Credit: SNL

From Kanye West to Barbara Streisand: The 12 most shocking moments in Saturday Night Live history

Saturday Night Live offers its guests, both musical and hosts, the opportunity to make a huge splash on a national stage. While some artists take the opportunity with gusto, carving out their own niche and forging a path to stardom by doing so. Others, however, just end up leaving the audience open-mouthed. As we get ready for the return of the show, we have SNL’s 10 most shocking moments.

It’s a varied list. Thanks to the unique way Saturday Night Live operates out of Studio 8H, there are plenty of opportunities for artist and personalities to either over-embellish or lose their cool. Standing under the spotlight has a habit of clearing your mind and focusing your thoughts, however, it also has a habit of blinding you entirely form what’s to come. In the array of shocking moments in this list, we have a little of both, some misguided people and some misguided ideas—all of them unmissable.

Saturday Night Live, the now-iconic late-night live television sketch comedy and variety show, has been running prolifically each week since launching in 1975. Having triumphed some of the most legendary comedians over the years, SNL has a long tradition of welcoming a wide range of eclectic stars to arguably the most high-profile stage in television, here is a list of those stars who hugely missed their mark.

SNL’s 12 most shocking moments:

Sinead O’Connor rips up the Pope

Sinéad O’Connor is a musician who has never been shy to make her opinion well known in the public eye. Nothing compares, however, to her now-infamous appearance performing on SNL in 1992.

Taking to the stage, the camera panned to O’Connor who, staring directly down the barrel, delivered an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley song ‘War’. The track choice, delivered as an attempt to protest against sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, was intended to flip Marley’s original war on racism to instead refer to child abuse.

O’Connor, who started to sing the lyrics: “We have confidence in good over evil,” then held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to the camera at the very moment she sang the word “evil” and began tearing it up in pieces, throwing them at the camera and stating: “Fight the real enemy”. Apparently, the photo was one that had been situated on her own mother’s wall since 1978.

“It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organisation that he represents,” she said in an interview with Time. “In Ireland, we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorised what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.”

At the time of the incident many people struggled to understand her actions and, a decade after the performance, she reflected: “It’s very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about, but outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood.”

Fear go crazy

During a documentary about the L.A. punks Fear, frontman Ving caught the attention of comedian, actor, singer and all-round SNL legend John Belushi who became fascinated by the band. After becoming so enamoured by Fear, Belushi went out of his way to see the group perform live multiple times before ultimately reaching out with a collaboration proposal.

After striking up a dialogue between the band, Belushi brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for a movie he was working on with the hope that the film’s closing credits would be soundtracked by the punk band. However, the producers decided against using the group. Wanting to make it up to Fear, who had now become his friends, Belushi decided to pull some strings behind the scenes on SNL for their Halloween special.

What ensued was total chaos. Upon entering the stage, boos rang around immediately as the New York natives who took offence to the band opening up with the words, “It’s great to be in New Jersey” which didn’t go down well. Undeterred, Fear played three songs: ‘I Don’t Care About You’, ‘Beef Bologna’, ‘New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones’, before a member of the mosh pit screamed into the microphone: “New York Sucks!” which resulted in their fourth song, ‘Let’s Have a War’ being pulled from the broadcast.

Later, a report in the New York Post would go on to claim that Fear caused $200,000 worth of damage to the SNL studio that night, destroying the green room, a mini-cam camera, two viewers and a viewing room. Unsurprisingly, the band were never invited back on to the programme but their performance lives down in punk folklore.

Martin Lawrence loses his head

Known for his somewhat erratic behaviour, Lawrence was handed the opportunity to host the show in 1994 and, as is customary, began his opening monologue. However, after days of rehearsals, Lawrence decided to go completely off-script on the big night.

Opening up with a serious discussion about the story of Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis, which included several jokes that already pushed the boundaries of SNL’s strict vulgarity rules, Lawrence descended into a bizarre tirade about the female’s private parts and the personal hygiene of women. The comments resulted in over 200 complaints and, according to some reports, caused protests from several SNL sponsors.

