List of Saturday Night Live incidents
As a live sketch comedy show, NBC's Saturday Night Live (officially abbreviated SNL) has had a number of technical problems, performer mishaps, and controversial content. Several hosts and musical guests have received negative press due to their appearances on the program, including musician Sinéad O'Connor, comedian Andrew Dice Clay, then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the bands Rage Against the Machine and Fear. In the course of the show's forty-plus-year history, several technical issues have occurred live on air, most notably with singer Ashlee Simpson. Other times, controversial content has been edited out of syndicated reruns and online-distributed editions of the show, including coarse language. The show has "banned" certain hosts, and has also been accused of plagiarism.
Ashlee Simpson appeared as a musical guest on the October 23, 2004 episode with Jude Law as host. Her first performance, "Pieces of Me", was performed without incident, but when she began her second song, "Autobiography", the vocals for "Pieces of Me" were heard again—before she had even raised the microphone to her mouth. Simpson began to do an impromptu jig, and then left the stage. During the closing of the show, Simpson appeared with Law and said: "I feel so bad. My band started playing the wrong song. I didn't know what to do so I thought I'd do a hoedown."
On October 25, Simpson explained that due to complications arising from severe acid reflux disease, she had completely lost her voice and her doctor had advised her not to sing. Her father wanted her to use a vocal guide track for the performance after she had suffered vocal issues during rehearsals. Simpson stated of the incident, "I made a complete fool of myself." According to Simpson, the drummer hit the wrong button, which caused the wrong track to be played. Lorne Michaels had been unaware of the plan to use lip synching, and said in an interview with 60 Minutes that he would not have allowed if it had been consulted. Simpson is the only musical guest ever to walk off stage during a live performance.
In 1981, director Penelope Spheeris made a film titled The Decline of Western Civilization; the film featured an appearance by the group Fear. This appearance in particular caught the attention of former cast member John Belushi, who lobbied successfully to get the band a spot as a musical guest on the 1981 Halloween episode of SNL. Belushi had originally offered Fear the soundtrack for his major motion picture Neighbors. The film's producers eventually forced Fear off the project, and Belushi got them the infamous SNL gig as compensation. The band's appearance included a group of slamdancers, among them Belushi, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat (and later Fugazi), Tesco Vee of The Meatmen, Harley Flanagan and John Joseph of the Cro-Mags, and John Brannon of Negative Approach. The show's director originally wanted to prevent the dancers from participating, so Belushi offered to be in the episode if the dancers were allowed to stay. The result was the shortening of Fear's appearance on TV. Frontman Lee Ving started the band's second song by stating, "It's great to be in New Jersey", drawing boos from SNL's New York live audience. Fear played "I Don't Care About You", "Beef Bologna", "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones", and started to play "Let's Have a War" when the telecast faded into commercial. The slamdancers left ripe pumpkin remains on the set. Cameras, a piano and other property were damaged in a situation that was close to a stage riot.
After their SNL appearance, which resulted in $20,000 in damage, some clubs chose not to hire the band. A New York Post article later reported the figure to be $500,000. This is believed to have originated from Ving, who told the Post that "...we caused $500,000 worth of damage, a cool half a million dollars worth of damage, ‘cause we’re professionals, and I counted the damage myself." Since this incident, Fear has not appeared on Saturday Night Live again.
Andrew Dice Clay
When Andrew Dice Clay was scheduled as a host for the May 12, 1990, episode, cast member Nora Dunn immediately announced to the press that she was boycotting the show in protest. She stated the protest was in view of Clay's perceivedly misogynistic act, and did so without informing Michaels, the cast, or most of the crew about her intent. The public backlash was immediate; the selection of Clay was compared to the Holocaust by an audience member during an interview with Michaels. Female members of the cast and crew were harassed by phone and mail for sticking with the show, and metal detectors were installed at the studio to enhance security. NBC censors insisted that the episode be aired with a delay to compensate for anything Clay might say on air. During the live show, some audience members heckled Clay but were immediately removed by the increased security detail. Dunn's contract was already coming to an end, and with one episode left in the season, the staff voted against having her take part in the final episode of the season and her contract was not renewed. Dunn would later express her surprise at the lack of support she received from her colleagues in her refusal to participate.
