The First Time ‘SNL’ Apologized for a Joke During a Live Show
Saturday Night Live has had plenty of misfires for which it could have apologized in the past, and who knows, with the upcoming Shane Gillis episode, it may have future ones as well. But SNL has rarely used precious air time to say “We’re sorry” for its misdeeds. One exception? That was back in the show’s first season when jokes about a manslaughter case (and a cease-and-desist letter) led to an on-air mea culpa.
First, some context. Back in the mid-1970s, Claudine Longet was a minor celebrity — French recording artist, actress, former wife of crooner Andy Williams. Think of Longet as the 1970s version of a Real Housewife of Somewhere, famous for being famous-adjacent.
That is, until Longet killed her lover, a champion skier with the unlikely name of Vladimir Peter “Spider” Sabich. According to Longet, the murder was an accident that occurred while Sabich was teaching her how to use his .22-caliber gun in his Aspen cabin. Longet’s daughter Noelle was a witness but never took the stand in her mother’s trial. Back in the heyday of the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids, the story was a sensation thanks to the couple’s minor fame, rumors of a tumultuous relationship and the did-she-or-didn’t-she murder mystery. With ex-husband Williams at her side in the courtroom, a jury found her guilty of a minor charge — criminally negligent homicide — with an even more minor punishment: probation and 30 days in jail “at the time of her choosing.” The public was outraged, believing Longet deserved a lot worse.
Enter Saturday Night Live and the wicked mind of Michael O’Donoghue. He wrote a sketch called “The Claudine Longet Invitational,” a men’s freestyle skiing competition in which Longet accidentally shot several of the contestants as they made their way down the slopes. One by one, the skiers went down to the sound of rifle shots blamed on “cleaning her gun” or “accidentally dropping” the dang thing. “That looked almost like skeet shooting!” exclaimed Jane Curtin, one of the competition’s announcers. “You must mean ski shooting!” replied Chevy Chase. (The clip isn’t on YouTube but you can watch the sketch here.)
According to The New York Times, Saturday Night Live heard from Longet’s lawyer and possibly Williams’ attorney as well. The threatened legal action led to an on-air apology from announcer Don Pardo, included in SNL writer Anne Beatts’ book, Saturday Night Live with some choice, handwritten annotations:
Although the evening’s live studio audience was clueless, America heard Pardo’s apology: “On April 24th, 1976, Saturday Night included a sketch about a Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Championship in Vail, Colorado, as part of the program’s topical humor. It is desirable to correct any misunderstanding that a suggestion was made that, in fact, a crime had been committed. The satire was fictitious and its intent only humorous. This is a statement of apology if the material was misinterpreted.”
In other words, “Sorry if you don’t get jokes.”
It was one of the only times in SNL’s history that an apology was aired during a show. In fact, it didn’t happen again until Pete Davidson made a face-to-face apology to Congressman Dan Crenshaw for making fun of his eye patch.
That one wasn’t exactly sincere either. In his Alive From New York Netflix special, Davidson claimed he was forced to apologize. The only thing Davidson was actually sorry about was making Crenshaw “famous and a household name for no reason.”
No wonder SNL so seldom offers apologies. Why say sorry if you don’t mean it? Oh yeah — cease-and-desist letters.