In honor of next week's season premiere, we remember some less honorable moments.
Saturday Night Live returns for its thirty-sixth season on September 25th. Amy Poehler will host, and hopefully kick off the season on a good note. After that, hosting disaster could strike any week, as history shows. Here are ten people whose invitations to host SNL can only be filed under Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time:
1. Louise Lasser (July 24, 1976)
In the late '60s and early '70s, with her appearances on TV and in movies (some of them directed by her onetime husband, Woody Allen), Lasser proved herself an eccentric charmer, and she should have been a neat fit for SNL. But when she did the show, she was imploding from her work schedule, and had recently made headlines after being arrested for unpaid traffic tickets and possession of six bucks worth of cocaine. As the live broadcast began to loom close, Lasser begged producer Lorne Michaels to let her cancel, but it was too late to replace her and Michaels used the threat of legal action to force her onstage. Her "monologue" was a rambling attempt to account for her own self-destruction that concluded with her running offstage, with the camera in hot pursuit, and barricading herself in her dressing room. By then, SNL had done so many sketches revolving around cast members and guest hosts pretending to break down or bug out on the air that most viewers probably thought this was more of the same, though they might have noticed that the timing seemed off. The regular cast managed to make it through the next eighty or so minutes, with minimal assistance from the host.
2. Frank Zappa (October 21, 1978)
Of all the dubious choices for show host, Zappa may be the most baffling, because he'd made a brief, wordless appearance in a previous episode (hosted by Candice Bergen), and even there, his suffocating air of smugness and unconcealed contempt for what he'd agreed to do were obvious. If his Mr. Snide routine wasn't the absolute low point of his career, that's only because some genius also once booked him as a guest star on Miami Vice. He must have been a delight during rehearsals, too, if the final bows during the closing credits were anything to go by; the cast members, obliged to join him onstage, clustered near the edge as if fearing his personality might be contagious.
3. Milton Berle (April 14, 1979)
In its early years, as the first TV comedy series created "by the TV generation for the TV generation," SNL often used hosts from the golden age of television (Desi Arnaz, Broderick Crawford, Rick Nelson) to pay tribute to the black-and-white era. but Berle's gruesome ego-tripping performance, which began with a crowd-clearing monologue overstuffed with crude ethnic wisecracks and climaxed with a maudlin song, put a stake through the heart of that tradition. Lorne Michaels was so grossed out by what Berle did to the show that he insisted that the episode never be shown in reruns, a decree that stood for almost twenty-five years.
4. Andrew Dice Clay (May 12, 1990)
When Clay was tapped to host the show, he was already heading towards the end of his fifteen minutes, a short-lived period of notoriety based on his chanting dirty limericks to audiences of cheering misogynists too dumb to figure out how to find a copy of Hustler on the newsstand racks. The news that Clay had been invited aboard inspired cast member Nora Dunn and scheduled musical guest Sinead O'Connor to boycott the episode out of feminist disgust, though they could rightly have refused to appear with Clay for the simple reason that he wasn't funny. The especially lame episode that resulted is notable only as a historical curiosity.
5. Steven Seagal (April 20, 1991)
Seagal bears the special distinction of being the SNL host with the least detectable sense of humor. It's not just that he didn't know how to play comedy, but that he seemed to have no understanding of what this thing called "funny" was. Compared to him, hosts like George Steinbrenner and Rudolph Giuliani look like Conan O'Brien on laughing gas. The show's success depended on Seagal eliciting people's laughter, a reaction that he couldn't seem to get past responding to as a personal insult. This aroused concerns that, in the unlikely event that the audience might laugh at what he did in a sketch, he might take offense and charge into the crowd with violent intentions. The fact that the musical guest that night was Michael Bolton made for an amount of pure awfulness per square inch that may have been unprecendented, not just in SNL history but that of all recorded time.
6. Deion Sanders (February 18, 1995)
From O.J. Simpson to Wayne Gretsky to Nancy Kerrigan, few profesional athletes have really distinguished themselves as SNL hosts. By the time Sanders got the call, expectations were set pretty low for football stars; still, this episode is remembered for two low points: Sanders attempting to rap, and Chris Farley (accidentally, it's said, though who can ever be sure with such a man) losing his pants and mooning the audience. In other words, unless you both stuck your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes tight, you were gonna get it.
7. Quentin Tarantino (November 11, 1995)
Tarantino's hosting gig was part of a two-year period of intense overexposure during which he tried to ride the success of Pulp Fiction to an official enshrinement as the King of All Media. In retrospect, it is a tribute to the depth and richness of Tarantino's genuine talent (for directing movies, which he's actually good at) that nobody organized a campaign to have him shot after this episode aired. Things got off to a rousing start with his unbearable performance of a fake-rock song ("Blow You a Kiss in the Wind", from an episode of Bewitched). It was supposed to suck, of course: the ego-maniac pop-addicted fame junkie is sending up his image as an ego-maniac pop-addicted fame junkie. (Ha ha!) But compare it to Bill Murray doing his old lounge singer act to realize that there's a right way of performing deliberately badly, and then there's a way that just amounts to badness squared.
8. Paris Hilton (September 5, 2005)
SNL is, at its heart, a New York institution, and the producers seem to have invited Hilton to host just to watch the inevitable post-show analysis spill over into New York media. Paris hurried to inform Page Six that the cast thought she was "so chill" that she had an open invitation to return whenever her busy schedule permitted. But an anonymous source described her "an energy vacuum on stage" whose "performance was minimally acceptable," and Tina Fey booked time on The Howard Stern Show to offer the unsisterly observation that, as a host, Hilton was "a piece of shit" who had hair "like a Fraggle." All this noise came in marked contrast to the episode itself, which set a new record for sketches played out to uncomprehending or appalled silence.
9. Michael Phelps (September 13, 2008)
SNL signed the star of the 2008 Summer Olympics to host the season premiere, thus giving Phelps the chance to disprove the popular notion that potheads are relaxed. On the other hand, the producers appear to have anticipated that Phelps might not turn out to be an aquatic Steve Martin, loading the episode up with goofy celebrity cameos: William Shatner, Jared the Subway sandwich guy, etc. The most prominent of these was, of course, the debut of Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impression, armed with the line, "I can see Russia from my house!" In fact, Phelps's appearance wasn't so much painful to watch as one of the most invisible hosting jobs since Louise Lasser locked herself in the ladies' room. Come Monday, everyone around the water cooler was talking about Fey as if she'd hosted the show herself, which was probably fine by Phelps anyway.
10. January Jones (November 14, 2009)
I sometimes think that Mad Men fans are too hard on Betty Draper, but in this arena, Don emerges as the clear victor. In two hosting appearances in the past couple of years, Jon Hamm has thrown away the starchiness of his best-known role and revealed a frisky streak of inner lunacy; in contrast, Jones was borderline zombified. In her defense, she may have never recovered from the shock that she must have experienced upon seeing the material that the fabled SNL writing pool had prepared for her: in one notoriously idiotic bit, poor Jones had to play Grace Kelly, overcome by flatulence on the set of Rear Window. To their credit, her co-victims, Bobby Moynihan and Jason Sudeikis, tried to mitigate her affectless performance by pretending that they were the only people on Earth incapable of delivering halfway decent impersonations of Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Let no one say that chivalry is dead.