As America’s hotbed of satire for nearly fifty years, SNL certainly picked up the occasional controversy or two. From unnecessarily edgy sketches, to polarizing political hosts, to musicians tearing up photos of the pope, the series has seen an unfathomable amount of on-screen and off-screen antics. Some sketches raise the question, to what extent does certain content count as “funny” or satirical? Although criticized for becoming increasingly lukewarm over the years, SNL still continues to push those boundaries – whether they intend to or not. Now, remarkably, on its 47th season, here are some of the most controversial SNL sketches of all time, classified.
seven nude beach
Written by a young Conan O’Brien in 1988, the “Nude Beach” skit, starring Matthew Broderick as a newcomer to a nudist colony, included the word “penis” more than 40 times. Although viewers might not blink watching it today, the skit generated 46,000 letters of complaint when it was released – It’s safe to say that the references to genitals were still pretty taboo at the time. In fact, the main reason the sketch even saw the light of day was because the FCC had updated the censorship limitations just a week before to include the word “penis.” Conan really took this opportunity and ran away. Despite the controversy it sparked, the “Nude Beach” skit still remains highly regarded, likely to make anyone twelve or older laugh.
6 father daughter announcement
What begins as a touching moment between father and daughter (Taran Killam and Dakota Johnson) quickly takes a breathtaking turn for the worse in this incendiary skit. Viewers are led to believe Johnson is off to join the military, until a truckload of gunmen pulls up, as the ad says, “ISIS: We’ll take it from here , father.” Many did not find the humor in this abrupt and disturbing sketch, especially since at the time, many young girls were fleeing Syria to join the terrorist organization. However, others have argued that the “bullies” need to be criticized and ridiculedotherwise they will become a “normal” part of society. The skit reinforces ageless questions about the ends and limits of parody.
5 Jesus visits Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos
In another controversial Taran Killam skit, we see the actor playing former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, only to have a quick locker room encounter with Christ himself. Jesus, played by Jason Sudeikis, implies he helped the team win – “I just go where people need me most!” – and shows annoyance at Tebow’s constant begging. Although neither Jesus nor Tebow are portrayed in a particularly mean-spirited light, many Christian groups have taken issue with the skit, calling it “despicable”. Even politicians joined in the debate, with former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin telling Fox News, “I’m so pro-Tebow. He’s not ashamed of his savior, Jesus of Nazareth.” Curiously, Tim Tebow himself has remained mostly silent on the controversy.
4 The Situation Room: The Accidents of Tiger Woods
This 2009 skit aired when world-famous golfer Tiger Woods was accused of cheating on his wife with multiple women. We see Kenan Thompson as Woods, alongside his wife, Elin (Blake Lively), who, according to the skit, repeatedly beats Woods between news segments. Overall, the skit hits a relatively “joke” of a note, while also being incredibly deaf to the issue of domestic violence. Many domestic violence charities criticized the skit for its insensitivity, citing that it “mocks violence”.
3 Weekend Update: State of the State from Governor David Paterson
SNL has never been one to hold back from criticizing or satirizing famous politicians, whether they deserve it or not. However, this “Weekend Update” skit may be pushing the boundaries too far, poking fun at former New York Governor David Paterson for his physical disability. Paterson is blind, and Fred Armisen talks about it in an extremely exaggerated and caricatural way. The New York Times cited the portrait as “disoriented and buffoonish”. Obviously, lines have to be drawn as to what is and isn’t comedic material – physical disabilities should certainly never be one of those things.
2 Jimmy Fallon impersonates Chris Rock
In 2000, Jimmy Fallon posed as a fellow SNL alum Chris Rock wearing full blackface. Although the incident caused no outrage when it was released, a resurfaced video of the sketch compelled Fallon to apologize in 2020. “I’m so sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision, and thank you all for holding me accountable,” the late-night host said. Rock himself, along with a scourge of other comedians such as Jamie Foxx, defended Fallon on the issue, although Rock also took time to condemn the use of blackface as a whole. While the skit controversy was thankfully resolved in an amicable manner, it still serves as a reminder to hold celebrities accountable for their past behavior.
1 Word association
This infamous skit featuring two SNL titans sees Chevy Chase interviewing Richard Pryor for a janitor position. What begins as an innocent game of Word Association loads very quickly as Chase begins to hurl racial slurs, eventually saying the n-word on live television. The sketch was actually seen as groundbreaking at the time, with magazines like Today calling it a “signature moment in SNL story. However, the sketch did not age well, with many finding it deeply problematic. It also capped the alleged tension between Chase and Pryor, who notoriously did not favor each other, as well as a tense week in the series as a whole. The sketch continues to be widely discussed and debated today.