25 Cultural Events That ‘SNL’ and Late-Night Comics Beat Into the Ground
Late-night comedians and other shows that trade in topical humor aren’t exactly known for their subtle restraint: If they can identify an effective comic punching bag, they’ll throw haymakers at it until there’s no sand left in the sack. Just look at what Saturday Night Live has done in recent years — Alec Baldwin played Donald Trump a mind-numbing 46 times despite viewer cries of “Enough already!”
Along those lines, here are 25 cultural events that comedians couldn’t get enough of, even when the repeated punchlines were well past their expiration date...
The O.J. Simpson Trial
From Jay Leno’s Dancing Itos to Letterman’s Top Ten lists to Saturday Night Live’s endless beatdowns courtesy of Norm Macdonald, the murder trial and subsequent antics of O.J. Simpson provided fodder for what felt like five years.
Oprah’s Weight Fluctuations
No matter her body size, Oprah’s weight was a constant source of late-night jokes. When she slimmed down in the late 1980s, that was a gag. When she gained a few back, that was also deemed hilarious. Here’s Joan Rivers lecturing a perfectly normal-sized Oprah on why she needed to drop a few pounds in 1985:
Paris Hilton’s Arrests (and Sex Tape)
Paris Hilton made it easy for late-night comics in the 2000s, as the famous-for-being-famous celebrity produced multiple arrests, a terrible dance album and the first celebrity sex tape of the internet era (or at least the first one your mom had heard of). Case in point: Jay Leno cut together goofy questions with a serious Hilton interview to make his comic point — Paris wasn’t too bright.
The ‘Tiger King’ Phenomenon
If we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic, would everyone have been so fascinated by Tiger King, the batshit-crazy Netflix docuseries about the weird world of wild animal sanctuaries? Comics like David Spade and Chloe Fineman took to their socially-distanced homes to spoof the main characters while Kate McKinnon did a full-on spoof.
The Michael Jackson Molestation Accusations
Long before the Finding Neverland documentary, there were loud whispers about Jackson and his allegedly inappropriate relationships with young fans. While some late-night comics made jokes that winked at potential impropriety, SNL’s Norm Macdonald went for the jugular.
Marion Berry Smoking Crack
In 1990, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for drug possession and smoking crack. Saturday Night Live, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock all had plenty to say about the prominent politician’s drug use.
The Election of Donald Trump
Even before he decided to run for office, Trump and his oversized rich-guy persona was a regular character on Saturday Night Live, portrayed at different times by Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond and Taran Killam. But once he entered the race for president? There might not be another cultural event on this list that got more comic attention. In fact, Comedy Central devoted an entire weekly series to it.
There wasn’t a stand-up comic in 1970s America who didn’t have a Tricky Dick imitation in his repertoire, usually a lazy combination of peace-sign flashing, jowl jiggling and muttering “I am not a crook.” No one, though, did it with more makeup than Joe Piscopo.
The Vice-Presidential Campaign of Sarah Palin
Sometimes a public debacle is so good, the comedy writes itself. That’s literally true in the case of Sarah Palin. Rather than script new material lampooning Palin’s goofy press appearances, Tina Fey simply recited the candidate’s actual words. Nothing Fey could have written would have gotten bigger laughs.
The Monica Lewinsky Scandal
A study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University tracked the history of Leno’s tenure at The Tonight Show. Of his 44,000 jokes, about 10 percent of them were directed at the often lurid presidency of Bill Clinton. Leno was particularly cruel in his treatment of Lewinsky, and while other comics have reconsidered their Lewinsky jokes, he’s made no apologies. If anything, he told Oprah in 2003 that “the Monica Lewinsky scandal was the golden age of comedy.”
Dr. Fauci Guides America Through a Pandemic
As people around the world struggled to cope with a global pandemic, (most of) America took guidance from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Because Fauci was so divisive, he became a lightning rod for late-night jokes that you’d find as easily in Greg Gutfeld’s monologues as Stephen Colbert’s. When Fauci himself suggested he should be played by Brad Pitt, the actor was happy to oblige on SNL.
‘We Are the World’
In 1985, music’s biggest stars decided that they must “come together as one” to raise money for starving kids in Africa. In doing so, they created a self-important template for a number of future comedy spoofs, including parodies on In Living Color, Saturday Night Live, Chelsea Lately, RuPaul’s Drag Race, 30 Rock and The Simpsons.
Martha Stewart Goes to Jail
The idea of upscale maven Martha Stewart spending five months in the slammer was perfect schadenfreude monologue fodder. Stewart became a staple punchline in Letterman Top Ten lists, while Conan O’Brien attempted to cheer her up.
