32 SNL Controversies You Need to Know

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Saturday Night Live, Season 36

Over the course of more than four decades, Saturday Night Live has become a mainstay of American television. No other television show can compete with the series’ list of renowned stars and pop cultural moments, which are virtually unmatched by any other show on the air. However, SNL has also spawned a great number of well-known issues, some of which have resulted in public censure and even firings of cast members. The most egregious of these SNL incidents have even resulted in lifelong bans from the show.

Some Saturday Night Live scandals were sparked by guest presenters or singers who attempted to utilize the show’s platform to spread a political statement. While others involved full-time SNL cast members who were able to jeopardize their own professional futures.

1. Sinéad O’Connor:

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October 3, 1992, was perhaps the most contentious day in the history of Saturday Night Live. When Bob Marley’s “War” was performed, musical guest Sinéad O’Connor brought out a portrait of Pope John Paul II, ripped it apart, and declared, “Fight the true enemy,” about the ongoing sexual abuse claims leveled against members of his family by members of his church.

Audiences were taken by surprise, and producers were caught off guard as well because O’Conner had kept the gesture disguised throughout the rehearsal process, according to the Daily Mail. Even though history has vindicated O’Conner regarding whether or not the charges against the church were true, she has continued to be barred from appearing on Saturday Night Live.

2. Adrien Brody:

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He gained international attention and acclaim for his performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). He was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Actor at the age of 29, making him the youngest actor to ever win in that category. Brody is only the second male American actor to be awarded the César Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Adrien Brody, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2003, improvised an introduction for Jamaican singer Sean Paul while sporting dreadlocks and spoke in a faux-Jamaican dialect when presenting an episode in 2003. Producer Lorne Michaels slammed the door in Brody’s face, excluding him from the show for making an unintentionally racist joke.

3. Rage Against the Machine:

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Formed in 1991, Rage Against the Machine (commonly abbreviated as RATM or shortened to Rage) is an American rock band based in Los Angeles, California. A full episode of Rage Against the Machine was not even completed before the band was forced to stop performing. When they failed to perform one of their scheduled two songs on Saturday Night Live, they were ejected from the Rockefeller Center studios. Why?

 They performed the first song in front of an upside-down American flag, which was a nice touch. As seen in the photo above from Woodstock 1994, it should be noted that the band had already built a reputation for incorporating American symbols as part of their stage presentation by the time SNL decided to book them.

4. Martin Lawrence:

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Film: You So Crazy

Martin Fitzgerald Lawrence is an American comedian, actor, producer, writer, and former Golden Gloves boxer who is most known for his work on Saturday Night Live. After making many vulgar comments about female hygiene during his monologue on February 19, 1994, host Martin Lawrence found himself in a heap of hot water after the show.

In subsequent airings, the problematic segment was replaced with a voiceover from writer Jim Downey, who stated that the removed segment “…was a frank and energetic presentation, and it almost cost us all our jobs.” Lawrence was never seen on the show again after this episode.

5. Cypress Hill:

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Cypress Hill is a hip hop group from South Gate, California, that was formed in 1993. In addition to having sold over 20 million records worldwide, they are the first hip-hop group to have achieved multi-platinum and platinum album sales. They are widely regarded as one of the most important forefathers of West Coast and 1990s hip hop. Cypress Hill was the first hip-hop group to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame when inducted in 2019.

Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs celebrated the rap group’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live by lighting a joint on stage during a 1994 visit to the show. It goes without saying that this was also their final appearance together.

6. Steven Seagal:

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Steven Frederic Seagal is an American actor, screenwriter, producer, martial artist, and musician who is best known for his role in the film The Matrix. It’s not entirely clear what made Steven Seagal “difficult to deal with” during his 1991 hosting stint on Saturday Night Live, but he was never invited back to the show.

Furthermore, during an on-air monologue with Nicholas Cage in 1992, Lorne Michaels himself referred to Seagal as “the worst jerk” to ever host the show, referring to him as “the biggest jerk to ever host the show.” You should keep in mind that from 1996 to 2018, numerous women accused Seagal of sexual harassment or assault.

