The Worst Highly Anticipated Returns to ‘Saturday Night Live’
When Will Ferrell returned to host Saturday Night Live for the first time after leaving the show in 2002, he thought it would be a blast. “But then I realized, ‘Oh, you kinda can’t go home; you can’t ever go back home in a way,’” he explained. “It’s not anyone’s fault — you’re just on the outside. It is a very strange transition.”
Some who come back to SNL, like Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy in recent years, reappear as triumphant heroes. But there have been a number of times over the show’s 48 seasons when highly anticipated returns ended in disaster. Such as…
Chevy Chase wrote the textbook on how not to return to SNL. As Chase was the first cast member to break out as a star and fly the coop, he was also the first to come back as host. And he effed it up royally.
First, there was the Jane Curtin debacle. After Chase left, anchoring Weekend Update became Curtin’s gig and she was damn good at it. But when Chase returned to host, he asked Lorne Michaels to kick her to the curb because “his fans wanted to see him” hosting the fake news. Curtin didn’t put up a fight. “You sit there and you have pieces of your arm bitten off and then you leave,” she remembers in SNL oral history Live From New York. “But it heals. It grows back.”
“That was somewhat egocentric of me because Jane had been doing it all year,” Chase reflected later. “It was not thoughtful in that sense.” Gee, you think?
The mistreatment of Curtin was just one of the bees buzzing in the bonnet of one Bill Murray. “It seems like there was a tension between Chevy and Billy all along during the week. I don’t know if Chevy provoked it or not. But it culminated with Billy saying to Chevy, ‘Why don’t you fuck your wife once in a while?’” remembered Laraine Newman, who can't recall which one of the comics threw the first punch. “But it was ugly. I’d never seen guys fighting like that, let alone people I knew. And you know, I don’t know how he did it, but Chevy went out and did the monologue a few minutes later. Watching him from the floor, he seemed shattered.”
Catch that Season Three episode on Peacock, and you can see what Newman is talking about — a cold open with Chase as Gerald Ford is halting and disjointed, which one could attribute to a “funny” impression of the president. But Chase is clearly discombobulated, and no wonder, since he’d been in a fistfight five minutes earlier.
Unlike Chase’s disaster, we won’t put the blame on Murray for his disappointing return to the show. He simply had the misfortune of agreeing to host during Season Six, the SNL year we ranked dead last among its 48.
The Peacock version of the episode clocks in at a spare 22 minutes, giving you some idea of how much of the mess NBC felt was worth preserving for future generations. Despite the thrill of seeing young Murray sitting next to a practically adolescent Eddie Murphy, the show’s opening sketch consists of the mopey cast telling Murray how much everyone hates their show. “Yeah, I read that stuff,” he tells the about-to-be-fired cast. “Saturday Night Live is Saturday Night Dead.” No matter what the new cast did, some people would say the old show was better, Murray consoled the comics before admitting, “and maybe it was.”
Murray knew and liked Lorne Michaels’ replacement, Jean Doumanian, from the time they both worked on the show and he wanted to help. “So I went in there. It was a tough week. We worked really hard writing and rewriting,” Murray has said. Part of the problem, in Murray's view, was the new kids didn't understand how hard they had to work to make a great show. Comparisons to the original cast didn't help: “They were going through their first brush with fame, even at the level they were at. The world just wasn’t ready for a brand-new group, so it was incredibly tough for them.”
The first time Lohan hosted Saturday Night Live in 2004, she was only 19 and riding high on the success of Mean Girls. Although Lohan didn’t drive the success of the first Debbie Downer sketch, she’ll always be remembered for being part of one of the biggest cast crack-ups in the show’s history. “I’ve never had so much fun just doing something,” Lohan told Vogue. “It’s just the best.”
The New York Times thought “she did a surprisingly good job. Ms. Lohan, who has been in and out of rehab in recent years, seemed to be having a good time, and she brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the show.” The SNL appearance was another dinger for Lohan in a string of early-career home runs. But any hopes of Lohan returning to the show and recapturing that magic were doomed. Her career stumbled mightily after 2004, and a 2012 hosting gig that aimed to rehab her comedy career after years of tabloid decadence didn’t go well.