On October 3, 1992, O'Connor was scheduled to appear, performing an a cappella performance of Bob Marley's "War". During the dress rehearsal, O'Connor held up a photo of a Balkan child as a protest of child abuse in war before bowing and leaving the stage, which the episode's director Dave Wilson described as a "very tender moment". During the live show, O'Connor altered the "War" lyric "fight racial injustice" to "fight child abuse" as a protest against the cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. She presented a photo of Pope John Paul II while singing the word "evil", before tearing the image into pieces and saying "Fight the real enemy".
NBC had no foreknowledge of O'Connor's plan, and Wilson purposely failed to use the "applause" button, leaving the audience to sit in silence. Tim Robbins who was the host for that episode and was raised as a devout Catholic, refused to acknowledge O'Connor at the end of the show. NBC received thousands of irate calls in the aftermath of the incident, and protests against O'Connor occurred outside of the 30 Rock building, where a steamroller crushed dozens of her tapes, CDs and LPs. In the following weeks on SNL, guests Joe Pesci and Madonna both voiced their opposition to O'Connor. The show also aired several sketches mocking O'Connor. Since the incident, O'Connor has not appeared on Saturday Night Live again.
As of 2016, NBC still declines to rebroadcast the sequence with the exception of an interview with O'Connor on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, which aired on April 24, 2010, when the clip was aired in full. In reruns, the incident is replaced with the dress rehearsal performance. The original episode was made available on volume four of the DVD special "Saturday Night Live - 25 Years of Music", with an introduction by Michaels about the incident. On February 20, 2011, the clip was aired on the SNL special "Backstage" showing footage of the dress rehearsal and live performance side by side. The footage cuts to interviewees during the moment the photo was ripped.
The incident was mocked during a live episode of the television show 30 Rock, in which an NBC page (Kristen Schaal) comes on stage and tears a picture of O'Connor in half. It was also mocked in the third episode of The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, which features the fictional title musician Brian Pern's appearance on a 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live, where he tears up a picture of The Fonz, calling him "evil" after remarking "lies", as a protest against Happy Days providing a distraction to the American public from American foreign policy aggression.
Rage Against the Machine
On April 13, 1996, musical guests Rage Against the Machine (RATM) were scheduled to perform two songs. The show was hosted that night by billionaire and then-presidential candidate Steve Forbes. According to RATM guitarist Tom Morello, "RATM wanted to stand in sharp juxtaposition to a billionaire telling jokes and promoting his flat tax by making our own statement." To this end, the band hung two upside-down American flags from their amplifiers. Seconds before they took the stage to perform "Bulls on Parade", stagehands were sent in to pull the flags down. Following the removal of the flags during the first performance, the band was approached by NBC officials and ordered to immediately leave the building. Upon hearing this, bassist Tim Commerford reportedly stormed Forbes' dressing room, throwing shreds from one of the torn-down flags. Morello said that members of the SNL cast and crew, whom he declined to name, "expressed solidarity with our actions, and a sense of shame that their show had censored the performance." Since this incident, Rage Against the Machine has not appeared on Saturday Night Live again.
Business magnate and US president Donald Trump's second hosting appearance, in the midst of his 2016 presidential campaign, courted controversy and protests. Latino advocacy groups pressed NBC to cancel Trump's appearance, due to his remarks on Mexican immigration, while protestors picketed outside Trump Tower and 30 Rockefeller Center in the days preceding and of the show, holding "DUMP TRUMP" signs. That group created a petition to cancel Trump's hosting with over 500,000 signatures, delivering it to Michaels and NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus issued a "statement of opposition" to Trump's appearance. Trump confirmed he was booked to boost the show's ratings, noting that he turned down more risqué sketches. He also seemingly criticized the show's writing staff: "They have 100 writers. I walk into the room, there are 100 – and they’re all about 17 years old, OK? They’re all young and all up in your face." The group DeportRacism.com offered $5,000 in cash to any audience member that would heckle Trump and call him a racist during his monologue.
