‘S.N.L.’ Is Sorry: A Brief History of the Show’s (Sort Of) Apologies

How will “Saturday Night Live” deal with the hubbub it created by hiring — and then hurriedly firing — the comic Shane Gillis a few weeks ago? Will it at all?

This wasn’t an issue that could be addressed on-air while the show was still dark. But with its return this weekend for the first episode of Season 45, it will be interesting to see whether “S.N.L.” will acknowledge its lapse in judgment in hiring a comedian who was known in the comedy world for racist, sexist and homophobic humor, which stirred up plenty of criticism.

There are a number of ways the show might attempt to make amends — over the last 44 years, it has had occasion to try most of them. While we wait to see what happens on Saturday night, here’s a look back at how “S.N.L.” has handled past flaps. (Note: We’re focusing on responses that happened within the show itself, so won’t get into things like Mike Myers’s apology to the Clintons over a tasteless “Wayne’s World” joke about Chelsea.)

The French pop singer and actress Claudine Longet was arrested in 1976 for shooting and killing her lover, the pro skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. Longet claimed the shooting was an accident, which “S.N.L.” spoofed near the end of its first season.

The sketch featuring stock footage of skiers wiping out on the slopes, with overdubbed gunfire, as the TV announcers (Chevy Chase and Jane Curtain) commented on a strange wave of “accidental” skier shootings. “That looked almost like skeet shooting!” Curtain says. “You must mean ski shooting!” Chase replies.

Longet’s lawyer wasn’t laughing, and he sent “S.N.L.” a cease-and-desist letter. In the following week’s episode, the announcer Don Pardo read a statement on air — the show’s first public apology: “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.” Longet was later convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

In a 1977 bit, Bill Murray offered a heartfelt mea culpa, not for bad taste but for bad comedy, apologizing for his lackluster performances to date. “I don’t think I’m making it on the show,” he said. “I’m a funny guy, but I haven’t been so funny on the show.”

The monologue was funny because it was true: When Chevy Chase left “S.N.L.,” Murray replaced him and has since discussed how much he struggled in the early days. “If you could see it in your heart to laugh whenever I say something,” he told viewers in 1977. “I don’t care what it is …” They came around.

When Oprah Winfrey hosted in 1986, she emphasized the show’s lack of quality material for black female cast members and guests in an opening sketch that would be echoed years later by Kerry Washington. In this Season 11 episode, producer Lorne Michaels knocks on Winfrey’s dressing-room door to ask why she hasn’t changed into her Aunt Jemima costume. She tells him that won’t be happening. “Like I said, I don’t do Aunt Jemima,” Winfrey says, adding, “And furthermore, I’m not doing the maid sketch. I’m not doing the Br’er Rabbit sketch. And you can just forget about me in the refrigerator repair sketch.” Not an apology, exactly, but this was a dialogue the show would continue to have with itself, its viewers and its critics.

In maybe the most famous “S.N.L.” controversy of them all, Sinead O’Connor in 1992 ended an a cappella performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” in which she changed some of the lyrics to address child abuse, by tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II and saying, “Fight the real enemy.” Her message — that the Catholic Church had a sex abuse problem — was lost in the ensuing uproar.

“S.N.L.” responded the following week, when the host Joe Pesci devoted his monologue to criticizing O’Connor, saying he would have given her “such a smack” — which somehow did not court controversy — and presented the ripped-up pope photo taped back together. And there was more: A few episodes later, Madonna presented a photo of tabloid sex-scandal figure Joey Buttafucco and repeated O’Connor’s words: “Fight the real enemy.” And Jan Hooks’s later impression of the singer was featured as an occasion to boo her.

Mocking O’Connor’s message didn’t necessarily atone for what had happened, but it distanced the show from the singer’s political statement, which the network deemed to be anti-Catholic. “I know she has what she sees as very valid reasons for doing it,” Michaels said in a 1993 interview. “We were sort of shocked, the way you would be shocked at a houseguest [expletive] on a flower arrangement in the dining room.”

