‘Saturday Night Live’s Long, Complicated History With O.J. Simpson

Either as the joker or the butt of jokes, Simpson has been part of ‘SNL’ during every decade of its existence
‘Saturday Night Live’s Long, Complicated History With O.J. Simpson

“In his book, O.J. Simpson says that he would have taken a bullet or stood in front of a train for Nicole. Man, Im gonna tell ya, that is some bad luck. When the one guy who would have died for you, kills you, you dont get worse luck than that.” — Norm Macdonald on Weekend Update, February 11, 1995

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When you think of Saturday Night Live and O.J. Simpson, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who was both acquitted (criminal trial) and found liable (civil trial) for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, it’s those Weekend Update jokes that probably come to mind. While accounts vary, Macdonald’s relentless attacks on Simpson likely cost Macdonald his job. But there’s more to SNL and O.J. — both before and after the Weekend Update firestorm. Here’s a brief history of that complicated relationship…

O.J. Simpson: Comedy Star

Long before Simpson became a murder suspect and national lightning rod, even before he finished his professional football career, the Juice proved himself to be a quasi-charismatic actor. His good looks and relaxed manner in front of the camera made him a natural for TV commercials, and he had a surprising (for a football player) knack for comedy. He’d later land a recurring slapstick role in the Naked Gun series of films, but while still an active NFL running back, Simpson showed up on a number of TV comedies including Here’s Lucy, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and Saturday Night Live.

Yep, in February 1978, Simpson hosted the show that would later roast him. YouTube clips are scarce, but most of Simpson’s episode is available on Peacock, where you can see him deliver the opening monologue in dented Conehead makeup. Seriously, was the prosthetics guy drunk that night or what?

The rest of the show was hit or miss, which, to be fair, is something you can say for most episodes throughout SNL’s history. Saturday Night Live wasn’t shy about dealing with race back in its third season, delivering sketches that were no doubt intended to be progressive or at least hip, but have aged poorly in a contemporary context. John Belushi brought back one of his most popular characters in Samurai Night Fever, in which Simpson played the Japanese swordsman’s older brother who no longer wants to be Black. (“I could never get the walk right.”) 

Laraine Newman gets a chance to help Simpson reinforce stereotypes, first as a locker-room reporter who can’t keep her eyes off his impressive manhood, then as his lover in Mandingo 2. Simpson plays a plantation slave — yikes — before engaging in a passionate kiss with Newman at a time when interracial make-out sessions were still taboo on television.

The show also parodied Simpson’s rental car commercials, a spoof with a Walter Payton punchline that resonated more in 1978 than today. (Payton would get his own chance to host alongside Joe Montana in 1987.)

Simpson’s hosting gig officially ushered him into the Saturday Night Live family, at least for a while. He was part of the SNL in-crowd, even appearing as a presenter on the 15th-anniversary show. But not surprisingly, he was the only living host not invited back for the 25th birthday celebration in 1999. Turns out, Simpson had a rough decade in the 1990s.

‘Murder Is Now Legal in California’

We’ll spare you a timeline of the actual events surrounding Simpson’s different trials, but suffice it to say, his troubles became fodder for years’ worth of comedy material, not only on Saturday Night Live but on all shows that traded in topical laughs. Jay Leno’s Tonight Show couldn’t get enough, although his Gilligan’s Island parodies and Dancing Itos weren’t anyone’s definition of cutting-edge satire. According to NBC head Warren Littlefield, “Nobody got more out of O.J. Simpson than Jay Leno did.”

Saturday Night Live joined in, and it wasn’t just Macdonald. You could count on SNL lampooning its former guest host almost on a weekly basis, often with cold-open sketches that rivaled Alec Baldwin’s Trump bits for running a current event into the ground. That meant triple duty for poor Tim Meadows. As the cast’s sole Black member at the time, he would appear as O.J. pal Al Cowlings…

…Simpson’s attorney Johnnie Cochran…

…and as Simpson himself. A highlight: A post-acquittal Simpson is back broadcasting on the sidelines for Monday Night Football, using the telestrator to diagram a play that doubles as a confession.

