4 Times ‘Saturday Night Live’ Showed Zero Courage

Remembering the times ‘SNL’ backed far away from the cutting edge
4 Times ‘Saturday Night Live’ Showed Zero Courage

From Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase trading racial barbs in “Word Association” to Cecily Strong’s Goober the ClownSaturday Night Live has had its share of brave moments. But over the course of that same 49 seasons, the show occasionally turned tail and ran when the going got tough. Here are four times in particular that SNL didn’t have the courage of its comic convictions… 

No One Would Tell Norm Macdonald That He Got the Axe

You can’t accuse Macdonald of cowardice — despite multiple warnings from NBC higher-ups to knock it off, the Weekend Update anchor made O.J. Simpson a weekly punching bag. But when NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer finally decided Macdonald had to go, Lorne Michaels couldn’t work up the nerve to break the news himself. 

“Lorne had a hard time telling you bad stuff,” Macdonald said in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “So I said, ‘Somebody’s got to tell me I’m fired,’ but nobody wanted to do it.” Instead, the weak-kneed Michaels made Macdonald place his own phone call to Ohlmeyer to confirm the bad news. 

’Conspiracy Theory Rock’ Disappears from Reruns

Give credit to Saturday Night Live for at least the initial airing of Conspiracy Theory Rock, Robert Smigel’s kick in the cartoon crotch to monolithic corporate interests. Smigel told me that while Conspiracy Theory Rock is “probably one of the least funny cartoons I did,” its biting-the-hand-that-feeds-SNL satire was the reason the animation was cut from all reruns. 

Smigel was furious, and Vice President for Late Night Rick Ludwin tried to calm the writer about NBC’s decision to bow to corporate interests. “I said, ‘Robert, it got on the air. You were not censored. It got on the first time,’” Ludwin explained before revealing the punchline. “It got on once — but never again.”

Not-Sorry Pete Davidson Forced to Apologize Anyway

In a 2018 Weekend Update bit, Davidson roasted a number of candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. One was Dan Crenshaw, who wore an eyepatch as the result of a combat wound. Davidson joked that he was “surprised he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hitman in a porno movie.” 

Because America is pretty touchy about comics poking fun at military veterans, SNL invited Crenshaw to the show for a live apology from Davidson. Crenshaw also took the opportunity to poke back at Davidson’s looks, joking that he “looks like if the meth from Breaking Bad was a person.”

But in Davidson’s Netflix special Alive from New York, the comic came clean. “So I made fun of this guy with an eyepatch and then, like, I kind of got forced to apologize,” despite having no regrets about the punchline. His SNL bosses were skittish about the public criticism; hence, the insincere apology. But Davidson says the only thing he’s actually sorry about is making Crenshaw “famous and a household name for no reason.” 

Shane Gillis Is Invited to Host

Michaels did the right thing back in 2019 when he rescinded an offer to Gillis to join the SNL cast. After internet sleuths dug up multiple examples of Gillis’ racist and homophobic jokes on various podcasts, SNL released a statement that read, “The language (Gillis) used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.” 

If Gillis’ language and attitude were enough to keep him from the show in 2019, why did Michaels invite him to headline the show only a few years later? The cynical answer is that Gillis had become a very popular comedian in the intervening years, and Michaels wanted to cash in on the controversy. The less cynical answer is… wait, it’s the only answer unless SNL decided that times have changed and the show is now good with such slurs. 

There’s little more cowardly than trying to have it both ways. 


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