7. The Replacements:

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The Replacements were an American rock band that formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1979 and released their debut album in the same year. Originally a punk rock band, they are now widely regarded as one of the forefathers of alternative rock and metal. It looked like the legendary Minneapolis punk band The Replacements would break into the mainstream when they were booked for a 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Still, the band promptly blew that opportunity out of the water.

“The Mats,” as their fans refer to them, “got drunk, said the f-word off mic during their first song, changing clothes for their second, and racked up $1100 in hotel damages,” according to Rolling Stone. For his part, Lorne Michaels was so enraged by the band that he initially sought to prohibit all artists from Warner Brother’s Records as a form of retaliatory measure. Eventually, the restriction was limited to The Replacements and no one else.

8. Andy Kaufman:

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Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman was a performance artist and wrestler from the United States. Kaufman liked to define himself as a “song and dance man” rather than a comic, despite frequently being one. In its early years, Andy Kaufman was a frequent guest on Saturday Night Live, and he was one of the show’s most popular characters.

However, by 1982, Kaufman’s controversial stage act had established him as a very controversial figure in the entertainment industry. In response, the show held a phone-in poll in January 1983, during which viewers could vote on whether Andy should be “kept” or “dumped” from the show. Although many cast members campaigned for the “keep” choice, “dump Andy” won with 195,544 votes to “keep’s” 169,186 votes.

9. Robert Blake:

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Season 32, Saturday Night Live

Robert Blake is an actor from the United States. He is best recognized for his notable performances in the films In Cold Blood and Baretta and his television series Baretta in the United States. Blake began acting as a youngster in the final years of Metro-Goldwyn-Our Mayer’s Gang (Little Rascals) short film series, from 1939 to 1944.

In 1982, while preparing to host an episode of Saturday Night Live, actor Robert Blake tore up a screenplay he didn’t like and tossed it at the feet of writer Gary Kroeger. As a result, Blake was barred from ever appearing on the show again. Blake was charged with the death of his wife in 2001; we believe his exclusion was for the best.

The picture above shows a scene from Season 32 of Saturday Night Live.

10. Fear:

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Fear (stylized as FEAR) is an American punk rock band from Los Angeles, California, formed in 1977 and has been active since then. On the Halloween broadcast of Saturday Night Live in 1981, the California punk band Fear wanted to try something new.

 They invited a group of slam dancers (which included comedian and SNL alum John Belushi, who had landed the gig for the group) to mosh in front of the stage while they performed, and they had a blast. Things quickly spiraled out of control, and by the end of their performance, the set had been damaged to the tune of between $20,000 and $40,000 in value. Fear was never allowed to perform again.

11. Milton Berle:

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Milton Berle was a stand-up comedian and actor from the United States. Berle’s career as an entertainer spanned more than eight decades, beginning with silent films and stage performances as a child actor and progressing to radio, film, and television. Milton Berle had already established himself as a television legend by the year 1979.

However, this did not make the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live any more fond of him. Because of Berle’s ad-libs, musical performance, and a prearranged standing ovation, the show’s producers, particularly Lorne Michaels, banned Berle and refused to let the episode air in syndication more than two decades after the episode aired on television.

12. Frank Zappa:

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Frank Vincent Zappa was an American musician, composer, songwriter, and bandleader born in New York City in 1926. In his work, nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture are all prominent features.

With the success of his appearance as a musical guest in 1976, rocker Frank Zappa was invited back to host the show for the second time in 1978. It would be an understatement to say that his show did not go over well, however. ‘The Frank Zappa show was like one of the worst things that ever happened,’ said one of the show’s writers about the show. Ouch. Zappa was never invited back to perform again.

13. Charles Grodin:

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Charles Sidney Grodin was an American actor, comedian, author, and talk show host who was best known for his role as Sidney in the film Sidney Grodin. He began his acting career in the 1960s, appearing in television series such as The Virginian and The Virginian II.

