Hosting the acclaimed late-night comedy sketch behemoth known as Saturday Night Live is one of the biggest guest spots on television. The opportunity to appear on such a legendary show is one thing but having famously always offered its hosts a degree of control on that night’s proceedings, hosting SNL quickly became a mark of your talent too.
Some celebrities take on the opportunity to host the show with gusto, getting laughs in the monologue, playing their part in the skits and even being a general good host backstage whenever possible, paying respect to the show’s esteem. If you do all of those things then chances are you’ll be asked back, you may even become a part of the Five-Timers Club, which includes Drew Barrymore, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and a host of other stars, who have all hosted five times or more. If you don’t get laughs, don’t play your part and aren’t cool backstage, chances are you’re getting banned. Enter Steven Seagal.
Seagal hosted the show on April 20th back in 1991 and gave perhaps the most excruciatingly painful performance as host. In fact, it was so outright, car-crash terrible, that Lorne Michaels, a man famed for his strict control over the show, labelled him the “worst host ever”. Considering he has presided over some seriously terrible hosts, many of whom were subsequently banned from the show, it’s no small feat. At the time, Seagal was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, so why did it all go wrong?
The truth of the matter is, Seagal never really fit in with the cast. Seagal was an action movie star but his real talent lay in the genuine martial arts, meaning he wasn’t exactly the Hollywood type. Seagal, instead, was an extremely focused heavily wooden personality to bounce off of, it meant that every skit fell dramatically flat with his heavy delivery landing on toes across the cast. In an action movie, with explosions and bare-knuckle fighting, the actor’s demeanour is wholly missed or in-line with the seriousness of saving the world from a terrorist organisation or whatever it may be that time. But in a comedy show, and a critically acclaimed one at that, Seagal came across as quite possibly the least funny person of all time.
It must be painful to be banned from a show, not for swearing (System of a Down), smoking weed on stage (Cypress Hill), or just causing absolute mayhem (Fear), but because you’re just really uncomfortable to watch. What didn’t help was that Seagal was also acting with an air of grace that the cast didn’t particularly enjoy. The facts are that if you arrive at 30 Rock without your attitude aligned and tuned into the kind of show the cast were making, you were going to fall foul of their expectations and, in turn, Michaels’ temper.
That’s exactly what happened to Steven Seagal in 1991 when he appeared as a guest host on the show. Not necessarily known for his affable nature, Seagal struggled to make sketches work with a rather wooden persona, even when he took on the role of a non-violent Greenpeace member who turns into a killer, he still couldn’t muster much of a giggle from the audience.
“He just wasn’t funny and he was very critical of the cast and the writing staff,” former cast member Tim Meadows later recalled. “He didn’t realise that you can’t tell somebody they’re stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday.”
Seagal’s work was considered so bad, in fact, that his show was censored from when the show went on Netflix, hiding his episode in the 1990 series. But there is some respite for Seagal. Over time, Michaels has lessened his critique of Seagal, even going so far as to relinquish some of the blame from him, suggesting most of the cast were having a tough time focusing, “that was a week where nothing was going right; an off week in all”.
Seagal has since been impersonated on the show six times with Bill Hader and Will Ferrell offering some expert mimics of the star. While Michaels may have admonished Seagal’s performance, it’s hard to see how it isn’t the producer’s fault in the first place.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but we couldn’t think of a worse host for SNL. Bring down an entire criminal organisation with a karate chop? Yes. Have one of the most majestic ponytails in movie history? Certainly. Host SNL? Never.