The show aired on November 7, 2015, and due to the equal-time rule, Trump only appeared for a total of twelve minutes. The notion of heckling was referenced in the show, when Larry David (who had guested earlier in the evening to play politician Bernie Sanders) called Trump a racist, but only to secure the $5,000. In the end, the episode received 9.3 million viewers—the program's highest ratings in nearly four years—but was panned by critics. NBC subsequently offered free airtime to Republican candidates who filed equal time requests.
A number of hosts and musical guests have been "banned" from appearing on the show again and there have been examples of other controversial goings-on within SNL. Examples of these are noted below.
- On December 13, 1975, the show was ordered by the network to run on a five-second delay when controversial comedian Richard Pryor hosted. Engineers at the show later said they did not run the delay because no one knew how to achieve the effect. However, the first edition of The Book of Lists, describing the broadcast, indicated that two words were indeed deleted during the broadcast, but the book does not specify what was censored.
- A stand-up routine by Sam Kinison during the October 18, 1986 episode was edited in West Coast, and later airings, to replace two parts of the routine with a silent image of the previous season's cast. The first cutaway occurred when Kinison began asking for the legalization of cannabis and said: "You can't get any more pot. If you give us back the pot, we'll forget about the crack." The joke violated NBC policy of the time that all references to drugs must be negative. The second, longer cutaway occurred when Kinison made a joke about the Crucifixion. During rehearsal, Kinison had not performed the drug joke but he had performed, and been asked to remove, the Crucifixion joke.
- In a December 5, 1992 "Wayne's World" sketch, the characters Wayne and Garth (portrayed by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, respectively) made fun of Chelsea Clinton (daughter of the then President-elect Bill Clinton). Wayne noted that while "adolescence has been thus far unkind" to the then-12 year old, Garth opined that "she could turn into a babe in waiting." First Lady Hillary Clinton was publicly critical of the jokes and they were subsequently edited out of all repeats and syndication rebroadcasts of this sketch. "We felt, upon reflection, that if it was in any way hurtful, it wasn't worth it," said executive producer Lorne Michaels. "She's a kid, a kid who didn't choose to be in public life." Myers even wrote an apology letter to the White House.
- During an April 12, 1997 Weekend Update story about Tabitha Soren, anchor Norm Macdonald, a cast member who was no stranger to on-air controversies during his tenure at the Weekend Update desk, appeared to cough and choke momentarily, causing him to pause and then mutter live, "What the fuck was that?" The audience applauded, and Macdonald laughed the error away (saying at one point that he hoped everyone was enjoying "My farewell performance" and, in closing, "Maybe we'll see you next week"). He was fired at the start of January 1998, partly because of this incident and partly - according to NBC's management, and disputed by much of the cast - due to a "drop in ratings and general reduction of quality". Macdonald and others believed that the real reason for his dismissal was the inclusion of a series of jokes calling O. J. Simpson a murderer during and after his double murder trial in Los Angeles. NBC Entertainment President, Don Ohlmeyer, was good friends with Simpson, and had thrown a party for the jurors that had acquitted Simpson after the trial. The jokes were written primarily by Macdonald and longtime SNL writer Jim Downey, who was fired from SNL outright at the same time. (He was rehired in 2000.)  Macdonald was replaced by Colin Quinn at the Weekend Update desk, beginning on the January 10, 1998 episode. Macdonald's firing was widely criticized, most notably by comedian Chevy Chase, who was largely responsible for the original creation of Weekend Update. Chase argued that Macdonald's "time in the chair [was] among the funniest and well-written of all the Weekend Update stints".
- In March 1998, a Robert Smigel animated short film called Conspiracy Theory Rock, which was a parody of the show Schoolhouse Rock!, aired as part of the TV Funhouse sketch. It is a scathing political sketch accusing corporations including Time Warner, Disney, Fox, Westinghouse, and then-owners of NBC, General Electric, of developing a media monopoly to manipulate public perception and conceal questionable actions. The clip aired only once as part of the original SNL episode and was removed from syndicated repeats, with Michaels explaining that it "wasn't funny". The clip was eventually released as part of the Saturday TV Funhouse compilation DVD in 2006.
- While performing their single "B.Y.O.B." on May 7, 2005, System of a Down's Daron Malakian exclaimed "fuck yeah". The band had previously refused to self-edit their performance, leading censors to mute "fuck" each time it was sung, but they missed Malakian's yell by its impromptu nature. It was subsequently edited out of the West Coast telecast of the show.
