30 Years Ago: Steven Seagal’s ‘Hilariously Awful’ ‘SNL’ Episode
On April 20, 1991, one of the most infamous episodes in Saturday Night Live history hit the airwaves, as hosting duties were handed to Steven Seagal.
“I think maybe his one-inch ponytail was too tight that night,” former SNL cast member David Spade joked decades later. In actuality, a combination of wooden acting, stubbornness and a complete lack of comic sensibility ultimately doomed Seagal’s hosting stint.
The actor was in the midst of his commercial height at the time. Films Hard to Kill and Marked for Death had been hits in 1990, and the action star’s newest flick, Out for Justice, would continue the successful trend.
Saturday Night Live had certainly welcomed its fair share of non-comic hosts in the past. Fellow action star Bruce Willis had hosted the season before, while athletes including Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana had also previously held the role. Just earlier the same season, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner served as SNL host. Suffice it to say, being a comedy king was not a prerequisite for the gig.
Still, Seagal did himself no favors from the moment he arrived for the week of writing and rehearsals leading up to his episode.
“He didn’t want to go along with what the plan was that week,” Spade revealed in the book Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “As a result, I think that was the first week that I heard talk about replacing the host and just doing a cast show.”
Watch Steven Seagal on 'Saturday Night Live' in 1991
“When we pitched some of our ideas for Seagal at our Monday meeting, he gave us some of his own sketch ideas,” recalled fellow cast member Julia Sweeney. “And some of his sketch ideas were so heinous, so hilariously awful, it was like we were on Candid Camera.”
One pitch in particular left Sweeney dumbfounded: “He had this idea that he’s a therapist, and he wanted Victoria Jackson to be his patient who’d just been raped. And the therapist says, ‘You’re going to have to come to me twice a week for like three years,' because, he said, ‘That’s how therapists fucking are. They’re just trying to get your money.’ And then he says the psychiatrist tries to have sex with her.”
Terrible ideas aside, Spade believed Seagal’s downfall was a result of his refusal to make fun of himself.
“A lot of people think we’re there to make fun of them. But if we’re getting you on the show to host, we all want it to work. And if you make fun of yourself — this is where it gets tricky — if you make fun of yourself, it will benefit you,” the former cast member explained to Rob Lowe on the Literally! podcast. “And if you don’t, and if you fight it so much — that was [Seagal]. He was too cool and had his image.”
The cast did their best to adjust to the host’s sensibilities. During a 2019 stop on The Howard Stern Show, Dana Carvey recalled Seagal’s surprising reaction to his Hans and Franz sketch.
“[Originally,] all of it was [the characters] making fun of Steven,” the comedian noted, before putting on his accent to give an example. “Like, ‘Arnold is stronger than you. He could flick you with his little baby finger and you would fly across the room and land in baby poop.’”
“Then on Thursday we’re just on the soundstage rehearsing it. And we go through it with the cue cards, he reads his lines, very serious, then he just walks off,” Carvey recalled. “So, I went up to him and I said, ‘Steven, are you okay?’ And he didn’t look at me. He was looking straightforward and he goes, quote, ‘I just wish Arnold was here so I could kick his fucking ass.’”
Carvey tried further explaining the premise, but Seagal didn’t seem to understand. The sketch was rewritten to paint the host as the toughest action hero of all.
Watch Dana Carvey Describe Working With Steven Seagal on 'SNL'
"The biggest problem with Steven Seagal was that he would complain about jokes that he didn't get, so it was like — you can't explain something to somebody in German if they don't speak German,” cast member Tim Meadows explained in Live From New York. “He just wasn't funny, and he was very critical of the cast and writing staff. He didn't realize that you can't tell somebody they're stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday."
Seagal’s demand for rewrites even extended to the show’s opening.
“He wouldn’t do 'Kung Fu Fighting' as a cold open,” Spade revealed, noting that the original idea had Segal singing the song while smashing cast members with his martial arts moves. Instead, the actor - and occasional recording artist - earnestly sang the song while cast members provided backing vocals. “It’s still kinda funny, but he won’t play at all,” Spade recalled. “And then the other sketches he was fighting.”
Whether he was impersonating Andrew Dice Clay, throwing Rob Schneider's Richmeister character out a window or playing an overprotective father to a teenage daughter, Seagal remained unexpressive and, generally, unfunny.
“He didn't want to be on sketches," fellow cast member Norm MacDonald declared to the New York Daily News. "Just not a nice guy.”
Indeed, it really didn't seem like Seagal wanted to be on the show. The actor rarely smiled or showed any emotion during the episode, often delivering lines that were supposed to be funny in the same deep, grizzled tones that he'd use in his action movies. As a one-sketch gag, something like that could be funny. That it was done across an entire episode - and clearly not done for laughs - made the whole experience cringeworthy.
Seagal’s episode quickly became infamous. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels quickly removed it from rerun rotation and banned the actor from returning. But, by the start of season 18 in the fall of 1992) Michaels was at least willing to make fun of it.
Nicolas Cage was the host for Saturday Night Live’s Sept. 26, 1992, episode. In one sketch, the actor lamented to Michaels that fans will probably think he's "the biggest jerk who's ever been on the show." The producer’s response? "No, no. That would be Steven Seagal."