Saturday Night Live (SNL) is a cultural institution that has endured for more than 40 years. And along the way the show has provided many classic moments and captured the pop culture zeitgeist. Who can forget the Coneheads, Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, Celebrity Jeopardy, The Californians or MacGruber? But over the years, SNL, which is performed live each week, has also generated its share of scandals and controversies—many of which became national and international incidents. Whether it was the death of a popular cast member, the antics of a guest host or the bad behavior of a musical act, SNL has served up plenty of controversial moments since it first aired in 1975. Here is a list of the 12 most controversial moments in the show’s history.
12. Elvis Costello Switches Songs Mid-Performance
British rocker Elvis Costello was a bit of a contrarian in his youth. The man behind hits such as “Veronica” and “Watching the Detectives” caused controversy with his first appearance on SNL in 1977 when he disobeyed a request from producer Lorne Michaels to not play the song “Radio Radio,” which was critical of corporate broadcasting. Apparently an edict came down from the brass at NBC Studios not to play “Radio Radio.” Elvis Costello expressed his disappointment behind the scenes and agreed to play a different song, “Less Than Zero,” with his band The Attractions. However, a minute into that song, Elvis Costello stopped his band live on the air and launched into—you guessed it—“Radio Radio. ” Lorne Michaels was super pissed by this act of defiance and banned Elvis Costello from SNL until 1988, when he returned. At SNL‘s 25th anniversary show, Elvis Costello made light of the controversy by crashing the Beastie Boys’ performance of their song “Sabotage” in order to again play “Radio Radio.” The Beastie Boys seemed happy to oblige.
11. Martin Lawrence’s Impromptu Monologue
Martin Lawrence is a bit of a maverick comedian. He’s had great success with his own situation comedy show and several movies such as Bad Boys. However, Martin Lawrence has also been arrested and has a history of substance abuse, which has led to erratic behavior at times. This may help to explain Martin Lawrence’s bizarre monologue when he hosted SNL back in 1994. Going completely off script, Martin Lawrence begins the monologue by talking, seriously, about Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis before turning his attention to female hygiene and talking, in grotesque terms, about women’s private parts. The behavior was bad enough that it caused protests from several SNL sponsors, got Martin Lawrence permanently banned from the show, and the monologue has since been removed from reruns of that particular episode.
10. The Nude Beach Skit
Actor Matthew Broderick is not known for being controversial. However, he generated some controversy in 1988 when he hosted SNL and appeared in an infamous skit written by then-show writer Conan O’Brien. In the skit, an uncomfortable Matthew Broderick visits a nude beach with a bunch of his guy friends played by SNL cast members such as Dana Cavey, Jon Lovitz and Kevin Nealon. During the skit, everyone involved mentions the word penis—a lot. In fact, the word penis is mentioned 43 times in less than five minutes. Apparently, Conan O’Brien egged on Matthew Broderick and the cast members to see how many times they could say the word “penis” during the short skit. Sponsors, NBC executives and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were not impressed. Neither were many religious groups.
9. Mocking Domestic Violence
Not every sketch on SNL can be in good taste. But many viewers thought the show went too far in 2009 when they mocked the Tiger Woods cheating scandal. Many domestic violence groups claimed that SNL was making light of domestic violence and people who are abused by their spouse. In the controversial sketch, cast member Kenan Thompson plays Tiger Woods and is seen becoming more and more injured by his wife as he admits to one infidelity after another. The sketch was meant to be funny, but the abuse it depicted was taken the wrong way, and critics claimed that domestic violence should never be made light of—even if it involves a wife physically abusing her husband. Now we know.
8. Samuel L. Jackson’s F-Bomb
When hosting SNL in 2012, actor Samuel L. Jackson, who is known for colorful language in movies such as Pulp Fiction and Snakes on a Plane, let slip a notorious F-bomb live on the show. And it wasn’t caught in time by the show’s censors, who normally “bleep” those slip-ups. The F-bomb made headlines nationally and drew the ire of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In his defense, Samuel L. Jackson tried to say that he said only “half an F-bomb” and that he caught himself mid-word. But that didn’t play too well with critics. So then Samuel L. Jackson took to blaming SNL cast member Kenan Thompson, who was in the skit at the time the F-word was launched, saying that Kenan Thompson was supposed to cut him off before the whole word left his mouth. Kenan Thompson had no response and Samuel L. Jackson has not been invited back to host SNL since.
**Warning: This video has NSFW language**
7. Garrett Morris Mocks Deaf People
The first season of SNL made headlines around the world for many reasons. But one of the most cringeworthy headlines came when cast member Garrett Morris made fun of deaf people on the show. In a Weekend Update segment, Chevy Chase announces that they will offer “news for the hard of hearing.” Garrett Morris then appears and proceeds to shout all of the news Chevy Chase reads. Garrett Morris repeats everything Chevy Chase says verbatim, but yells it really, really loud. This bit is actually very funny. But politically incorrect to its core, and deaf Americans let SNL and NBC know it by sending hundreds of letters to the show complaining about the skit and that they made fun of people who have a serious and legitimate handicap.
