20 Worst ‘Saturday Night Live’ Hosts
When NBC announced that the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk would be hosting Saturday Night Live this week, the booking was met with righteous indignation from all corners of the internet, with some citing Musk’s controversial views on everything from Covid-19 to crypto-currency. But for the show’s longtime fans, there’s an even bigger concern: Can Musk be funny? Or will this be another all-time SNL catastrophe?
Throughout its 46 seasons, the legendary sketch-comedy show has had its share of dud hosts — with some performing so badly that longtime producer Lorne Michaels has buried their episodes deep, keeping them out of syndicated packages and off the web. Sometimes athletes or pop singers find it impossible to read jokes off a cue card. Sometimes a bigwig used to getting his way (like, y’know, Elon Musk) doesn’t want to play along with a bunch of snarky comedy writers. And sometimes there’s just bad mojo in the air — either because of what’s going on in the real world or because the host gets under the skin of SNL’s cast and crew.
Related: Watch all seasons of Saturday Night Live on Hulu
The 20 hosts below all had rough nights for a variety of reasons, from personal hubris to a general incompatibility with the show’s ethos. What follows are some wild tales of showbiz flameouts, taken from backstage accounts and from what viewers at home saw with their own astonished eyes.
George Steinbrenner (October 20, 1990)
One of the most common types of bad SNL hosts are the rich and powerful non-entertainers with strong (and wrong) opinions about what’s funny. According to Conan O’Brien — one of the show’s writers at the time — when the former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hosted he grouchily nixed many of the writers’ best ideas, choosing instead to fumble his way through sketches that both limply spoofed and ultimately justified his reputation as a bully. The bit that’s aged the worst had Jan Hooks playing a reporter complaining about sexism in the locker room while getting hit on by “the Boss.” There was no joke. It was just three minutes of a crude dude taking liberties.
Rudy Giuliani (November 22, 1997)
This may be hard to believe, but before he started spouting democracy-demolishing conspiracy theories in Tri-state area parking lots, Rudy Giuliani was one of the country’s most admired men. He took a swing at raising his national profile with this SNL episode, which saw him all-too-eagerly poking fun of himself and his city. He donned a dress to play an old Italian grandma, took on the role of a Giuliani-hating cabbie, and did multiple variations on his hard-working “America’s Mayor” character. The performance seemed merely “meh” at the time — but it looks a lot worse now, as an example of a politician using this show to sell a phony version of himself.
Lance Armstrong (October 29, 2005)
When the now-disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong appeared on SNL in 2005, he was riding high. He’d beaten cancer, made his yellow “Livestrong” charity wristbands practically ubiquitous, and escaped temporarily escaped multiple investigations into whether he’d taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong was even in a celebrity power couple with singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow. Perhaps because of all this, there was an unappealing cockiness to the Tour de France winner when he hosted. He and the cast joked smugly about what he’d been through and all the people who’d tried to bring him down. The arrogance struck a bad chord then; seen now, long after he was forced to admit he was a cheat, the whole thing is practically unwatchable.
Ronda Rousey (January 23, 2016)
The challenge for any athlete hosting Saturday Night Live is to answer the question, “How do my skills apply here?” The UFC and WWE star Ronda Rousey never got a chance to figure it out, because her week on the show was complicated by a blizzard that hit New York. The resulting episode had a “let’s get this over worth and go home” vibe; many sketches felt like they’d pulled out of an old trunk, with little thought to how the host might fit into them. Rousey resorted to exaggerated facial expressions and arm gestures in the place of actual acting — though to be fair, she was mostly stuck playing generic characters, none of whom could kick as much butt as she.
January Jones (November 14, 2009)
Just because someone’s an Emmy-nominated actress doesn’t mean they can do sketch comedy — especially if their best-known TV role is an emotionally chilly perfectionist. January Jones carried the plastic and prickly qualities of Mad Men’s Betty Draper over to her SNL appearance: smiling wanly, delivering lines stiffly, and occasionally asking out loud for her cue. The writers tried to loosen Jones up by writing bits where she could be silly or disgusting — or both, as in the sketch that wondered “what if Grace Kelly farted a lot while making Rear Window?” But neither her heart nor her gut seemed in it.
