Listen to Frank Zappa read a passage from William Burroughs book 'Naked Lunch', 1978
(Credit: Jean-Luc)

The reason Frank Zappa was banned from SNL is actually pretty sad

We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to look back at the reason Frank Zappa was banned from SNL for quite possibly the most pathetic reason we’ve ever heard.

Saturday Night Live may well be one of the most lucrative late-night shows of all time and the chance to perform as either the musical guest or the host is a commercial opportunity not to be missed. However, some artists don’t seem to realise the chance they have to reach a national audience or perhaps they do and are keen to make a point. It’s safe to say that Frank Zappa did neither and still found himself banned.

The mercurial talent, the multi-instrumentalist musician, the pioneer of counterculture and experimental free-form improvisation, Frank Zappa fell flat on his face after being invited onto Saturday Night Live for the October 21, 1978 episode. Usually one of the most dynamic performers you’re ever likely to see, on this occasion Zappa had zero zip.

Welcomed to the show as the featured musical guest, Zappa doubled down on his national opportunity and also took up hosting duties. What transpired can only be described as one of the most cringe-worthy scenarios we’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps it was the spirit of the sixties that was rumbling inside Zappa’s stomach and the chance to rally against the mainstream was too tempting to avoid.

If he did intend to purposefully disrupt the running of SNL then he did a fine job of making it appear unintentional. Looking like a fish-out-of-water, Zappa struggled to interact with the production staff of SNL prior to the show. 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.

Anyone who is aware of the SNL backstage and the furious vehemence that can be found there knows that it is not an ensemble to be messed with. The general rule is that if you make friends with SNL they become family but if you don’t, it’s a war you won’t win.

Clearly out of his comfort zone and unsure how to conform to SNL’s strict guidelines, Zappa seemingly 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.

Kicking things off, Zappa starts the show by reminding the audience to “keep in mind” that he is reading off of cue cards. It was an awkwardness that TV isn’t used to and, from there, Zappa continued to hammer home the fact that he is not taking the position as host of the show with any sincerity—it compromised everything. While it may have been an attempt at ironic humour, Zappa’s efforts fell flat across all aspects of the show.

His refusal to make an effort with SNL staff in the week of rehearsal prior to the recording would go on to become his major downfall. While some of the specific details of what happened behind the scenes have yet to surface, a number of cast members eventually refused to take part during the “goodnight” segment at the end of the show in protest of Zappa’s role, which was, in turn, a protest at SNL.

The eventual line from SNL was that Zappa was banned after doing a “disastrous job of hosting the show” 1978. There you have it, Frank Zappa was so bad that he was banned. Not a great endorsement for one of the most dynamic artists of all time.

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