It was as if SNL felt some obligation to help the kid get back on her feet. Commendable, but this version of Lohan wasn’t up to the task. The New York Post was particularly cruel (but not necessarily inaccurate): “Lohan’s SNL appearance last night looked as awful as her plastic surgery. Whatever acting talent she once had seemed to vanish as she lackadaisically stumbled through her lines, even though she was obviously reading them off of cue cards.”
Unless you count Darrell Hammond’s second stint at SNL in the Don Pardo role, there’s only one comic who has been a cast member twice. That’s Harry Shearer, and his return to the show was as wretched as his first go-round.
The first time was as an unofficial replacement for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in 1979, a year that Shearer remembers as “pretty fucking miserable for virtually the entire season.” “I had sort of recommended Harry, so Lorne held that against me. And Harry did too,” Al Franken has said. “That’s the wonderful part about Harry. Harry actually held it against me that I had recommended him for the show.”
Shearer left with everyone else in 1980, partnering up with Rob Reiner, Chris Guest and Michael McKean on a little film called This is Spinal Tap. With his star rising, Shearer made a triumphant return along with Guest for Season 10 — and was even more tormented the second time around. “It was my own stupidity,” Shearer has explained. “Smart people do dumb things.”
Shearer did some great work in Season 10, like the Synchronized Swimming sketch with Martin Short and Guest, but he was a nightmare to work with. He thought Billy Crystal’s constant repetition of his Fernando character made him a sell-out (albeit a very popular one with viewers). “Harry was just vocal and insulting,” said writer Bob Tischler. “He could be insulting to anybody at any time, but he especially picked Billy to mistreat. He was just horrible to him.”
Shearer didn’t make it through the end of the season, asking out after one of his Reagan sketches was cut. A press release blamed creative differences for Shearer’s departure. “Yeah, I was creative,” he said, “and they were different.”
Farley’s third SNL hosting appearance, just months before his untimely passing, was about as sad as it gets. “Chris’ condition was obvious as soon as he showed up,” Robert Smigel said in The Chris Farley Story. “By Tuesday everyone knew how bad it was.”
“It was shocking to everybody that Lorne let the show go forward,” added Norm Macdonald.
The show’s cold open told the story. Tim Meadows convinces Michaels that Farley was in great form and ready to host the show. “I have never seen him so together,” Meadows says in the sketch. “His party days are over!” So it was a sick sort of joke when Farley entered the scene, clearly in terrible shape and barely able to deliver his lines. “This was not funny at all,” remembers Chris’ brother, Tom.
Some on the SNL staff were worried that Farley, huffing and puffing his way through scenes, was going to have a heart attack on live television. “He blew out his voice in dress, and so the live show was just awful,” said Macdonald. “He was like a marathon runner stumbling to the finish line before it even began.”
Michaels tried to get through to Farley at the show’s after-party, lecturing “in the most severe way I could” about how the comic needed to take care of himself. “I know, I know,” agreed Farley. It was the last conversation Michaels and Farley ever had.
Perhaps no SNL return was more anticipated than the Michaels homecoming in 1985 — and it might have been the worst of all. The show had been revived the previous season with its all-star strategy, bringing in Crystal, Short and Guest to spin some comedy gold. But that was a one-year deal, and now that Michaels had agreed to return, he tried a similar strategy. Established funny people, many from John Hughes comedies, were assembled for a new cast, including Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall and Randy Quaid. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Even first-time host Tom Hanks knew it: “It was a sort of cobbled-together cast.”
“It was a very dark year,” remembered NBC executive Dick Ebersol. “It was the roughest season Lorne ever had doing the show, and everybody came out of the woodwork to attack.”
It’s no surprise that Chase made things worse when he came back to host, telling Downey that his father “sure went to hell.” After identifying new cast member Terry Sweeney as “the gay guy,” Chase invited him to lick his balls before pitching a sketch idea: “How about we say you have AIDS, and we weigh you every week?”
Things went so bad in Michaels’ comeback season that NBC head Brandon Tartikoff was ready to cancel the show by April. He was talked out of it thanks to a promise of a fresh start, but the season’s final show could have dealt with the failure more gracefully. That was the one where Michaels arrived on set to tell Jon Lovitz to go wait in his limo while host Billy Martin set the stage on fire, essentially murdering the cast of Season 10.
As a way for Michaels’ return to go out, it wasn’t exactly a blaze of glory.