11 Controversial SNL Moments
Most Saturday Night Live skits just make people laugh. But these 11 segments made people angry.
1. The mock movie trailer that sent Jesus on a killing spree
If you’re trying to avoid controversy, riffing off one of today’s most controversial movies may be unwise. But when the ballsy writers at SNL came up with this spoof of the famously gory Django Unchained, it seemed clear they were heading in the opposite direction. What could be more controversial than the 2012 slave revenge fantasy? A (D)Jesus revenge fantasy, complete with the freshly risen deity grabbing a gladiator sword and going H.A.M. (Hard As a Messiah) on some Romans. Needless to say, Christian groups such as American Family Association were outraged by the display, deeming it “blasphemy” and demanding that Sears and JCPenney pull their advertising from the show. While the retail giants refused to sever ties with NBC, Sears did eventually pull some of their advertising from online sources of the controversial short. The short offended some Muslims, too.
2. The sketch that had the word “penis” in it ... a lot
In 1988, it was still taboo to directly reference, uh, reproductive organs on TV. But SNL threw caution—and censorship—to the wind with a sketch penned by a young Conan O’Brien, where a group of men at a nude beach casually chat about their genitalia … and nothing else. The sketch, which aired on the October 15, 1988 episode hosted by Matthew Broderick, was originally written earlier that year for the episode hosted by Carl Weathers. For obvious reasons, the sketch was struck down early, only to resurface in early October for the Tom Hanks show. This time, it made it all the way to dress rehearsal before being nixed. Finally, “Nude Beach” made it to air the following week. The sketch, at a run time of just under four minutes, has the word “penis” spoken 17 times and sung 26 times, for a grand total of 43 times. It allegedly garnered 46,000 letters of complaint.
3. The pre-taped segment that made Starbucks a race thing
When Starbucks set out to create the “Starbucks experience” at home with new single-serve Verismo brewers, SNL writers saw a product ripe for the spoofing. While they seemingly set out to poke fun at the far-from-tranquil aspects of a Starbucks trip, the commercial parody drew numerous accusations of racism. The parody starts out innocently enough, with the coffee machine posing as an incompetent barista. But where many took issue is the part where that barista is joined by an equally incompetent, “non-functioning,” hoop-earringed, manager-type machine, “Verquonica.” Both the Verismo and Verquonica speak in stereotypical “black” accents, and both are presented as rude, incompetent, and, frankly, a little dumb. While the parody goes on to poke fun at Starbucks fixtures such as room-temperature milk and untidy counters, the stereotypes present in the Verismo and Verquonica systems left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Twitter erupted with allegations of racism ranging from “Funny concept, unnecessarily racist execution. Bummer,” to “SNLs racist Starbucks Verismo skit in line w their tradition of adding classism to racism in order to get away w laughing at latinos/blacks.”
4. The sketch that made light of domestic violence
In 2009, Tiger Woods rocked the sports world with admissions to multiple affairs during his marriage to former model Elin Nordegren, who allegedly beat him up upon learning of his infidelity. When SNL tried to poke fun at the scandal, they inadvertently made a pretty risky statement about domestic violence—namely, that it’s funny.
In the sketch, we see a press conference where Kenan Thompson’s Tiger admits to more and more transgressions as his wife Elin (played by host Blake Lively) looks on. With each admission, Elin interjects angrily, and we cut back to a more and more injured Tiger. The sketch raised eyebrows for its blasé attitude toward domestic abuse and sexist assertion that domestic violence is okay if inflicted by a female. The sketch may not have attracted such criticism if not for one unfortunate coincidence that drew attention to the matter: that episode’s musical guest was Rihanna, a high-profile victim of domestic abuse.
5. The sketch that told Real People They Deserved to Be Shot
Shortly following the airing of a sketch that mocked “victims” of the 2008 housing crisis, online versions of the sketch inexplicably disappeared. Well, it sort of made sense: in the sketch, Herb Sandler and his wife, Marion, were labeled onscreen as “people who should be shot.” The rub? Herb and Marion—former owners of Oakland’s Golden West Financial—are real people, a fact that slipped past Lorne Michaels when the sketch was approved for air.
As Michaels later explained, “I, in a state of complete ignorance, thought they were characters in a piece. I did not know they were real, up until somebody called me about it on Monday…When I spoke to them, I can assure you this: They are very, very real.” After taking the blame for the slip-up, Michaels pulled all online versions of the sketch, and supposedly replaced it with an edited version. The “edited version,” however, is still nowhere to be found.
6. The sketch that mocked Tim Tebow (and maybe also Jesus)
Okay, so maybe putting Jesus in a sketch is generally just a bad idea. A 2011 episode saw yet another Jesus-centered sketch that offended Christian groups around the country. Riding the wave of popularity surrounding the devout Christian football star Tim Tebow, SNL poked fun at his regular on-field displays of his faith. In the locker room, Tebow is confronted by Jesus himself, who suggests that studying the playbook might beat out Bible study in terms of game preparation. Later, Jesus adds that, while Tebow may pray to him, the Lord himself prays to Broncos kicker Matt Prater.