Bruce Jenner Becomes Caitlyn Jenner
Not late night’s most enlightened moment. Jenner was a long-time comedy target, first for what appeared to be an abundance of plastic surgeries and then for her transition to Caitlyn. She appeared on Jimmy Kimmel to explain how it felt to be the butt of all those jokes, saving extra animosity for the cruelty of Jimmy Fallon.
Bush v. Gore and the Hanging Chads
The 2000 presidential campaign was one for the ages — a too-close-to-call affair that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, a referendum on paper ballots in Florida, and the first time since the 1800s that the candidate who won the popular vote lost the presidential election. Either way, the drawn-out drama gave Saturday Night Live a weekly subject for its cold opens.
Robert Blake Allegedly Murders His Wife
Murders don’t seem to be a natural subject for comedy except, apparently, when the alleged perpetrators are celebrities (like Simpson, Blake was found innocent in a criminal trial and liable in the civil version). Leno and company had plenty of zingers about Blake, like this gem: “Robert Blake is now being held under house arrest in Malibu. You see the place he’s staying? I thought I was watching Cribs. I couldn’t believe this! Who says we’re not tough on celebrities in Los Angeles? An out-of-work actor who is living in a dump in the San Fernando Valley is arrested for murder so what do we do? We move them closer to the beach so they can go whale watching before the trial.”
The funniest part of the joke is the idea that Leno watched Cribs.
The Presidency of Ronald Reagan
There’s natural comedy in electing a president who once co-starred with a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo. Reagan was an easy leader to impersonate, too, as witnessed by the impressions by funny people like Rich Little, Joe Piscopo, Phil Hartman, Jamie Foxx and Dennis and Randy Quaid. Even Johnny Carson, not known for his celebrity impressions, did a passable Reagan.
The Rise of Bernie Sanders
With politics so far to the left that he almost seemed right, Sanders has an eccentric voice in American politics that’s easy to parody and meme. His resemblance to Larry David — both in appearance and antagonistic demeanor — made David a slam-dunk comic to play him on SNL. But others got on the impression train as well.
The Menendez Brothers Murder Trial
Forget what we said about needing to be a celebrity murderer to become a monologue staple. Apparently, being a good-looking murderer also gets the job done. The Menendez brothers became comedy shorthand for “guilty” on sitcoms like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Fresh Off the Boat, Gilmore Girls, 30 Rock and Entourage.
Martin Shkreli and the Rise of Evil Pharma-Bros
With a face even a mother could punch, Shkreli became a national villain after his company obtained manufacturing licenses for critical drugs and raised prices by more than 5,000 percent. Kate McKinnon took to SNL to sell Shkreli’s Jelly (“It’s just jelly that’s $8,000 a jar”), while late-night hosts like Colbert had a field day as well.
Bernie Madoff’ s Ponzi Schemes
Madoff wasn’t the first scumbag to cheat people out of their cash, but he had the most glittery list of celebrity clients, including Kevin Bacon, Steven Spielberg and Larry King. As such, Madoff became a constant source for late-night jokes and SNL skits. Moreover, on the Curb Your Enthusiasm/Seinfeld reunion, George loses all of the profits from his iToilet app by investing with Madoff.
Tiger Woods’ Womanizing
The number of Woods’ mistresses kept escalating — in late 2009, we knew about 14; a year later, he’d confessed to sleeping with at least 120 women. As the Bill Clinton scandal proved, comedians can’t get enough of horny celebrities who don’t know when (or how) to quit.
Julian Assange and Wikileaks
The idea that America’s secrets could be exposed by data leaks was new in the 2000s, and Assange and his WikiLeaks were the face of a new kind of transparency that doubled as a national-security threat. Not surprisingly then, Assange became a hit Bill Hader character as well as a popular punchline.
The Crimes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker
Technically, it was Jim Bakker who was convicted of numerous fraud counts in 1989, but heavily mascaraed wife Tammy Faye continues to be the subject of pop-culture fascination. There was a stage musical (The Gospel According to Tammy Faye), Johnny Carson jokes and a 2021 Oscar-winning movie (The Eyes of Tammy Faye). But in our book, no one did it better than SNL’s Jan Hooks.
Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction
In hindsight, it seems like Justin Timberlake should have received all the blowback, but Jackson’s accidental (?) bosom-baring at a Super Bowl halftime show scandalized America. The debacle had everything a comedian could want — sex, celebrity and a “crime” that had absolutely no real-life consequences. For what it’s worth, Chris Rock later expressed regret about making Jackson the target of his 2004 jokes.