Lindsay Lohan (March 3, 2012)
It’s important to note that before this calamitous episode, Lindsay Lohan had hosted SNL three times and had done quite well. Even this particular train wreck wasn’t entirely her fault: By this point in her career she’d become a tabloid staple, so the writers decided to lean heavily on making fun of Lohan about her instability and sobriety. The Mean Girls star appeared visibly uncomfortable throughout the night with all the jokes about the state of her mental health and her career. She stumbled through some of her lines and awkwardly stole glances at cue cards. In retrospect, who can blame her?
Louise Lasser (July 24, 1976)
The Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman star Louise Lasser was in rough shape in the summer of 1976, exhausted by the demanding schedule of a show which aired five nights a week, and embarrassed by a cocaine bust that happened not long before she hosted. In the years since this episode, various cast members — Chevy Chase especially — have claimed Lasser was so spacey at rehearsal that they considered going live without her. The actress has often insisted she knew exactly what she was doing that night, however, and that her mumbly, borderline experimental performance was deliberate, intended to push Saturday Night Live’s artistic limits.
Chevy Chase (February 15, 1997… among others)
Chase was arguably the most popular of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” and was thus the first to leave SNL — as well as the first to come back and host. Nearly every time he’s returned, he’s done or said something nettlesome. He and Bill Murray threw punches at each other backstage in 1978. He reportedly made horribly homophobic remarks to the openly gay cast member Terry Sweeney in 1985. And in 1997, he was relentlessly abusive, finally wearing out his welcome for good when he hit Cheri Oteri in the head during a rehearsal. Chase’s old friend Lorne has remained loyal enough to let him appear occasionally since then as a special guest. He has not hosted the show, however, since that disastrous late Nineties appearance.
Andrew Dice Clay (May 12, 1990)
Saturday Night Live had booked divisive hosts prior to Clay, but the cartoonishly vulgar stand-up comedian was the first to provoke an actual walkout. Nora Dunn openly objected to giving a platform to someone known for his violently misogynistic jokes. The male-dominated SNL cast and staff didn’t share those concerns (at least not publicly). Not only did they work with Clay, they wrote sketches that made his opposition seem humorless. Whatever your take on the man or his work, his episode came off as tense, defensive, and frankly, kind of mean.
Martin Lawrence (February 19, 1994)
Whenever a stand-up comedian hosts, fans look forward to the monologue, where comics get to do some of their actual act. But because this is live television — and network TV, not cable — jokes that kill on a nightclub stage sometimes fail to meet the producers’ or the studio audience’s approval. Martin Lawrence effectively got himself banned from SNL after he pushed the boundaries of good taste during his opening remarks, delivering a long, gross and sexist routine about the importance of feminine hygiene. (In reruns, an apologetic disclaimer runs in lieu of the bit.) His episode never fully recovered; and Lawrence never returned.
Adrien Brody (May 10, 2003)
Honestly, Brody was an odd choice to host, given that he was most famous at the time for playing a fugitive Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland in The Pianist — a role for which he’d just won an Oscar. Perhaps anxious to show his range, Brody injected more of himself into his SNL episode than the writers wanted. He apparently pestered the staff with weird comic ideas, then seemed to intentionally miss cues during the live taping in order to drag sketches out and keep the focus on himself. His most unforgivable move? He surprised everyone by introducing the musical guest Sean Paul while wearing fake dreadlocks and doing an exaggerated accent. Not cool, mon.
Paris Hilton (February 5, 2005)
We have a much better understand now of how piggishly paternalistic it was to treat women like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton as walking disasters who deserved to be mocked. On the other hand, Hilton really was terrible on SNL. Tina Fey later complained to Howard Stern that the proto-influencer seemed almost defiantly disengaged during the planning stages of her episode, behaving as though everyone should be grateful she’d even agreed to host. She also gave less than 100% in her sketches, most of which were written so she’d appear just long enough to flash a little smile, and not to kill any jokes.
Justin Bieber (February 9, 2013)
According to Bill Hader, both times Bieber appeared on SNL — first as a musical guest and then later as the host — he was surrounded by such a big and fussy entourage that neither the cast nor the writers could have the casual-to-creative interactions they needed to build a show. That lack of preparation was evident in this episode, in which the Biebs seemed blithely unconcerned about hitting his marks, instead relying on little flexes and winks to his fans in the studio whenever a sketch started to bomb … which happened a lot.