While SNL has since released clips of Lawrence’s monologue—which you can find below—the show has decided to completely remove the comedian’s comments about female hygiene. The full transcript can be found here but we’d suggest that the few lines including, “Um… some of you are not washing your ass properly,” which is how he begins the monologue before saying, “I’m watching douche commercials on television, and I’m wondering if some of you are reading the instructions. I don’t think so. Y’know, ’cause I’m getting with some of the ladies, smelling odours, going ‘Wait a minute’. Girl, smell this! This you! Smell yourself, girl,” are enough to put you off.

“Smell yourself! I tell a woman in a minute, douche! Douche! Some women don’t like it when you tell them that, when you straightforward with them. ‘Douche!”

It doesn’t get much better from there as the crowd pulls back from the conversation Lawrence is now having with himself, “I’m sorry, y’all. You got to wash properly. You know, and then, you know, ’cause I’m a man, I like to kiss on women, you know, I like to kiss all over their bodies, you know. But if you’re not clean in your proper areas I can’t.”

Kanye West’s pro-Trump speech

Kanye West has had a long and varied relationship with Saturday Night Live. The rapper, designer and politician has dominated the musical guest spots over the years, delivering the kind of performance that changes culture entirely. But one moment ranks as easily his most controversial on the show. For the show’s 44th series premiere West arrived on the show sporting a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat and gave a pro-Trump speech. “You see they’re laughing at me, they screamed at me,” West said onstage.

“They said, ‘Don’t go out there with that hat on.’ They bullied me backstage. They bullied me! And then they say I’m in a sunken place. You want to see the sunken place? Okay, I’m going to listen to y’all now, or I’m going to put my Superman cape on,” he said, replacing his MAGA cap. “This means you can’t tell me what to do.”

“There’s so many times I talked to a white person about this and they’re like, ‘How can you like Trump, he’s racist?’ Well, if I was concerned about racism I would have moved out of America a long time ago,” West said to the crowd at Studio 8H in New York. The moment came at the end of Kanye’s three-song set after the show had started to go off the air, so much of his speech was cut off.

The speech raised claims from the cast of the show that they had been duped into going on stage with West when he made the speech. He went on to say: “Follow your heart and stop following your mind. That’s how we’re controlled. That’s how we’re programmed. If you want the world to move forward, try love.” It was met with a splattering of cheers, a heavy number of boos and an overwhelming amount of confusion.

Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor get racist

Looking back at television from the seventies and eighties is a difficult thing to do these days. Chances are re-watching classic sitcoms or comedy programmes is always going to leave you in a problematic position, trying to align your 2020 values with your pre-millennium funny bone. However, there was one SNL moment which is truly baffling.

A simple game of word-association may well be the single most offensive piece of television SNL ever produced. The game, conducted between the late, great Richard Pryor and the disgraced Chevy Chase (something which makes this viewing all the more difficult), sees Pryor and Chase play word-association with Pryor having to add a word to Chase’s original.

Simple enough, right? Except on this occasion, clearly, the intention was to shock if not straight-up offend everyone in sight. As Chase delivers a series of words they get progressively worse with words like “tar-baby” and “coloured” receiving a similar but less-offensive response from Pryor. It’s quite possibly one of the most awkward pieces of television we’ve ever watched and to think it went out on national television is truly appalling.

Ashlee Simpson misses her cue

Ashlee Simpson, it is safe to say, falls into the category of people who suffered the career collapse on the biggest stage. In 2004, appearing on SNL to perform two songs, ran through a rendition of her single ‘Pieces of Me’ without a hitch. However, when the pop star returned to the stage to run through the title track of her debut album, Autobiography, things took a turn for the worst. While the band began to play the song, the vocals for the first track began to play and Simpson paused in horror. The lip-syncing plot had collapsed.

