When Tim Robbins Tried, and Failed, to Be the Most Controversial ‘SNL’ Host

Sinead O’Connor really blew Mr. Susan Sarandon out of the water
When Tim Robbins Tried, and Failed, to Be the Most Controversial ‘SNL’ Host

Easily one of the most controversial moments in the history of Saturday Night Live was when musical guest Sinead O’Connor (RIP) ended her performance of Bob Marley’s “War” by tearing a photo of then-Pope John Paul II and proclaiming, “Fight the real enemy!” 

The audience responded with stunned silence, O’Connor was permanently banned from the show, and a lot of people were extremely upset — probably because it was 1992 and they were unable to Google the phrase “what has the Catholic Church been up to, and why is it way worse than ripping up an 8x10 piece of paper?” 

While this segment has obviously been talked about a lot over the years, far less attention has been paid to that same episode’s host: Tim Robbins. Which is funny, in retrospect, because Robbins was desperately trying to stoke controversy with his SNL appearance, and failed miserably thanks to O’Connor’s boldness. Robbins was there to promote his big screen political satire Bob Roberts, which is about a right-wing folk singer running for Senate. Incidentally, the character first appeared in a 1986 Saturday Night Live short film, and Robbins even played Bob again in the ‘92 episode, for a sketch set at a conservative youth book burning. 

So while hosting SNL may have been a no-brainer promotional stop, Robbins the activist also saw it as an opportunity to call attention to the evils of NBC’s parent company General Electric. Robbins’ monologue was highly critical of GE, with the actor seemingly forgoing his pre-written material to talk about how GE doesn’t just make “kitchen appliances and light bulbs” but also “triggering devices for nuclear warheads.” Their slogan? “We bring good things to death.”

If any viewers genuinely believed that Robbins had gone rogue on live TV, that illusion was quickly dashed. Clearly the whole thing was a bit; Robbins is soon summoned backstage to be “reprimanded” by Lorne Michaels, and the sketch ends with Michaels waking up in bed (next to Phil Hartman, no less) after having a nightmare that Robbins’ radical politics ruined his show.

According to Michaels, Robbins’ plans were originally far more radical. He wrote a sketch all about GE’s horrific history of dumping polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River which was nixed after the readthrough. Michaels maintains that this was purely because the material, although “heartfelt,” just “didn’t work as comedy.” But Robbins worried that Michaels was bowing to pressure from GE. Robbins also suggested that he could “wear a T-shirt that had a GE logo with a bar across it,” but that, too, never came to fruition.  

Robbins’ efforts to take on GE may have been completely overshadowed by O’Connor’s performance, but he also inadvertently played a major role in helping O’Connor enact her plan, which was kept secret from everyone at SNL until the moment it aired (she used a totally different photo in rehearsals). As Michaels later recounted, staff members were so “focused” on Robbins’ anti-corporate “revolution” that nobody at the show paid much attention to what O’Connor was planning. “There’s a lot of people whose job it is to anticipate trouble,” Michaels said, “and they were all on the Tim Robbins issue. And suddenly this girl tears up a picture of the Pope.” 

Perhaps Robbins does deserve some additional credit for having to follow one of the most provocative statements in the history of live television with the sketch “Sweet Jimmy, the World’s Nicest Pimp.”

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