- The episode hosted by Rainn Wilson, aired on February 24, 2007, featured a sketch titled "Danny's Song", wherein bar patrons listen to the titular song and reminisce about inappropriate memories. A character played by Bill Hader says, "He loved this song. I remember we had this one great day at the park. We just had so much fun. He was running in the grass and chasing squirrels. They had this fountain and we threw pennies in it for hours. So great. It was the first day that I ever thought to myself: 'I have a dad. And not that I have a dad with Down syndrome. He loved crayons.'" The skit prompted the criticism of Jon Colman, the CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society, which led to the words "Down's syndrome" being bleeped in later rebroadcasts.
- On September 26, 2009, Jenny Slate made her SNL debut in a biker babe sketch alongside Kristen Wiig and actress Megan Fox, where their characters repeatedly use the word "frickin'". During one instance Slate instead accidentally said "fuckin'", which was dubbed over with "freakin'" for subsequent airings. Slate was 'pulled back' on subsequent episodes and was fired from the show at the conclusion of the season.
- On December 15, 2012, actor Samuel L. Jackson, appearing on the recurring Kenan Thompson sketch "What Up with That?" as a talk show guest whose segment was cut for time, exclaimed what sounded like the words "fuck" and "bullshit". Thompson ad-libbed in response, "C'mon, Sam, that costs money!" Jackson later claimed he hadn't said the full word "fuck" and that Thompson was supposed to cut off his second expletive.
- On March 12, 2016, Ariana Grande uttered the word "shit" during her opening monologue. The profanity was "expected" to be edited out of the West Coast broadcast, but was not.
- On November 12, 2016, host Dave Chappelle deliberately used words such as "goddamn" and the n-word throughout his live monologue and a few skits. A local North Carolina TV station attempted to blank out those words before they aired.
- On February 4, 2017, host Kristen Stewart said that hosting the show was "the coolest fucking thing ever" during her opening monologue. Stewart realized her mistake, apologized and joked that she would never be invited back.
- The episode hosted by Gal Gadot, aired on October 7, 2017, featured a sketch titled "Safelite AutoGlass". The sketch was highly controversial in that it depicts a Safelite windshield repairman purposely breaking the windshield of a customer in order to hit on the customer's 17-year-old daughter. The sketch was subsequently pulled from rebroadcasts and the Internet. Rebroadcasts replaced the sketch with a previously unaired sketch titled "The Last Fry".
- On January 13, 2018, host Sam Rockwell accidentally said "you can't be this fucking stupid" while in character as a frustrated children's television host reminiscent of Mr. Wizard. Also that night, Weekend Update co-anchor Colin Jost said "shithole" despite NBC asking him to say "s-hole," in reference to President Donald Trump's then-recent comments about "shithole countries". Both incidents were censored for the west-coast broadcast of the show.
The following performers have been banned from either hosting or performing on Saturday Night Live mostly due to being badly rehearsed, going offscript (which Lorne Michaels reportedly hates), camera-mugging, not getting along with the cast and crew, or anything else that would be inappropriate.
- On the December 17, 1977 episode hosted by Miskel Spillman (winner of the "Anyone Can Host" contest), Elvis Costello was the musical guest. Costello was slated to perform "Less Than Zero" due to pressure from his record company. Costello disagreed, and felt that the song, which was about British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, would not be understood by an American audience and was too low-key to make much impact. After roughly thirty seconds, Costello stopped his band, stating "I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s no reason to do this song here." The band then began to play "Radio Radio" instead. The song, being about the censorship and corporate control of much radio, did not go over well with the brass at RCA (the Radio Corporation of America), the owners of NBC then, and with the building then called the RCA Building. The incident led to pressure on series creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels banning the artist from the show for nearly twelve years. Costello was invited back again in 1989 and in 1991. He even parodied his own stunt on the 25th anniversary show by interrupting the Beastie Boys' performance of "Sabotage" which quickly morphed into a joint performance of "Radio Radio."
