In April 1991, the cast and crew of NBC’s seminal late night institution Saturday Night Live were rehearsing for their upcoming show, and its host was seething.
The sketch in question was to feature actor and martial artist Steven Seagal alongside Hans and Franz, the Austrian bodybuilding duo played by Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon, respectively. As written, the two would insult Seagal, intimating that their idol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would “flick you with his little baby finger and you would fly across the room and land in baby poop.”
Carvey noticed Seagal’s stern expression and asked him if everything was OK. It was, after all, just a skit—one that was supposed to be ridiculous. But Seagal didn’t find it funny. The very idea of Schwarzenegger getting the better of him was too much for the actor to bear. Seagal refused to do the sketch as planned, so it had to quickly be rewritten to paint the host in a more flattering light.
It was one of many reasons that cast members have regularly cited Seagal as the worst host SNL has ever had—an ignoble distinction for a show that’s been on the air for nearly 50 years.
Thanks to its sheer volume of episodes (880 and counting), SNL has sometimes had to cope with hosts ill-equipped for the job. Listless or charisma-deprived athletes need to be propped up; Andrew “Dice” Clay prompted cast member Nora Dunn to walk off the show in 1990 in protest of the sexism present in his stage act; Nick Nolte didn’t show up at all, forcing his 48 Hours co-star Eddie Murphy to become the only SNL cast member to host the show while still part of it.
Seagal was in a class by himself. The actor, who had been discovered by agent Michael Ovitz a few years prior, was a master of aikido, a Japanese martial art. With his swarthy looks and imposing stature, Ovitz thought Seagal could be a movie star.
Executives at Warner Bros. agreed. Seagal had hits with Above the Law (1988), Hard to Kill, and Marked for Death (both 1990), among his many three-word programmers. Press flocked to Seagal’s stoicism and his claims—which some considered outlandish—about being involved in CIA operations.
“You can say that I lived in Asia for a long time and in Japan I became close to several CIA agents,” Seagal told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “And you could say that I became an adviser to several CIA agents in the field and, through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors.” (The CIA, being the CIA, neither confirms nor denies such claims—no matter who they’re coming from.)
Unlike Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, who often sent up their macho images with jokes, Seagal appeared relatively humorless. The cast of SNL learned this lesson relatively quickly, as the actor’s tenure during the show’s weeklong gestation period got off to a bad start. (Hosts typically work with the cast and writers the week prior to air.) According to actor Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), who was a writer on SNL at the time, Seagal professed to have no knowledge of the show or its cultural cachet despite its line-up including Carvey, Nealon, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Victoria Jackson, Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Rob Schneider.
“One of the most famous, nightmare, can’t re-show that show ever [episodes],” Odenkirk told Howard Stern in 2022. “Seagal read [Hans and Franz] and said, ‘If I do this sketch, if I do it—and they want to fight him—if I do it, I have to beat them up.’ It’s like a John Wayne thing. It’s the most ludicrous scenario ... no one is thinking anyone beat anyone up here.
“He kept saying, ‘I’ve never seen your show. I don’t know what you do here.’ Really? You’ve never seen Saturday Night Live?”
Odenkirk added that while Seagal found fault in the writers’ sketches, the action star was happy to offer his own ideas. One of them featured a the board of directors at Exxon planning an oil spill while Seagal tossed them around. The message was meant to be pro-environment in the wake of the company’s infamous 1989 oil spill disaster. It was effectively a lecture, but far from the worst idea Seagal would offer up.
The Seagal-led SNL with musical guest Michael Bolton went live on April 20, 1991. Like some lost media, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what happened unless you venture to more obscure corners of the internet. SNL doesn’t make the full episode available for public viewing—which is probably the only clue you need to know that it wasn’t good.
Seagal started the show with a more agreeable encounter with Hans and Franz. After insisting Schwarzenegger could rip Seagal’s “tiny arms off,” the two turn bashful when Seagal appears and begins talking about a Zen mentality before using some aikido to shove the both of them around.
After the cold open, Seagal appears on stage to sing “Kung-Fu Fighting” in earnest, followed by an appearance as “Tenelli, One Man Army,” a trope-filled loner cop with Phil Hartman as his fed-up supervisor. (Relegated to desk duty, Tenelli is forced to deal with Rob Schneider’s Copy Guy by throwing him through the copier.) Seagal also does an impression of Andrew “Dice” Clay opposite Rock’s Nat X, smashes the set of the aforementioned Exxon sketch as a violent Greenpeace photographer, and glowers at Farley, his daughter’s prospective boyfriend. In half the sketches, Seagal is seen throwing cast members through breakaway sets. One YouTube commenter, reacting to the episode’s “highlights,” declared it “The Room of SNL episodes,” a reference to Tommy Wiseau's so-bad-it’s-still-bad-but-somehow-immensely-watchable cult movie.
Reflecting on Seagal’s hosting duties, cast member Tim Meadows said in the 2008 book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live that the problem was Seagal’s inability to be self-effacing. “The biggest problem with Steven Seagal was that he would complain about jokes he didn’t get, so it was like—you can’t explain something to somebody in German if they don’t speak German,” Meadows said. “He just wasn’t funny and he was very critical of the cast and the writing staff. He didn’t realize you can’t tell somebody they’re stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday.”
This was not the last time an SNL cast member would encounter Seagal. Rob Schneider spoke about a time a writer friend of his was meeting Seagal for a discussion about a sequel to 1992’s Under Siege. The friend encountered Seagal on a film set. “I just read the greatest script I’ve ever read in my life,” Seagal said.
“Really?” Schneider’s friend said. “Who wrote it?”
“I did,” Seagal said.
According to David Spade, Seagal’s abrasiveness had the production talking about simply doing the show with no host at all. Stern posed the same question to Odenkirk. If it wasn’t working, why do it? “By the time you get to Wednesday,” Odenkirk said, “what are you gonna do?”