Charles Grodin, actor and television host, missed several rehearsals in the week leading up to his October 1977 hosting gig. To say that he was unprepared for the live broadcast would be an understatement. He failed to remember lines, messed up the timing of numerous sketches, and even forgot that the show was broadcast live (no word on whether he remembered it was Saturday night). Grodin was never invited back to the party.

14. Elvis Costello:

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Elvis Costello is an English singer-songwriter with Irish ancestry who was born in London.  He has received numerous honors throughout his career, including Grammy Awards in 1999 and 2020. After defying his record company (which wanted him to play the single “Less Than Zero”) and instead of breaking into the song “Radio Radio,” Elvis Costello provided one of the most famous musical moments in Saturday Night Live history.

Although it made for entertaining television, Costello’s stunt did not go over well with the producers, who were caught off guard. In the aftermath of the incident, Costello was suspended from SNL for more than a decade. However, he has since returned and even made light of the situation on the 25th Anniversary Special.

15. Ashlee Simpson:

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Saturday Night Live, Season 31

Ashlee Nicolle Ross-Nss is an American singer, songwriter, actress, and dancer born in Los Angeles, California. In 2004, Ashlee Simpson appeared on Saturday Night Live and performed arguably the most famous Irish Jig in television history. A tape of her song “Pieces of Me” – complete with vocals – began playing over the intro to her second song, revealing that her earlier performance had been lip-synced.

The pop starlet broke into the awkward dance due to the revelation that her earlier performance had been lip-synced. However, Simpson’s reputation had already been damaged when she initially blamed her band and then a case of acid reflux for the error. She returned to Saturday Night Live in 2005 but hasn’t appeared there since.

16. Andrew Dice Clay:

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Andrew Dice Clay is a stand-up comedian, actor, musician, and producer from the United States. He first came to public attention in the late 1980s as “The Diceman,” a bold and intentionally off-putting persona. Lorne Micheals’ selection of comedian Andrew Dice Clay to host an episode of The Lorne Michaels Show in 1990 sparked controversy even before the episode aired. In response, women’s rights organizations protested, cast members grew upset (see the following slide for more information).

NBC insisted on a 7-second delay to ensure that any profanities could be censored. Ultimately, Clay stayed true to the script, and the episode was rather humdrum, but Clay was never invited to return to the show.

17. Nora Dunn:

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Nora Dunn was purportedly blacklisted from SNL as a result of Andrew Dice Clay’s presence. The five-year series regular boycotted Clay’s appearance, and as a result, he was left out of the following episode, the season finale, and was dismissed. However, Jon Lovitz claims that preparations to fire Dunn were in the works before the Dice Clay incident: “It’s the last show of the season. Nora… she was a thorn in the side.

They weren’t going to ask her back anyway because [she] was difficult to get along with. This is how the press operates. And believe me when I say I’m on the inside of this. They have no idea what’s going on. It’s as though she’s just doing it for the publicity. It’s her final act. They’re not going to invite her back on the show.”

18. Larry David:

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Lawrence Gene David is an American comedian, writer, actor, director, and television producer who has worked in various genres. David Seinfeld and Jerry Seinfeld co-created the television sitcom Seinfeld, during which he served as the show’s head writer and executive producer for the show’s first seven seasons.

Jerry Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David got into problems for a joke he made during his hosting duties at the 2017 Emmy Awards. David, himself Jewish, made a joke about hitting on ladies in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, which was later taken down by the Jewish community. According to the Anti-Defamation League, it wasn’t humorous, which described the joke as “offensive, disrespectful, and unfunny all at the same time.”

19. Kanye West:

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Saturday Night Live, Season 31

Kanye Omari West is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer, entrepreneur, and fashion designer born in New York City. He has had a significant impact on the evolution of popular music in the twenty-first century and mainstream hip hop and general popular culture.

