SNL, or Saturday Night Live, the now-iconic late-night live television sketch comedy and variety show, has been running weekly since launching in 1975. Each episode features a musical guest, in the shape of a solo act or a band, who will then perform two or three tracks after being introduced by the show’s host. Please make no mistake about it, being booked to perform on SNL can make or break a musician.
While some artists are asked to perform a set of songs as the musical guest spot, others are given even more license and welcomed as a guest host. When Frank Zappa, the mercurial musical maestro behind some of the most searing sounds of the seventies, arrived at the famous Studio 8H, the cast and crew must’ve been exhilarated with the untapped potential the musican would have. Known for his creativity, the singer was expected to land with a flash and a bang. Unfortunately, he did neither and was promptly banned by the show from ever appearing again.
Over the years, SNL has seen several acts break the rules and find themselves on the wrong end of famed producer Lorne Michaels’ wrath. While the likes of Sinead O’Connor, System of a Down, Rage Against The Machine and more have all made a statement in their moment of madness, Frank Zappa’s addition to the banned list is nothing more than a little bit sad, especially in comparison to the aforementioned stars and, in honesty, his own career.
The mercurial talent, the multi-instrumentalist musician, the pioneer of counterculture and experimental free-form improvisation, was expected to deliver a swirling performance as guest host. Instead, Zappa fell flat on his face after being invited onto Saturday Night Live for the October 21, 1978 episode. His performance was muted, and his appearance was a black mark on the show.
Originally welcomed to SNL as the featured musical guest, Zappa also took up hosting duties in what can only be described as a cringe-worthy scenario. Looking like a fish-out-of-water, the singer has never been one to really enjoy television, Zappa struggled to interact with the production staff of SNL before the show aired and therefore lacked any real connection. In fact, the musician seemingly made it his overall goal to avoid contact with anybody associated with the show in the build-up to his big moment.
Clearly out of his comfort zone and unsure how to conform to SNL’s strict guidelines and his own moral compass, Zappa decided the best approach for him to take on the biggest stage was one of nonconformity — a stance that goes in line with his prolific career of avoiding the mainstream. It’s a bold statement but not one that would have translated across the airwaves.
Kicking things off, Zappa starts the show by reminding the audience to “keep in mind” that he is reading off of cue cards and, from there, continued to hammer home the fact that he is not taking the position as host of the show with any sincerity or adding any creativity. While it may have been an ironic humour attempt, Zappa’s efforts fell flat across all aspects.
His refusal to make an effort with SNL staff in the rehearsal week before the recording would become a major downfall. While some of the specific details of what happened behind the scenes have yet to surface, several cast members eventually refused to participate during the “goodnight” segment at the end of the show in protest of Zappa’s role.
The eventual line from SNL was that Zappa was banned after doing a “disastrous job of hosting the show” 1978.