Clearly panicking, Simpson looked around at the band with the microphone held by her side with the vocals beating out unnervingly loud. After pulling off a series of improvised dance moves, Simpson walks off stage and producers cut the performance and head to a commercial. Returning at the end of the show alongside host Jude Law, Simpson passed off blame onto her band: “I feel so bad,” she said to the camera. “My band started playing the wrong song, and I didn’t know what to do, so I thought I’d do a hoedown. I’m sorry. It’s live TV. Things happen. I’m sorry.”

In the days that followed, Simpson was quoted by MTV as claiming to have lost her voice because of acid reflux and, under doctors orders, was ordered to use a backup track: “It’s so embarrassing because it sucks,” she said. “The total situation was a bummer. I made a complete fool of myself.”

With the media furore not slowing down, the singer then took to her official website to admit to lip-syncing: “I can’t cancel something like ‘SNL,”’ Simpson apparently wrote: “You and I know that even if I synched on it or not, I’d still get seen by millions, maybe even make a few more fans. I’ll hold my head high and say I think it was silly of me to do it, silly of me to blame the band, I was just so fucking embarrassed. But I don’t think it did me much harm, and people will see that soon.”

Cypress Hill spark up on stage

Cypress Hill, the now-iconic Californian hip-hop group, hit the headlines in 1993 when DJ Muggs smoked a joint during the live broadcast. Now, in reflection, Muggs’ actions hold less levity. But in 1993, when weed was still illegal in the state, Cypress Hill managed to cause quite the stir.

“Well, there’s a lot of stories behind why Muggs lit that joint,” Sen Dog later told Village Voice. “I remember Saturday Night Live gave us a green room and said, ‘Do whatever you want in here, just don’t light up out of here’. Muggs felt like he needed to make a statement with his performance. It wasn’t just the Saturday Night Live people saying he couldn’t smoke up on air. It was everyone: our record label, our management, our friends. I felt like, to me, Muggs wanted to make that statement.

“He asked me to light the joint up on stage, and I said, ‘I’m not doing that, man’. Before we did that second song, we agreed that we weren’t going to light up nothing. If you look, I was surprised that he did that. People loved it—people at the show loved it, because at the after-party they said, ‘That was so cool’. But when the hammer swung and we were banned from Saturday Night Live forever, we understood how serious it was. And understandably so — the world wasn’t ready for anything near that at that time.”

Nowadays, celebrities smoking weed is usual, natural almost, but then it was a step too far. “If he did it now, I don’t know what kind of backlash he’d have, but in the early ’90s, it earned us a kick in the ass from Saturday Night Live, and I haven’t seen that episode in reruns. It would have been cool to do Saturday Night Live again, but me personally, I didn’t think it was a great thing to do for our first time on SNL, but we paid the price and we moved on.”

Inglorious Jesus

Sometimes shocking the audience at home is part of the SNL plan and when the sketch show welcomed Tarantino legend, Christoph Waltz to the programme they made sure that things would go off with a bang.

They certainly did that when they cast him in a blood-splattering as Jesus Christ. Fresh off the back of both Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, two films built on the foundations of bullets, blood and gore, Waltz’s performance as a decapitating deity sent shockwaves through the SNL audience.

“The ultimate revenge film” may have been how the show tried to sell the skit but the truth was that it offended almost everybody. Not only did it offend both Christians and Muslims watching the show but it also offended the SNL sponsors with both JC Penny and Sear pulling advertisement spend from the NBC stalwart.

“The H is silent” but the audience at home never are.

Andy Kauffman gets the boot

In the storied career of legendary personality Andy Kauffman, there is one title which he holds that no other comedian, musician, actor or otherwise has ever held in connection to Saturday Night Live. He is the only star to have ever been banned from the show by those watching at home.

Kauffman had been a long-standing feature artist for the show and had been a part of as many as nine different episodes in his career since the show began in 1975, all of them weird and wonderful. But, in 1983, the show held a poll to determine whether or not Kauffman was allowed to make more appearances on the show. The votes came in and Kauffman lost out.