A little controversy erupted during Kanye West’s 2018 visit as a musical guest when he donned a Donald Trump “MAGA” cap for his second song and proceeded to go on a “pro-Trump” rant that didn’t show live but was uploaded to Chris Rock’s Instagram account after the performance. In the following weeks, several cast members, notably Pete Davidson and Kenan Thompson, expressed displeasure with West’s performance on the show.

20. Adam Sandler:

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Saturday Night Live, Season 18

Adam Sandler was one of the most successful Saturday Night Live performers throughout the mid-1990s. On the other hand, Lorne Michaels didn’t let that stop him from firing him in 1995. Over the next 25 years, Sandler went on to become one of the most popular and bankable movie stars of all time.

He always seemed to harbor a grudge towards Saturday Night Live for some reason. Sandler returned to the show in 2019, albeit his opening monologue clearly expressed his dissatisfaction: “Yeah, I was fired, I was dismissed, NBC stated that I was done.” After that, I made over 4 billion dollars at the box office, so I guess you could say I was victorious.”

21. Charles Rocket:

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Charley Hamburger, Charlie Kennedy, and Charles Rocket were some of the stage names used by Charles Adams Claverie, an American actor, comedian, musician, and television news reporter born in New York City. He was a cast member of Saturday Night Live and appeared as Nicholas Andre’s villain in the film Dumb and Dumber and Dave Dennison in the Disney feature Hocus Pocus. He was also a member of the cast of Saturday Night Live.

He appeared with actress Charlene Tilton in a parody of the latter’s popular television series Dallas during an episode broadcast in 1981. During the sketch, Rocket accidentally dropped an F-Bomb, which resulted in him being fired from SNL shortly after. Above is a picture of the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1981.

22. Sam Kinison:

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Samuel Burl Kinison was a stand-up comedian and actor from the United States. His stand-up routines, typified by strong, abrupt tirades punctuated by his characteristic scream, were inspired by his previous career as a Pentecostal preacher. His reputation expanded swiftly, and he was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live, among other shows.

A 1986 visit by standup comedian Sam Kinison featured many inappropriate jokes that were cut from the show’s west coast broadcast, including one about the crucifixion and another about drugs that stated, “You won’t be able to buy any more cannabis.” If you give us the pot back, we will forget about the crack.”

23. System of a Down:

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Founded in 1994 in Glendale, California, by Armenian-American heavy metal musicians, System of a Down (commonly known as SoaD or just System) is one of the world’s most successful heavy metal bands. The band gained financial success by publishing five studio albums, three of which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in the United States of America, and one live album.

While performing their song B.Y.O.B. in 2005, System of a Down’s guitarist Darren Malakian let out an unplanned “F*** YEAH!” which managed to sneak past NBC’s censorship and air on the east coast, while it was edited out of airings on the west coast. The event landed the band in hot water with their record label.

24. Shane Gillis:

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Shane Gillis (born December 11, 1987) is a stand-up comedian, radio presenter, and podcaster from the United States of America. The Bonfire with Big Jay Oakerson and Dan Soder on Sirius XM and a regular appearance on The Doug Stanhope Podcast is Gillis’ regular appearances on Sirius XM. Gillis received widespread attention after being introduced as a new cast member on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2019.

Shane Gillis has the dubious distinction of being barred from appearing on Saturday Night Live before even being on the show. Several tapes of the comedian hurling racist and homophobic epithets were discovered only hours after his appointment was officially announced. He was sacked within minutes of being hired.

25. Jenny Slate:

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Jenny Sarah Slate is an American actor, comedian, novelist, and former singer who has worked in various fields. The daughter of Milton Academy graduates and a graduate of Columbia University’s literature programme, Slate became involved in the improv and comedy scenes after moving to New York City from Massachusetts.

Jenny slate made her Saturday Night Live debut in September 2009, but an incident on her very first episode effectively ended her stint on the show. When Slate was performing a sketch that frequently used “friggin,” he accidentally dropped an F-Bomb. She was “removed” from subsequent episodes and fired at the end of the season after the incident.

