sees Davidson on the stand concerning his three-way with Strong and fellow teacher, host Rhonda Rousey. In both, the sketch is a nonstop snigger-fest, with even Kenan Thompson’s judge high-fiving the “lucky” boy for his experiences being abused by sexual predators, the biggest laugh lines coming in the form of the parade of admiring nicknames Davidson’s peers bestow upon him once the criminal sexual contact is revealed. Apart from the fact that there’s no way the sketch would air if the genders were reversed (or if it were a same-sex encounter), SNL refused to take in the criticism from advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse to bring the same sketch back a year later remains utterly baffling and irresponsible.
SNL’s Product Integration Goes Rogue, and Safelite Is Not Happy (Oct. 7, 2017)
Lorne Michaels has always courted some good old corporate synergy, usually presented through compensated product integration (in recent years as a way to cut down on real commercial interruptions). But a fake ad for the unsuspecting Safelite AutoGlass company certainly isn’t something the windshield replacers would have authorized, as the commercial sees Beck Bennett’s creepily smiling replacement specialist (sporting a prominent company logo on his work shirt) repeatedly smashing a mom’s windshield so he can creep on her underage daughter. Safelite was not thrilled, to the extent that NBC immediately yanked the offending filmed sketch from reruns and streaming, and continues to aggressively scrub any reposts of it from the internet. No word if legal action or just plain regret is behind the purge, but good luck finding the piece anywhere.
Pete Davidson Gets Death Threats for Mocking a War-Wounded Congressional Candidate (Nov. 3, 2018)
Slotted comfortably into his role as SNL’s stoner kid brother by this point, Pete Davidson rarely touched on politics in his self-effacing "Weekend Update" appearances. On this night, however, the stand-up did a few solid minutes roasting the physical appearances of a varied crop of candidates competing in the upcoming midterm elections, with his offhand joke about Texas Republican and war-wounded former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw coming in for unexpected heat. Davidson’s slideshow includes Crenshaw, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, with the comic joking, “You may be surprised to hear that he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hitman in a porno movie.” Davidson got big laughs all segment, and even though anchor Michael Che seemingly attempts to warn Davidson off from the Crenshaw line, the gag was just one of a series of bipartisan slams. That is until conservative media seized upon Davidson’s joke (and his follow-up, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war ... or whatever”) as evidence of the left-leaning show’s supposed disrespect for service members—especially one as beloved of the far-right. Crenshaw, then battling for a seat in Congress, leaped on the controversy, with Fox News whipping up outrage to the extent that Davidson received death threats, including one in the form of a phone call to his mother’s house. SNL eventually invited Crenshaw, who’d won his seat, to roast Davidson back on "Update" as the comedian and the candidate made up, with Davidson calling Crenshaw “a good man,” something the comic later recanted upon learning just how virulently right-wing Crenshaw was.
Dave Chappelle Swerves to Avoid One Controversy, Crashes Right Into Another (Nov. 13, 2022)
After another well-deserved round of complaints from people who aren’t into anti-trans bigotry after Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special, The Closer, viewers were tuning in to see how or if the legendary stand-up would address the issue on SNL. But, after a fake-out, Chappelle instead weighed in at length on the then-current spate of Black superstars (Kanye West, Kyrie Irving) openly engaging in vocal antisemitism, and, intentionally or not, stole the heat from one Dave Chappelle controversy and threw it onto another. While Chappelle’s carefully worded and written-out blanket condemnation of anti-Jewish bigotry and the two aforementioned celebrities leads off his monologue, the comic then goes off in several directions that tacitly reinforce the idea that “cancel culture” is being disproportionately driven by powerful Jewish figures in the entertainment and media industries — and that he’s another one of their victims. Because it’s Chappelle, there is some comedy gold and some ticklish social commentary throughout the extended monologue, but, in the end, he comes off more like a cranky old conspiracy theorist than the sparklingly original comic force former fans remember so fondly. Protests from the Anti-Defamation League, among other groups, followed.
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin