“Saturday Night Live,” or “SNL,” as it’s more commonly called now, began in 1975 as a “pioneering concept” meant to “attract 18 to 34-year-old viewers” during the relatively unpopular Saturday night programming slot (via Far Out). The outlet claims that the now-popular sketch show operated “on the periphery of culture” until 1978 when mainstream viewers began to pay it more attention. “SNL” has transformed into more than just a sketch show; the program is one of the biggest institutions in the comedy industry, churning out star after star thanks to its brutal weekly schedule that keeps both writers and performers awake for days at a time in the name of comedy creation (via E!).
Most viewers expect a certain level of lewdness from the decades-old comedy program. The show’s popularity means that sometimes, sketches are seen by more conservative circles who undoubtedly take offense to inappropriate or blasphemous comedy. Less frequently, however, are the sketches that truly offend — ones that make even the most seasoned comedy fans uncomfortable, leaving some viewers wondering how the skit made it past so many levels of review. Blame it on hypersensitivity, sleep deprivation, or plain bad taste — these are the most controversial sketches in “SNL”‘s long history.
The fat-shaming Chippendale's Audition
The 1990 sketch “Chippendale’s Audition” is just one of the many moments that has made Chris Farley a household name even decades after his death. Featuring a svelte Patrick Swayze pitted against a heavy-set Farley during an erotic dancer audition, the sketch highlighted Farley’s signature physical comedy style. With nearly seven million YouTube views, it’s still one of the most popular “SNL” sketches of all time.
While the sketch was popular with audiences, it caused controversy amongst Farley’s coworkers at “SNL.” In Farley’s biography, “The Chris Farley Show,” Chris Rock claims he “hated” the sketch, continuing that “a more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn’t have done it.” Bob Odenkirk wished Farley “never would have done” the sketch, and “couldn’t believe anyone liked it enough to put it on the show.”
Writer Rober Smigel, however, felt the sketch didn’t deserve all the hate — according to Entertainment Weekly, he told Howard Stern that it was “very empowering” for audience members to see Farley “completely proud, just unashamed and going for it.” Rock wholeheartedly disagreed. “As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades as he got for it, it’s one of the things that killed him,” Rock said. “It really is. Something happened right then.”
Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor shock a nation
The “SNL” we know today isn’t exactly known for its edgy, dark comedy. Sure, we get the occasional hit sketch featuring a paedophilic robot, but for the most part, sketches that make mothers gasp are more commonly seen on shows like “Key & Peele” and “The Eric Andre Show.” But this was 1975 when “SNL” was a new kind of sketch program fueled by cocaine and sleep deprivation (via HuffPost) that pushed the boundaries — for better or worse — established by programs like “The Carol Burnett Show.”
One of the most infamous sketches out of Season 1 was “Word Association,” in which Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor toss slurs back-and-forth until Chase eventually blurts out the N-word, much to Pryor’s horror. The sketch still both shocks viewers and receives accolades today — Rolling Stone boldly claims that the sketch was “the last time a white guy said the N-word on TV and actually diffused racial tensions rather than ignited them” — but at the time, the bit was unlike anything ever aired on network television.
The sketch was written by Pryor’s writing partner, Paul Mooney. In his memoir, Mooney said the sketch was inspired by his own experience as a Black man being interviewed by white network executives. Mooney called “Word Association” the “easiest sketch” he’d ever written, adding, “all I do is bring out what is going on beneath the surface of that interview with Lorne and the NBC execs.” Like it or not, “Word Association” has earned its place in television history.
Tebow offends Christians
How do you explain the cultural phenomenon that was Tim Tebow to folks who didn’t experience it? “He was good at football, but he was great at praying” seems like a flippant way to describe Tebow’s extreme popularity in 2013, which made it the perfect route for “SNL” to take when mocking the tight end’s showy devotion to the Lord. In “Jesus Visits Tim Tebow and The Denver Broncos,” Jason Sudeikis plays a laid-back Jesus Christ who is exhausted with helping the Broncos win game after game — it’s interfering with his work attending other events where he’s frequently called up, like the Country Music Awards and beauty pageants.
By the end of the sketch, Christ exits with a plea for Tebow to “take it down a notch” with his love of Jesus, a plot point that some Christians did not appreciate. Famous televangelist Pat Robertson (via Entertainment Weekly) claimed the sketch was an example of “anti-Christian bigotry,” adding an Islamophobic claim that “if this had been a Muslim country and they had done that, and had Muhammad doing that stuff, you would have found bombs being thrown off and bodies on the street.” Mediate writes that Robertson wasn’t alone — Fox News’ Bob Beckel called the sketch “despicable” for portraying Christianity in a negative light.
Jimmy Fallon's blackface scandal
In 2000, “SNL” cast member Jimmy Fallon regrettably donned blackface in an impersonation of Chris Rock. The sketch was largely forgotten for two decades and it doesn’t exist on “SNL”‘s official YouTube account, until a clip resurfaced on Twitter, resulting in the hashtag #JimmyFallonIsOverParty and a public apology where Fallon admitted that there was “no excuse” for his “terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface.” Fallon also spoke with NAACP president Derrick Johnson on “The Tonight Show,” where he said he was “horrified and embarrassed” by his past mistakes.
In response to the scandal, Rock told The New York Times “I’m friends with Jimmy. Jimmy’s a great guy. And he didn’t mean anything,” adding that, “a lot of people want to say intention doesn’t matter, but it does. And I don’t think Jimmy Fallon intended to hurt me. And he didn’t.” Blackface, though, hurts a lot more people than just the target of the joke.
Just don't talk about genitalia
According to The Economist, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined that “fleeting uses” of words such as “penis” “do not render the material patently offensive under contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” “SNL” took full advantage of that fact in their 1988 “nude beach” sketch, where “penis” is uttered not once, not twice, but 42 times. Now, can we get a definition of “fleeting?”
The sketch portrays Matthew Broderick attending a nude beach for the first time. He’s self-conscious, but no worries — according to his friend, played by Dana Carvey, he’s got “nothing to worry about” since “everyone is here just to relax.” Of course, Broderick’s fears are immediately confirmed when a group of men approach Carvey with a greeting: “Penis looks great today!” The men then turn to Broderick with friendly smiles: “Hey, Doug. Pretty small penis there!” The sketch taps into the self-conscious paranoia we all feel in new situations — and offended plenty of people in the process.
“Nude Beach” was a cultural phenomenon, even making its way into academic books. In “The Domesticated Penis: How Womanhood Has Shaped Manhood,” Loretta Comier and Sharon Jones write that the sketch, co-written by Conan O’Brien, “received over 40,000 letters of complaint” in an “enormous” display of “public outrage.” We’d like to say times have changed — but all evidence leads us to believe the sketch would receive just as much hate if it aired in the 2020s.
Fred Armisen mocks a blind man
Fred Armisen’s “Weekend Update” characters include fan-favorites like “political comedian” Nicholas Fehn and kitschy folk singer Garth. He tends to get away with pretty much anything, but when Armisen tried his hand at mimicking David Paterson, then-governor of New York State, the response wasn’t so charitable. Armisen portrayed Paterson, who is blind, as a bumbling man who didn’t know where he was on stage and committed gaffes like holding charts upside-down.
Many viewers, including the governor himself, were not impressed with Armisen’s mockery of Paterson’s disability. According to The New York Times, Paterson’s office released a statement saying that the sketch “unfortunately chose to ridicule people with physical disabilities and imply that disabled people are incapable of having jobs with serious responsibilities,” adding that while “the governor engages in humor all the time,” the sketch was more “offensive” than funny.
The bit came to an end when Paterson himself appeared alongside Armisen on “Weekend Update” to announce that “jokes that degrade people just for their disabilities are sophomoric and stupid,” which received a round of applause from the audience. When the cast apologized to him, Paterson responded with the final punch: “You have poked so much fun at me for being blind that I forgot I was Black.” Paterson, it seems, took the sketch in stride — and shared some of his own quips in the process.
A Tiger Woods sketch makes light of domestic abuse
In 2009, Tiger Woods made headlines when he crashed his car after his wife, Elin Nordegren, broke his rear windows with a golf club (via People). Woods was the kind of athlete whose superstardom eclipsed the sport of golf; everyone, including folks whose knowledge of the game was limited to putt-putt, could recognize Woods’ face on a box of Wheaties. When news of the accident broke, outlets like The Atlantic quickly speculated that the incident was an act of domestic violence on Nordegren’s part after she discovered that Woods was cheating. The incident temporarily ended Woods’ career — and inspired a controversial “SNL” sketch that made light of domestic violence.
In the sketch, Kenan Thompson plays a bewildered Woods, who is being interviewed with his wife — played by Blake Lively — by Wolf Blitzer. “Wow… I’ve been really clumsy this week,” says Thompson, who appears in bandages and a sling. Lively appears next to him with a golf club as Thompson’s cell phone begins to ring. “Who’s that?” asks Lively — and the scene is abruptly cut short before Thompson returns with even more injuries.
Viewers online erupted with criticism, according to The New York Times. The sketch couldn’t have had worse timing (if there’s ever good timing for jokes about beating your spouse) as it was aired just months after Chris Brown reportedly assaulted Rihanna — who was the musical guest of the night.
If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.
Jenny Slate dropped an F-bomb
According to PRX’s censorship guide, “obscene content” is not protected by the First Amendment — meaning that use of the F-word on broadcast television is still not completely allowed, even decades after George Carlin illuminated the absurdity of censoring “seven dirty words.” Although the FCC’s censorship of profanity is loosening, “SNL” still refuses to get too profane. In the words of Far Out, “SNL”‘s vigilant self-censorship is “the kind of thing that makes ‘SNL’ legendary and keeps Lorne Michaels’ name in the good books of advertisers everywhere.”
That means that using that word, that verbal Voldemort so devastating to prudish ears that half the time we only refer to it in euphemism, can get you banned from “SNL” for life. And while Jenny Slate wasn’t the first “SNL” cast member to utter the big bad f-bomb, she had the misfortune of slipping into the phrase during her very first sketch on the legendary show.
While Slate’s use of the word was a complete accident, viewers still speculated that the incident was the reason she only lasted one season as a cast member. In an interview with InStyle, Slate refuted that claim, saying that profanity was not the reason she was fired from the show. “I didn’t do a good job, I didn’t click … All I know is, it didn’t work for me, and I got fired.”
Louis CK's monologue doesn't exactly land
Now-fallen star Louis CK was on top of the world in 2015. Between his popular stand-up specials and hit TV show “Louie,” it seemed that the comedian could get away with nearly anything. CK was known for twisting absurd and disgusting topics into palatable observations — but this method didn’t quite work during CK’s “SNL” opening monologue.
The comedian took his hosting gig as an opportunity to express his disappointment that the child molester who lived in his childhood neighborhood “didn’t like” him. He then quipped that for a pedophile, the horrifying act of molesting a child “must be amazing, for them to risk so much” before acknowledging that his controversial jokes would likely get him banned from the show.
While some people, like radio host Opie Hughes, thought the set was fantastic, most folks weren’t so charitable about CK’s attempt to humanize sex offenders. Hollywood Reporter compiled a list of reactions tweeted by viewers — people called the bit “yucky,” speculated that people who enjoyed the monologue must be “predators themselves, or victims of sexual abuse,” and claimed that it was “the unfunniest, most offensive” opening monologue ever shown on “SNL.” The drama surrounding the bit seems even more justified when you consider that just two years later, CK was finally exposed to the public as a serial sex offender (via Vox), a scandal that effectively ended his career.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
ISIS doesn't make a great punchline
During the 2015 Super Bowl, Toyota released a tear-jerker of an ad that showed a father dropping his daughter off to join the army. The writing staff at “SNL” clearly found the ad ridiculous and wrote a spoof of the spot starring the week’s host, Dakota Johnson. In “SNL”‘s version of the commercial, Johnson and Taran Killam play a father and daughter sharing an emotional moment outside of an official-looking building. When the time comes for Johnson to leave the car, however, she doesn’t walk in to join the army — instead, she jumps into a truck filled with ISIS members. “Take care of her,” a teary Killam tells an ISIS member. “Death to America,” the militant quietly says back, before speeding off into the distance.
At the time, as reported by ABC News, there were several women from the west who were leaving their home countries to join the terrorist group. The commercial parody took aim at both the women joining ISIS and the overly emotional tone of the original Toyota commercial — but for many folks, the joke just didn’t land. The New York Post compiled some of the outrage (and support) expressed on Twitter, where viewers called it “the most unfunny” “SNL” sketch ever. “Sorry, but no laughing matter. Ever.” said one Twitter user. Some people, however, loved the parody — as one tweet said of ISIS, “There’s no group more deserving of ridicule.”
Djesus Uncrossed offends basically everybody
“SNL” is known for its parody trailers of box office hits, and the popular film “Django Unchained” was no exception. The sketch, titled “Djesus Uncrossed,” portrayed the prince of peace taking his revenge on the Roman officials that had him crucified in a dramatic, action-filled trailer that featured swords, guns, and lots of blood. He’s not exactly the Jesus you may have learned about in Sunday school.
Predictably, the sketch enraged some conservative Christians. One thinkpiece posted on Before It’s News exclaimed “This pretend movie trailer is not in the least way funny. It is, frankly, sick. It is pure adulterated blasphemy of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of mankind,” continuing to give NBC the moniker of the “Nothing But Corruption network.” More surprising, though, was that the sketch also angered the Council on American-Islamic Relations — according to The Atlantic, the Council called the sketch “extremely offensive to Muslims and to all those who believe in his message,” continuing to say that “such a distasteful portrayal of a religious figure revered by billions of Muslims and Christians worldwide crosses the comedic line.” The folks at “SNL” likely expected the backlash — after all, what else can you expect when you’re Tarantino-ing the Bible?
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