Michael Phelps (September 13, 2008)
We don’t mean to keep picking on athletes. Some jocks (like Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan) make great SNL hosts because they have such natural charisma, while others (see: Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky) are likably goofy even if they can’t really act. But the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has never seemed all that comfortable with being a celebrity. His primary personality trait is “obsessively hard-working,” not “super-chill.” Give him credit for being willing to look dopey in this episode — but don’t presume his strained smile meant he was having a lot of fun. Throughout the night, he looked like he was putting his head down and pushing through as fast as he could.
Nancy Kerrigan (March 12, 1994)
Here’s another Olympian who seemed to hate every second in the SNL spotlight. Perhaps Nancy Kerrigan’s attitude would’ve been different if she were famous just for being a world-class figure skater. Instead, she became the center of an international news story after getting hobbled by a rival skater’s goons, which mean that lot of the interest in her — including on this episode — was scandal-centric. Kerrigan was expected to relive one of the worst moments of her life, live on late night television, and to be a good sport about it. She wiped out hard.
Tom Green (November 18, 2000)
Granted, Tom Green’s appearance on this list may just be a matter of taste. The gawky Canadian comic’s absurdist, obnoxious, “preadolescent boy with no boundaries” schtick has its fans, even if it seems to repel as many folks as it delights. On SNL, he didn’t even try to appeal to the show’s regular viewers. Instead, he gave the audience the full Tom Green experience, with sketches that relied on him repeating weird noises and rubbing his body against what appeared to be unwitting scene partners. One could make the case that he produced an awesome version of his own comedy. But he didn’t host a very good Saturday Night Live.
Milton Berle (April 14, 1979)
Veteran actors and comedians often clashed with the original SNL cast, certain they knew more about how to get laughs than these scruffy, insolent youngsters. Milton Berle was pushy with the whole crew, never missing an opportunity to tell them what they were doing wrong. Unable to get some of his favorite ideas approved during the writing and rehearsal phases, Berle then went way off-script on live TV, telling broad and at times offensive jokes. The evening ended with Uncle Miltie singing a sentimental torch song and coaxing a standing ovation from his own guests in the audience — completing his total hijacking of the show.
Frank Zappa (October 21, 1978)
Lorne Michaels’s guiding principle during SNL’s early years was that the material should be edgy, but the performers should remain professional. Apparently none of that sunk in for the avant-garde jazz-rocker Frank Zappa, who treated the cast and crew of television’s hippest show like they were a bunch of squares. Reportedly rattled by a clunky dress rehearsal, the host chose to spend the actual telecast making funny faces and ad-libbing comments about the artificiality of the whole production. Michaels was furious. To Zappa, however, ultimately TV was TV — unworthy of his respect no matter who was making it.
Donald Trump (November 7, 2015)
Donald Trump was still just a fledgling presidential candidate when he was asked to host, but he’d already drawn so much controversy for his comments about immigrants and women that NBC was swamped with outrage before his episode even aired. Maybe the naysayers knew in advance how badly the night was going to go. Everyone on the stage looked absolutely miserable as they slogged through some disjointed and distressingly corny sketches about the host’s Twitter feed and his grandiose campaign promises. This wasn’t just bad TV. The booking torpedoed SNL’s credibility, making the show’s next five years of Trump-bashing jokes seem like too little, too late.
Steven Seagal (April 20, 1991)
And so we come to Steven Seagal, the consensus pick for “worst host ever” by anyone working at SNL at the time (including Lorne Michaels). The sour-faced action hero combined the worst traits of everyone on this list. According to the cast, he was rudely dismissive of the jokes pitched to him, countering with ideas for sketches that had him more or less playing himself while ranting about what he hates. On the night of the show, his performance was listless and riddled with mistakes, leading some to wonder if he might just quit, mid-episode. (Apparently he did have to be coaxed into appearing alongside Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon’s Hans and Franz, because he resented that the characters were fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Seagal didn’t come to play. He was doomed before anyone said, “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night….”