- On April 14, 1979, Milton Berle guest-hosted the program. Berle's long reputation for taking control of an entire television production—whether invited to do so or not—was a cause of major on-set stress. One of the show's writers, Rosie Shuster, described the rehearsals for the Berle SNL show, and the telecast, as "watching a comedy train accident in slow motion on a loop." Upstaging, camera mugging, doing spit-takes, inserting old comedy bits, and climaxing the show with a maudlin performance of "September Song" complete with a pre-arranged standing ovation (something producer Lorne Michaels had never sanctioned) resulted in Berle being banned from hosting the show again. The episode was also barred from being rerun until surfacing in 2003, because Michaels thought it brought down the show's reputation.
- Frank Zappa was banned after his 1978 episode for doing a "disastrous job of hosting the show", mugging for the camera and even announcing to the audience that he was reading from cue cards.
- In 1982, Andy Kaufman proposed an audience vote to let him stay or force him off the show. The final tally of viewers calling in to "Keep Andy" came in at 169,186, while 195,544 voted to "Dump Andy."
- In 1982, Robert Blake was banned after taking a script, crumpling it up and throwing it into the face of writer Gary Kroeger.
- In 1986, The Replacements were banned after they came out completely drunk during their performance of "Bastards of Young" and later appeared in each other's clothes during the second performance. However, Paul Westerberg later went solo and was allowed to appear. The band did not perform again on any NBC television program until 2014, when they appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
- Steven Seagal was banned after his hosting stint in 1991 for being the "worst host ever" (according to SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels), as well as being difficult to work with, where he didn't cooperate with the cast and crew. In a later episode hosted by Nicolas Cage, Lorne Michaels got in a jab at Seagal. When Cage lamented during his monologue that the audience might think he's the biggest jerk who’s ever been on the show, Michaels responded "No, no. That would be Steven Seagal."
- A portion of Martin Lawrence's February 19, 1994, monologue concerning feminine hygiene has been removed from all repeats and replaced with a voice-over and intertitles stating that the excised portion "...was a frank and lively presentation, and nearly cost us all our jobs." Lawrence also made references to genitalia when he talked about the John and Lorena Bobbitt incident. This led to Lawrence being subsequently banned from ever hosting, appearing, or even being mentioned on the show, although Leslie Jones mentioned his show Martin during a 2016 Weekend Update segment.
- In 2003, Adrien Brody ad-libbed an introduction to musical guest Sean Paul while wearing fake dreadlocks and speaking in fake Jamaican Patois for 45 seconds, prompting Michaels to ban him for this action and to say that Brody's performance was possibly racist.
- The sketch "O'Callahan & Son Pub", aired March 18, 1995, was entirely lifted from a standup routine by comedian Rick Shapiro by cast member/writer Jay Mohr. Three weeks later, during rehearsal, Mohr was brought to Michaels, and shown a tape of Shapiro's act. Mohr denied any knowledge of Shapiro or his act at the time, but later admitted in his memoir that he had stolen the sketch word for word from Shapiro's work. Shapiro and his manager sued the show and gained an undisclosed settlement which included the sketch being removed from all reruns of the show.
- "Ladies Who Lunch", a sketch aired on the September 25, 2010, episode hosted by Amy Poehler, was deemed similar to the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! segment "Tiny Hats". Both Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim humorously tweeted links to the video. Heidecker told Vulture that "I watched it this morning, and found it to be very similar to our sketch, surprisingly similar," while noting it also could have been coincidental.
- The sketch "River Sisters", aired on the October 4, 2014 episode hosted by Sarah Silverman, was accused of plagiarizing "Rollin'", a similar sketch performed by the Los Angeles improvisation group the Groundlings.
- On May 9, 2015, a sketch was aired in which a contestant on a Win, Lose or Draw-style game show panicked at being asked to draw the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Viewers compared the sketch to a "strikingly similar" January 2015 sketch on the Canadian sketch comedy series This Hour Has 22 Minutes, igniting allegations of plagiarism.
- In a 2017 episode hosted by Louis C.K., a sketch aired in which a man, played by C.K., hires a clown (Bobby Moynihan) for his birthday, in which he is the sole audience member of the clown's act. The comedian Tig Notaro accused the show's writers of plagiarizing from her short film Clown Service. Further, Notaro claimed that a writer who was aware of Clown Service worked on Birthday Clown, and that Notaro and C.K. had not spoken for over a year.
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