6. Andrew Dice Clay
Comedian Andrew Dice Clay is controversial at the best of times. His stand-up routine is notorious for knocking women, homosexuals and handicapped people. Andrew Dice Clay’s act was particularly foul in the late 1980s when he was known as the biggest shock comedian around. Of course, this notoriety got the Dice Man booked as a guest host on SNL in 1991. However, his material was so offensive and his reputation so bad that cast member Nora Dunn refused to appear on the episode and walked out. Nora Dunn was fired from SNL a week later. Irish singer Sinead O’Connor (more on her later), who was booked as the musical act the same week as Andrew Dice Clay, also pulled out of the episode and was replaced by Spanic Boys and Julee Cruise. Weirdly, all the controversy surrounding Andrew Dice Clay was for not, as his appearance on SNL was actually pretty tame.
5. Nirvana’s Make Out Session
Nirvana was the biggest band in the world in 1992. The grunge rockers took over the planet with their album Nevermind, which spawned hits such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But the three members of Nirvana were also prone to generating controversy wherever they went, including when they were the musical guest on SNL. The band performed great on the show, and seemed to behave themselves until the closing credits when everyone customarily gathers on the main stage to wave goodbye to the live studio audience. As is customary, the cast and guests hugged, waved to the audience, and so on. However, Nirvana members Krist Novoselik, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl grabbed each other at that moment and started full on making out with each other—tongue and all. Nirvana had great fun with the controversy this generated, referencing the moment in their 1993 album Incesticide. NBC was not amused though and, during re-runs, the network has replaced the final credits from that episode with the credits from the rehearsal.
4. Bill Murray/Chevy Chase Fist Fight
Chevy Chase was the first breakout star from SNL. His “Weekend Update” segments and impressions of then-U.S. President Gerald Ford made Chevy Chase a household name and earned him an Emmy Award. The success caused Chevy Chase to leave SNL in 1976 after only one season to focus on his movie career with films such as Foul Play and Vacation. Chevy Chase was replaced on SNL by Bill Murray. And while some people complained that Bill Murray couldn’t fill Chevy Chase’s shoes, the majority of viewers accepted Bill Murray and he fit right into the program. However, when Chevy Chase returned to host SNL as a successful movie star in 1977, he incurred the wrath of Bill Murray and the two got into a fist fight backstage moments before the show went live. It apparently took Dan Aykroyd to pull the two apart, and a disoriented Chevy Chase had to go out moments later and perform his monologue. I guess the show has to go on no matter what.
3. John Belushi’s Death
There have been many sad and controversial cast member deaths in the history of SNL, including Chris Farley and Gilda Radner. But none have been as controversial as the death of John Belushi. Sure, John Belushi was no longer a cast member on SNL when he died of a heroin overdose in 1982. He left the show after the 1980 season. However, John Belushi was still intimately linked to SNL and his death was highly controversial at the time. So controversial, in fact, that Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, who previously unraveled the Watergate scandal and brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon, wrote a book about it called Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. And with John Belushi’s fatal drug overdose came stories of the antics carried out at SNL among the original cast during the 1970s. Stories of drugs, fights, debauchery and general mayhem that had the original cast at the center of a huge controversy. Long-time SNL producer Lorne Michaels has since said that the culture at SNL changed dramatically with the death of John Belushi. Some critics say the show has never been the same since.
2. Ashlee Simpson Lip-Syncs
It seems kind of laughable now, but when Ashlee Simpson was busted for lip-syncing on SNL in 2004, it was a huge scandal and the singer’s career never fully recovered from it. The incident exposed a bigger issue of pop stars lip-syncing in concert and in front of their fans. Of course, we all suspected that pop stars lip-sync and that very few performances are actually live. But the issue was laid bare for all to see on SNL when Ashlee Simpson’s performance of the song “Autobiography” went horribly wrong. Rather than play “Autobiography,” another song called “Pieces of Me” started playing before the microphone was even close to Ashlee Simpson’s mouth. Embarrassed, Ashlee Simpson tried to recover by doing a little dance on stage. But the damage was done. Although she apologized profusely, saying the reason she lip-synced was acid reflux, Ashlee Simpson’s performance and career were sunk.
1. Sinead O’Connor Tears Up The Pope
You know it’s a scandal when the Vatican is involved. And in 1992, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor caused a global firestorm and made international headlines when she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II on SNL after performing a song. Once finished belting out the song “Fight the Real Enemy,” Sinead O’Connor held up a photo of the Pope and then proceeded to tear it to pieces on live television. In rehearsals, Sinead O’Connor reportedly held up a picture of a starving African child instead. After tearing up the Pope’s photo, the SNL director of that episode decided to not light up the “applause” signs, and instead left Sinead O’Connor in darkness and silence. Of course, the worst part of this controversy was that it occurred halfway through the live show, leaving a shaken cast to continue on and finish the episode. At the ending of the show, guest host Tim Robbins did not acknowledge or thank Sinead O’Connor, and the singer has been banned from the program since. No wonder. Headlines around the world for the next several weeks took issue with what happened on SNL, with the Vatican itself issued a statement. Now that’s a controversy!