When Alec Baldwin, as a scoutmaster, tried to seduce the Adam Sandler character Canteen Boy in a 1994 sketch, many people were outraged, claiming the sketch was homophobic, made light of pedophilia and defamed the Boy Scouts of America. In subsequent re-airings, “S.N.L.” added a disclaimer, noting that Sandler’s character is actually a 27-year-old “who, despite his age, remains active in scouting.”

Baldwin attempted to make amends when he returned to host the show later in that year. “Some people got the wrong idea,” he said, claiming that the sketch provoked 300,000 angry phone calls to the NBC switchboard and that the network lost seven affiliates. And across the ocean, he claimed, Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of Canteen Boy during a London concert.

To “foster healing and tolerance,” as Baldwin said, he and Sandler re-performed the sketch as a play called “Out of the Tent and Proud: A Politically Correct Version of Canteen Boy,” in which the scoutmaster asked for permission before touching the character rechristened Consenting Bisexual Canteen Person. (He declined.)

Martin Lawrence’s opening monologue in a 1994 episode took a strange turn when he veered into a bit about female hygiene. “I’m watching douche commercials on television, and I’m wondering if some of you are reading the instructions,” he said, among other things. This portion of Lawrence’s monologue has been removed from tapes of the broadcast and replaced by a title card and voice-over explaining the excision: “Although we at ‘Saturday Night Live’ take no stand on this issue one way or another, network policy prevents us from rebroadcasting this portion of his remarks.” In conclusion, the voice-over said, “It was a frank and lively presentation, and nearly cost us all our jobs.”

Fred Armisen had a recurring bit in which he impersonated then Gov. David Paterson on “Weekend Update.” Paterson, who is legally blind, was not amused by Armisen wandering into shots on the show, so he came on “Weekend Update” in 2010 to explain why.

“While I have a good sense of humor, jokes that degrade people just for their disabilities are sophomoric and stupid,” Paterson said. He also delivered a zinger of his own: “You have poked so much fun at me for being blind that I forgot that I was black!” To show that he was a good sport, Paterson joined Armisen for one last bit of walking into the shot.

In a 2013 attempt to address the lack of black female “S.N.L.” cast members, Kerry Washington was featured struggling to be Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé all in one sketch. Through a voice-over and scrolling text on the screen, producers of “S.N.L.” apologized to Washington for the overload of characters and explained that she was saddled with the bit because she had “considerable range and talent” — and that there was no one else who could do the job (since “S.N.L.” hadn’t had a black woman in its cast for six years).

“We agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future,” the announcer said. “Unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” A few months later, the show hired two black women, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes, as writers.

In an opening monologue in 2017, Larry David joked about checking out women in a concentration camp and what pickup lines to use. (“You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes?”) The Anti-Defamation League called the routine “offensive, insensitive and unfunny all at the same time.”

David didn’t apologize but he acknowledged the incident the following week, when he returned as Bernie Sanders and said Democrats needed to crack down on politically incorrect humor, “like these comics out there who think it’s O.K. to make jokes about concentration camps — that guy should rot in hell.”

Following a performance of his song “Ghost Town” in 2018, Kanye West, wearing a MAGA hat, delivered an impromptu speech about Donald Trump in which he criticized the Democrats, the media and the “S.N.L.” cast and crew, claiming he had been bullied.

Pete Davidson subsequently went on “Weekend Update” to deny that West had been told he couldn’t wear his hat and to urge the rapper to take medication for mental illness (“No shame in the medicine game!”), but added that being mentally ill is not an excuse to act poorly. This wasn’t an apology, but it made clear that “S.N.L.” did not endorse West’s opinions.

Like Fred Armisen before him, Davidson found himself in hot water after mocking a disabled politician. In this case, it was the eyepatch-wearing Republican candidate and Iraq War veteran Dan Crenshaw. “You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit man in a porno movie,” Davidson said in a 2018 bit.

Crenshaw was elected to the House of Representatives and was invited onto “Weekend Update” so Davidson could apologize. The congressman-elect took the opportunity to roast Davidson in return, remarking that the comic looked like “if the meth from ‘Breaking Bad’ was a person,” before linking his own service with that of Davidson’s father, a firefighter who died on 9/11. “We can remember what brings us together as a country,” Crenshaw said.

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