25 Offensive ‘SNL’ Characters Lorne Michaels Wishes You’d Completely Forget About
From the start, Saturday Night Live has attempted to balance “pushing the envelope” with “not being downright offensive.” And because the show has been on the air for nearly 50 years, that line keeps moving. To that end, SNL has yanked several sketches from its official YouTube channel since it apparently can no longer justify the offensive laughs.
Here then are 25 characters from the show’s long history that producer Lorne Michaels would love to pretend never existed…
Recurring character Uncle Roy takes lurid pictures of his young nieces while babysitting. What else do you need to know? Buck Henry justified the bit with a coda added to Uncle Roy’s second appearance. When the girls’ parents (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin) return home and almost catch Uncle Roy and the kids “doing something really disgusting,” they greet him with an “Oh Roy, you’re so wonderful. There’s only one like you.”
“And I look into the camera and say, ‘Oh, no, no. There are hundreds of thousands of Uncle Roys,’” Henry explained in Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “My assumption being, of course, that in a huge number of families across North America, children would be casting a sidelong glance at their uncles or their mother’s boyfriends or their stepfathers or whatever. In other words, I talked myself into the fact that we were performing — or that I was performing — a public service.”
Susan the Transexual
For obvious reasons, you won’t find many clips of Phil Hartman’s gender-switched character, referred to on some SNL fansites as “Susan the Shemale.” Susan showed up in at least two Sprockets sketches as a contestant on German game shows.
Dana Carvey still brings up his character Ching Chang now and again on the Fly on the Wall podcast, mostly to chuckle that he wouldn’t be allowed to do that character anymore. Believe it or not, Ching Chang made seven appearances on SNL, a man with a stereotypical Chinese accent who loves Broadway musicals and chickens. Ching Chang’s catchphrase, “Chicken make lousy house pet,” has not endured as a T-shirt in the official SNL store.
Julia Sweeney’s Pat is one character that SNL’s official YouTube channel has yet to shy away from, despite the recurring sketch’s problematic premise. In SNL’s 20th anniversary book, the character is absolutely embraced as a classic. Pat receives three full pages devoted to their hilarity, running down the character's 12 appearances on the show. Pat even got a feature film, for Pete’s sake.
It’s not Chris Rock the comic who was offensive. It was Chris Rock the character, as played in blackface by Jimmy Fallon. Ironically, Rock was cool with it. “Hey, man, I’m friends with Jimmy. Jimmy’s a great guy,” Rock told the New York Times. “He didn’t mean anything. A lot of people want to say intention doesn’t matter, but it does. And I don’t think Jimmy Fallon intended to hurt me. And he didn’t.” Still not going to see it on the @nbcsnl TikTok channel any time soon, though.
What’s so funny about The Continental? The Christopher Walken character is a skeevy older man who traps young women in his apartment, blocking access to the door when they try to flee his romantic advances a la Pepe Le Pew. The fact that he’s so lousy at seduction keeps him a buffoon rather than an actual sex criminal.
Governor David Paterson
Poking fun at politicians is a hallowed SNL tradition, lampooning oversized personalities or terrible policies. But it’s another thing entirely when the source of the humor is a politician’s physical disability. It was for that exact reason Paterson, who is blind, showed up to protest Fred Armisen’s impression of him. “While I have a good sense of humor,” he said, “jokes that degrade people just for their disabilities are sophomoric and stupid.”
Host Amy Poehler apologized on behalf of her former castmates, with Seth Meyers adding, “I think I speak for everyone here that we’ll be more respectful of the blind.”
When approached about reviving the character a few years ago, Bill Hader declined. “I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s really a good thing to do now,’” he told The Guardian. “I mean, we had an openly racist, homophobic and misogynistic president, and half the country voted for him — twice! That was a big eye-opener for me, and it made me back up a bit and say, ‘Wait, maybe people see this character a different way.’ Because I really love Stefon, and it never occurred to me that he would be seen as a stereotype, and that really hurt.” (And that’s not even counting the countless little people jokes.)
While not as blatantly offensive as Ching Chang, Belushi’s Samurai is another character who likely wouldn’t make it past the table read today. Those sketches “are more cringy than funny to modern sensibilities, because the butt of the joke is Belushi’s fictitious Futaba — a stand-in for a stereotypical 1970s American understanding of a Japanese person,” says Ruth Tallman in Saturday Night Live and Philosophy: Deep Thoughts Through the Decades.
Canteen Boy and the Scoutmaster
Sandler’s Canteen Boy was a strange case in most of his sketches, but things got downright creepy when he went camping with his scoutmaster, Alec Baldwin. If we take the “boy” in his name seriously, the sketch covers some pretty harrowing territory, especially given the history of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts.
Tiger and Elin Woods
Jokes about physical abuse between spouses are never welcome, even if it’s a justifiably angry Elin doling out the punishment.
Many comics have reconsidered their treatment of Lewinsky, especially given the comically uneven power dynamic between her and Bill Clinton. In SNL sketches, Clinton comes off as a rascally flirt while Lewinsky is a ditzy schoolgirl infatuated with older men.