What began as a playful jab at those who consider a last-second touchdown divine intervention soon was blasted by televangelist Pat Robertson as “anti-Christian bigotry that is just disgusting.” USA Today political commentator Bob Beckel referred to the sketch as “despicable.” Neither Tebow nor SNL ever responded to the controversy, but many other Christians have gone out of their way to defend the sketch. One YouTube user, a self-proclaimed Christian, posted the video with a special disclaimer intended to mollify more quick-tempered viewers: “I myself am a Christian Catholic…They are not making fun of Jesus! This is a Tim Tebow caricature, they’re making fun of Tebow…”
7. The sketch that put Black Comedians in Drag
Male actors performing in drag is a convention that dates back to Shakespeare, but in 2006, comedian Dave Chappelle asserted that the comedy world especially loves for black men to perform in drag, as a means of emasculating them. Chappelle swore that he’d never stoop to performing in drag, and since then, black comedians who gender-bend for laughs are often viewed as “sellouts” within the African American community.
That’s why another black comedian, Kevin Hart, faced an onslaught of criticism following his 2013 hosting gig, in which he donned a dress and wig to play the part of Quvenzhane Wallis. Following the episode’s airing, Twitter was afire with accusations of Hart “selling out,” but the comedian vehemently defended his decision—emphasizing that it was, after all, his decision. He tweeted, “I WORE A DRESS ON SNL because I THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY!!! I made that decision…NOBODY MADE IT FOR ME…I AM MY OWN BOSS!!!”
8. The sketch that made fun of the blind
Ever since its very beginnings, the mocking of political figures has been a cornerstone of SNL. It’s not uncommon for said politicians to take offense, but in 2008, a few misfired jokes had people upset at a national level. In an edition of Weekend Update, then-governor of New York David Paterson was portrayed as clumsy and bumbling, constantly bumping into things and squinting at the camera—which would’ve passed off innocently enough if it weren’t for the fact that Paterson is actually severely visually impaired. This apparent insensitivity toward the physically handicapped upset not only Paterson himself, but handicapped organizations all over the country. “I can take a joke,” said Paterson. “But only 37 percent of disabled people are working and I’m afraid that that kind of third-grade humor certainly adds to this atmosphere. Let’s just say I don’t think it helped.” The sketch was criticized by the National Federation of the Blind, who called it “absolutely wrong.”
9. The fake commercial that Defamed Thailand
Rosetta Stone is a well-known, intensive program for learning foreign languages. It promises quick, comprehensive language skills to be used for endless applications—including those that are creepy and unsavory, as SNL kindly pointed out in a faux-commercial for the product earlier this year. What begins as a normal commercial boasting wholesome uses for foreign language studies (communicating with old-country grandma, for instance) quickly turns weird with the inclusion of some middle-aged men who really want to learn Thai, but suspiciously refuse to say why (“I’m learning Thai so I can go to Thailand for a thing.” “I’m learning German, so I can pretend that I’m German while in Thailand.”). Undoubtedly drawing from the country’s notorious sex trade industry, the faux-mercial was met with outrage by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, Sonthaya Khunploem, who claimed that the spoof was “tarnishing Thailand’s image” and asked for online versions of the clip to be removed. However, many versions are still online.
10. The moment when Samuel L. Jackson forgot to pretend to swear
Samuel L. Jackson may not have the cleanest mouth in Hollywood, but a 2012 episode of SNL may have marked one of the first times the actor has shown remorse for his foul language. Jackson appeared as a guest star for the fake talk show “What Up With That?”, where Kenan Thompson plays a host who constantly uses dance breaks to interrupt his guests—well, he’s supposed to, anyway. At one point, the sketch called for Jackson to almost swear—saying something like “fff”—but he’s not interrupted in time, and the whole word seemingly slips out. A frustrated Jackson then utters "bullsh**.” To this day, Jackson swears (pun not intended) that he only said “fuh”, not the entire profanity, and that the incident was Thompson’s fault, adding, “I’m used to working with professionals that know their lines. Even the ones that are written on cue cards in front of you.” It’s still unclear, though, whether or not the second profanity was also in the script. Though the incident has been largely forgotten, that episode marked Samuel L. Jackson’s ascension into the few, proud ranks of SNL swearers.
11. And, of course, the musical moment when Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope
Just over 20 years ago, Irish songstress Sinead O’Connor committed one of the most controversial acts to ever occur on SNL. During the tail end of a cover performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” O’Connor held up a picture of Pope John Paul II while singing the word “evil,” then proclaimed “Fight the real enemy!” while tearing the picture into pieces. O’Connor, who reportedly grew up in an abusive, Catholic household, was protesting the Vatican’s handling of the child abuse controversy within the Catholic church. Not surprisingly, the bold act didn’t go over so well with television audiences; the next two days, NBC received over 900 calls, with all but seven bearing complaints toward O’Connor’s spectacle. Many entertainers even took public stands against her. On the following week’s show, host Joe Pesci held up the picture of the Pope which, he explained, he’d taped back together. He proceeded to tear up a picture of the singer, instead. The stunt’s notoriety has stood the test of time over two decades later, most recently being lampooned during 30 Rock’s second live show in 2012, when the attention-seeking page Hazel Wazzername stormed the stage and ripped up a picture of O’Connor.