The vote, split between “Dump Andy” and “Keep Andy”, saw a mammoth amount of entries and the ballots split 195,544 to 169,186 respectively. The show, never a series to avoid public demand, bowed to the votes and Kauffman never returned to the show. Sadly, there wouldn’t have been many opportunities to overthrow this as Kauffman died of lung cancer just a year later.

Elvis Costello sticks it to the man

In 1977, Elvis Costello released his debut album My Aim Is True and not only earned a name for himself in Great Britain but also a growing fanbase over in America. However, he wasn’t a superstar by any means so an opportunity to catapult his career Stateside was one that Costello needed to grab with both hands.

Costello had never even toured in America and was relatively unknown before his appearance. However, with a slice of fortune, he would find himself in the most coveted slot in television and this was his chance to become a household name overnight. After Sex Pistols pulled out, he was drafted in at the last minute and was performing to tens of millions on primetime American television.

Costello, his label and the show’s producers had agreed prior to the live show that band would perform their catchy single ‘Less Than Zero’, a track which was written about disgraced British politician Oswald Mosley. However, as the lights of the famous studio glared down upon him, Costello wouldn’t miss his mark. While it certainly was considered the band’s biggest opportunity to date, Costello put a stop to the performance mid-intro, yelling: “Stop! Stop!” in the direction of his band. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he added, “but there’s no reason to do this song here.”

Instead, Costello and his band rolled into a performance of the song ‘Radio Radio’ which, controversially, includes lyrics that criticised the commercialisation of the airwaves in both television and radio as well as pointed the finger at corporate-controlled broadcasting. This move angered Lorne Michaels who was beside himself with rage with some reports stating that the producer stood with his middle finger raised at the singer during the entire performance.

Barbara Streisand appears from nowhere

Mike Myers had a fantastic run as apart of the cast of SNL. The comedian and actor was quick-witted and had a great nose for what was funny, it made him one of the show’s searing writers during his tenure. It also produced classic SNL sketches such as ‘Coffee Talk’.

A fictional chit-chat show which saw Myers provide one of his classic characters in Linda Richman. The recurring sketch saw Richman talk about current events the way only a Jewish mother could. As well as normally chatter and the odd skit here and there, the fictional show always featured a moment for Barbara Streisand.

It made the moment Babs finally walked out to join ‘Coffee Talk’ all the more impressive. Richman, sitting with Madonna and Roseanne Barr also made-up as guests, was left stunned when, trying to wrap up the show, the Barbara Streisand walked out on stage and left the entire nation agog. A classic.

Adrien Brody makes some bad choices

Adrien Brody’s ‘Best Actor’ Oscar made him the youngest actor to win in the accolade for The Pianist, a celebration of a quite spectacular performance which established Brody as a Hollywood superstar. However, in the world of television, the actor has had less success.

Brody’s first foray into the world of TV fell awfully flat. The actor was booked to host Saturday Night Live on May 10, 2003, and would make the crucial mistake of taking to the stage in an improvised skit which was later rightly criticised as racially offensive.

Going against all the pre-planning and preparation, Brody went off-script and walked on stage to present his intro wearing faux dreadlocks and began to don a Jamaican accent in reference to the fact that the show were planning to welcome Jamaican reggae musical guest Sean Paul to perform. “Ya, ya, ya, ya, you know, man. We got original rude boy Sean Paul here,” Brody begins to say as the crowd falls silent.

He continues: “Respect all respect. My auntie. Respect all aspect, respect me neck, respect me knees, Big up Jamaica massive! Big up Kingston Massive! We got the whole family now, ya here! Big respect to my man Sean Paul the dance floor killer!” The skit, which has largely been removed from the internet despite the short clip below, lasts less than a minute but, in truth, trying to watch it until the end is almost impossible.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content