26. Claudine Longet:

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Claudine Georgette Longet is a Franco-American singer, actress, dancer, and recording artist who rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s as a member of the New Wave movement. Although Claudine Longet never appeared on Saturday Night Live, the French pop singer and actress is at the centre of one of the show’s most contentious episodes.

In 1976, she was accused of shooting and killing skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich in his home. For a few weeks following the murder, Saturday Night Live (SNL) broadcast a sketch incorporating stock footage of falling skiers that were overdubbed with gunshots and given the title “The Claudine Longet Invitational.” The sketch resulted in a cease-and-desist letter from Longet’s attorney, a public apology, and the piece withdrawn from the show’s repertoire.

27. Fred Armisen:

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Fereydun Robert “Fred” Armisen is an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, and musician best known for his role as Fred in the film Fred. He is most recognized for his time as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, which he did from 2002 until 2013.

In the early 2010s, cast member Fred Armisen received a lot of negative feedback for his portrayal of New York’s then-governor David Paterson, who was legally blind. Many viewers were offended by Armisen’s roaming into and out of the camera during his impersonation, causing them to accuse the show of insulting the disabled. Paterson himself made an appearance on the show in a sketch with Armisen back in 2010.

28. Peter Davidson:

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Peter Michael Davidson is a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, and producer from the United States. Since 2014, he has been a regular cast member on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. It’s possible to write an entire gallery about Pete Davidson’s controversy-inducing statements, but the most notable SNL-related one occurred in 2018.

 When he said of congressman Dan Crenshaw (who lost an eye in Iraq), “You may be surprised to learn he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hitman in a porno movie.” As a result of the quote, there was a barrage of criticism, and Crenshaw appeared on the following week’s episode, where he received an apology from Davidson in person.

29. Matthew Broderick, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Dennis Miller, and Jon Lovitz:

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An episode hosted by Golden Globe-nominated actor Matthew Broderick has a filmed cameo by Laurie Metcalf and Catherine O' Hara and is set in 1988. A sketch starring Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Dennis Miller, and Jon Lovitz was filmed during the episode.

During the sketch, the foursome was on a nudist beach, and they mentioned the word penis more than 40 times in total. According to author William Clotworthy, “We anticipated hearing from the general people, and we were right! A total of 46 thousand letters of complaint were received in response to the sketch. “Reverend Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association” received 45,999 form letters.

30. Donald Trump:

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Donald John Trump is an American television personality and businessman who served as the 45th President of the United States from 2017 to 2021. He is the son of real estate developer Donald Trump. Donald Trump presented Saturday Night Live in the midst of his presidential campaign in 2016, which was met with controversy.

Cast members were outraged by what they perceived to be an insinuation that they supported Trump as a presidential contender. At the same time, political groups questioned if Trump’s appearance on the show violated equal time requirements. Trump hasn’t appeared on the show since, and considering how the show has handled him since his inauguration, it’s unlikely that he’ll appear on it again anytime shortly.

31. Gal Gadot:

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A Wonder Woman lookalike character played by Gal Gadot appeared in what turned out to be a classic Kate McKinnon skit, in which she appeared as a guest star. Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, two women stranded at sea, were the inspiration for the World War II parody, which set off on an important journey.

After docking their boat on the island, they realized they wouldn’t be able to make it back home, so they decided Themyscira was the next best alternative. They were disappointed when they were unable to locate any other women who shared their sexual orientation, but not before Gal planted a big smooch on Kate.

32. Katy Perry’s Sesame Street:

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Saturday Night Live, Season 36

Kate Perry appeared in the film as a children’s library volunteer who was reprimanded for wearing inappropriate clothing. The Bronx Beat ladies, played by Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler, were the mainstays of the rest of the skit, and they were, of course, the source of the comedy in the performance as a whole.

But then Maya pointed out something that should have been obvious… “Who cares if kids are staring at boobs?” says the author. “Boobs take care of the babies… When I turned on CSI the other night, there was a dead man with a worm in his eye. I was intrigued. But we aren’t allowed to look at the tops of boobs?”