Let’s not forget Lewinsky’s friend Tripp, presented as a grotesque monster by John Goodman. Tripp’s kids were so embarrassed by the portrayal that Tripp opted for plastic surgery. “My kids always thought I was pretty. And they were so completely shattered by John Goodman,” she told Larry King in 2001. “I just felt so badly for them. I just wanted to fix it.”
Garrett Morris was asked to do a lot of cringe roles on the original Saturday Night Live, including dressing as a flying monkey for a Wizard of Oz sketch. Also terrible: Playing Uncle Remus in a sketch with Michael O’Donoghue. Here’s actual scripted dialogue from a book of SNL scripts published in 1977: “Brer Rabbit? Why, ah loves dat floppy-eared rascal, Mr. Mike! An’ if ah knows Brer Rabbit, he’s a-cookin’ up some devilment, ain’t he?”
“I don’t think anyone but me would do Stunt Baby,” bragged Buck (Uncle Roy) Henry in Live From New York. “That was very notorious — a sketch about doing a movie on child abuse, and whenever it was time for a violent scene, they called in the stunt baby and it got batted around. Both ‘babies’ were dolls, of course; Laraine (Newman) did the babies’ voices.”
Saturday Night: A Backstage History shares a letter that one viewer wrote in response: “I once had a sister, but now I don’t — my father beat her to death. I didn’t find your show the least bit funny.”
The Husband in ‘First, He Cries’
First, You Cry was a 1970s true story about a woman coping with breast cancer. Al Franken and Tom Davis explored the pain of mastectomy from the male point-of-view, with Bill Murray as the a-hole husband who can’t bear to be with his “deformed” wife. According to Saturday Night: A Backstage History, show staffers muttered that “Al Franken has really gone over the edge this time.” Murray played the part but was mortified: “Do you know what it’s like to go out there and play something that’s going to make people hate you?”
Another Franken and Davis gem, the Ex-Police (Aykroyd and Murray) were cops who got thrown off the force for excessive violence. Now they still patrol their community, killing anyone (pot smokers, lesbians) who have conflicting values with the far right. Letters to the show wanted to know what was so funny about killing queer people?
When Eddie Murphy returned to host SNL, he reprised several of his hit characters, including Mr. Robinson, Gumby, Velvet Jones, and Buckwheat. One recurring character that stayed packed away was Dion, the mincing hairdresser who sassed his way around the beauty salon with Joe Piscopo’s equally stereotypical Blair. The popular character appeared five times, but “lisping homosexual” had worn out its welcome as a comedy archetype by the time Murphy returned in 2019.
Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual
Carvey tried to have his cake and eat it too, creating a character just as cliched as Dion but with a twist: Lyle was straight! Never mind that Carvey played on the same swishy tropes for laughs. From Lyle’s theme song: “He runs like a girl, he throws like a girl, he walks like a girl, he talks like a girl… But so help me, he’s all guy.”
Brain Tumor Comedian
In the early days of SNL, Franken played a comic dying of a brain tumor who wanted to tell one last joke. The only problem: He kept blacking out before he could deliver the punchline. Per Saturday Night: A Backstage History, the sketch brought in more heartbreaking viewer mail: “One of the friends I was watching the show with happens to have a malignant brain tumor. Despite all the efforts of medicine, his days are numbered. My friend was deeply shaken by this skit and I was speechless.”
The Penis Guys
Once censors relented and decided “penis” could be spoken on network television, SNL decided to test the limits. The sketch isn’t so much offensive as stupid — the shock value of saying “penis” wears off quickly and there aren’t enough other jokes to keep the sketch going. The bit was originally pitched for a Tom Hanks show but got cut. “There are some sketches out there that are floating around and they have yet to land on a show and they keep bringing them back again,” Hanks says in Live From New York, noting there was a reason why the penis sketch took a while to finally land on a show.
The Cast Selling Fluckers
Michael O’Donoghue thought that the name of jelly company Smuckers sounded dirty, so he came up with even more obscene brand names guaranteed to sell jam. Thus, we get Chevy Chase pitching a jar of jelly called “Painful Rectal Itch.”
Merv the Perv
Fair to say that “offensive” was what Chris Parnell and the gang were going for when they came up with Merv the Perv, a recurring character about, well, a pervert. The sketches all had similar plots: Ladies would tell Merv to get lost, then he’d respond with some witty come-on like asking if his briefs make his wee-wee look big.
A Django Unchained parody that manages to offend on both racial and religious fronts. Throw in an excess of Tarantino-style bloody gore and you got a triple threat.
Safelite Auto Glass Guy
In this commercial parody, Beck Bennett’s Safelite repairman is more than a little creepy, continually cracking a car’s windshield so he can flirt with a woman’s underage daughter. Unsurprisingly, Safelite didn’t appreciate the pedo-stalker spoof, which didn’t even bother to change the company’s name.