Subversive Acts on ‘Saturday Night Live’ That Still Hold Up
There was a time when Saturday Night Live was considered a pretty edgy show with a “live, New York danger vibe,” according to original SNL writer Rosie Shuster. And sure enough, over the course of nearly 50 seasons, SNL has been home to some genuinely subversive comedy. Not all of the “outrageous” material has aged well — Dana Carvey’s “Ching Chang in Love” and Jimmy Fallon’s blackface imitation of Chris Rock come to mind — but another batch of the show’s subversive comedy has held up remarkably over the years. Here are some of our favorites…
Even SNL writer Anne Beatts, a woman who lived with Michael O’Donoghue, for Pete’s sake, found Kaufman eccentric. “He twitches!” she said of Kaufman’s many oddball appearances on SNL. Here in his Foreign Man guise, Kaufman does terrible impressions, tells meandering jokes and eventually breaks into tears. The audience is with him, we think, but there are long stretches of silence when everyone in the studio is just trying to figure out what he’s up to. “I don’t know if you’re laughing at me or with me,” he says in a timid voice.
In time, Kaufman’s brand of anti-humor would become commonplace, even the norm, but it was pretty weird in 1976. He got actual hate mail for challenging women to wrestle on SNL, an example of off-putting antics that would eventually lead to viewers voting him off the show forever. But Kaufman got the last laugh this week when he was selected to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
From the beginning, Brooks was both a pillar of Saturday Night Live and the guy who didn’t fit in. Unlike other cast members, Brooks was left to his own devices to create short films like this:
Pre-taped weirdness is normal now, thanks to Lonely Island and Please Don’t Destroy. But Brooks’ tenure didn’t last long, thanks to his habit of turning in 13-minute films (about triple his allotted time). Brooks was jettisoned along with the Muppets as SNL decided to focus on its Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Things worked out okay for Brooks though — his short films were his first foray into filmmaking, a process he’d perfect with equally subversive features like Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America.
Terry Sweeney’s Nancy Reagan
You want to talk subversive? How about SNL’s first openly gay cast member performing in drag as a prominent member of the conservative First Family — and doing it in the early days of the AIDS crisis?
Al Franken actually suggested that Sweeney try the character, noting his resemblance to both Nancy and Ron Jr. — it became his most popular (and polarizing) recurring sketch. It’s telling that none of these gender-bending bits are currently available on SNL’s YouTube channel, and they appear to have been snipped from Peacock episodes as well. But these days, Out praises the sketches as “significant in a time when the first couple stayed silent during the AIDS epidemic.”
Costello wasn’t long into playing “Less than Zero” when he interrupted himself. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here,” he blurted before launching the Attractions into a rousing version of “Radio Radio.” Believe it or not, NBC had forbidden Costello from playing the song as it was an overt attack on the radio establishment (of which NBC was a part).
While it’s doubtful any impressionable ears were swayed by “Radio Radio” and its spite for a medium that instructed young people to do as they were told, its indictment of the evils of mass media still resonates. Even SNL agreed, poking fun at itself on its 25th-anniversary show with Costello bum-rushing a Beastie Boys performance to recreate the controversy.
Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase Play Word Association
Many SNL sketches that were shocking in their time seem tame today. Not “Word Association,” a job interview sketch with Corporate White Guy Chase asking tough questions to Black Applicant Pryor. It scared the hell out of NBC execs, who put the whole thing on tape delay.
As Pryor was about to be offered the job, Chase suggested one final psychological test, a word association exercise that started with innocuous jargon before progressing into a passive-aggressive exchange of racial epithets. “The tension generated by Pryor and Chevy during this sketch could be felt distinctly in the audience, and there was a nervous edge to the laughter not usually associated with TV comedy,” according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live.
After Pryor died in 2005, Lorne Michaels told the New York Times that the sketch “defined us. It put us on the map.” But longtime Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney based the sketch on his difficulty being accepted by NBC and Michaels as a writer for the show that week. “Easiest sketch I ever write,” Mooney said. “All I do is bring out what is going on beneath the surface of that interview with Lorne and the NBC execs.” The sketch reportedly inspired future comics, including Arsenio Hall, Robert Townsend and In Living Color creator Keenen Ivory Wayans.
Nora Dunn’s Dice Boycott
In some ways, it made sense for SNL to book Andrew Dice Clay as host in 1990 — after all, he was selling out Madison Square Garden as the hottest comic in America. But cast member Nora Dunn wanted no part of Clay’s misogynistic act and opted out of that week’s show. “He had a routine about sticking a woman’s head into the toilet, fucking her up the ass and then telling her to make him some eggs,” Dunn has argued. “Where’s the joke?”
Dunn caught heat from fellow cast members (“I think the Andrew Dice Clay thing was totally a publicity stunt on Nora’s part,” sniffed Victoria Jackson) and Michaels, who didn’t appreciate finding out about her boycott in the press. Jan Hooks has implied the boycott was the end of Dunn’s SNL tenure: “I know there was a meeting before Nora was due in the following week … and we took a vote. Get her out of here! Get her out of here!”
In a #MeToo era, Dunn’s stand would likely be heard by friendlier ears — though admittedly, threats of a cast boycott over the 2021 Elon Musk show changed nothing.
The audience silence after Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of the Pope with the challenge to “fight the real enemy” tells you all you need to know about the stunt’s real-time reception. O’Connor’s act became a national controversy, but Michaels respected what O’Connor had done. “It was the bravest possible thing she could do,” he has said. “She’d been a nun. To her, the church symbolized everything that was bad about growing up in Ireland the way she grew up in Ireland, and so she was making a strong political statement.”
But there was more to it than that, as O’Connor was one of the first to shine a light on rampant child abuse within the Church. In 2001, less than 10 years after O’Connor was obliterated for the performance, Pope John Paul II himself apologized for the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. “I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” O’Connor told Today in 2021. “But it was very traumatizing.”
Conspiracy Theory Rock
Well, Robert Smigel, we have to hand it to you — creating a cartoon in 1998 about how your bosses at General Electric are giving everyone cancer? That takes guts.
“The notion that global businesses were running the world was basically the theme of the piece. It was a very clever sketch,” said Rick Ludwin, NBC vice president for late night. “Standards tentatively okayed it, and we put it on, and it aired once. But then it got pulled from the repeats. And Smigel, I remember, was all upset about it being taken out of the repeats. I said, ‘Robert, it got on the air. You were not censored. It got on the first time.’ It got on once — but never again.”
Good thing you can watch it here! And though some of the names have consolidated, dang if it doesn’t still hold up.