“When (Meadows) wrote that out, I was in 8H, and the place exploded like — I’ve never heard a reaction in my life like that, ever,” says SNL writer Andy Breckman in the oral history Live from New York. “It exploded, but it wasn’t just laughter, it was almost a release — like, of course he did it, you know? And thank God somebody said it out loud. And there was applause and laughter. There is no place else that could have done that. Letterman and Leno danced around it, and they were very coy about it, but there was nothing, nothing that came close. And Downey, bless his heart, he was relentless, even after the acquittal, about O.J.”

Downey was Jim Downey, Macdonald’s partner in crime on Weekend Update. Calling out the obvious — or at least what was obvious to Macdonald and Downey — became a weekly mission. Simpson jokes became such a staple of the segment that YouTube channel “I’m Not Norm” was able to assemble a full half-hour of what it calls “Norm Macdonald Constant Shitting on OJ Simpson.” 

NBC executive and Simpson golfing pal Don Ohlmeyer wasn’t happy about it. Though he claims that friendship had nothing to do with his animosity toward Macdonald, Ohlmeyer kicked him off the Weekend Update gig anyway. “Norm and I were writing a lot of jokes about O.J. Simpson, and we had been doing so for more than three years,” Downey has told Splitsider. “Don, being good friends with O.J., had just had enough.”

Downey got canned as well, an affront that he wore as a comedy badge of honor. “I don’t know that Norm enjoyed the experience of the firing quite as much as I did, but to me it was exciting,” he says. “It was certainly the best press I ever received. We got tremendous support from people I really admire, some of whom are friends and some I didn’t really know that well, but who stepped up and called me. It was a fun time.”

Orenthal the Bus Driving Murderer

After Chris Rock left Saturday Night Live, he had a quick stint at the soon-to-be-canceled In Living Color. He was out of work but about to become the biggest stand-up comic in the country on the strength of his Bring the Pain special. Front and center? His own take on Simpson, one just as damning as Macdonald’s but coming from a very different place. We’ll admit it — it’s fun to imagine Jerry Seinfeld on trial for murder. 

Playboy asked Rock about his Simpson take in 1999: “How much does it bother you that O.J. is still able to go to the mall?” 

“I’m not happy about it. I’m not rejoicing,” Rock replied. “Yeah, we know he did it, but he’s one guy I don’t think is going to kill again.”

And the Hits Just Keep Coming

You’d think once we hit a new millennium, SNL could lay to rest its comic relationship with Simpson. Au contraire, mes amies. Somehow, the show has found a way to keep the Juice-centric sketches coming. Finesse Mitchell took the baton from Meadows in 2004, showing up on Weekend Update to come clean about past crimes so he could be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When anchor Jimmy Fallon reminded Simpson that he was already in the Hall, the footballer decided to keep his confessions to himself. 

And as recently as the pandemic, Kenan Thompson tried on his O.J. Simpson outfit to let America know how he was coping with the Coronavirus. Spoiler alert: He was doing fine despite the anger-management issues. Despite decades passing since O.J. has been in the headlines, Kenan has broken out the character several other times to talk about topics ranging from vaccination to Will Smith’s Oscar slap.

Simpson, either as the joker or the butt of the jokes, has been woven into the fabric of Saturday Night Live through every single decade of its existence. That’s a bigger deal than it sounds — after all, who else can make that claim? Steve Martin? Bill Murray? Very few personalities have been tied to every era of the show and for better or worse, Simpson is one of them. Other than Donald Trump, he might be the most impersonated real-life character in the show’s history. 

Will the Juice get an invite to SNL’s 50th birthday party? If not, he’ll definitely be there in the show’s spirit.

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