Don’t Make Lorne Mad 📺

Elon Musk’s appearance on SNL, seen in light of the artists that SNL has banned over the years, is a reminder that orthodoxy reigns supreme on the sketch show.

Having a billionaire appear as Wario is as transgressive as SNL got last week.

I admit it. I laughed.

Perhaps Elon Musk’s appearance on Saturday Night Live wasn’t the greatest thing ever (certainly it will hold up better than Donald Trump’s, which was cringeworthy as soon as it was put to video), but given the backlash against this effort to make an extremely rich guy look human, I was prepared for the worst.

And what we got was a middling SNL episode and Waluigi representation. No harm, no foul.

But in thinking about the way that Musk was criticized by the outside world, it’s worth remembering that the people that have to be kept happy with an SNL appearance are the folks behind the scenes, not the ones out front. As far back as Elvis Costello’s last-second change to perform “Radio Radio,” SNL has a long history of banning people who ignore the show’s orthodoxy.

Sure, there are incidents where people get banned for obvious backlash—for different reasons Martin Lawrence and Sinéad O’Connor immediately come to mind. (Though often brought up in this context, Andrew Dice Clay was never actually banned.) But generally when people get banned it’s because they upset the show’s status quo—such as Adrien Brody did when he showed up in dreadlocks without passing it by anyone, a decision that looks even worse with the passage of time.

After all, it’s not like SNL is above hosting powerful people. Beyond the previously noted Donald Trump appearance, SNL also hosted Steve Forbes a quarter-century ago at a time when Forbes was getting a lot of attention for pitching the concept of a “flat tax” during the 1996 presidential campaign. (He lost. SNL was his consolation prize.)

But that appearance bit the show the because they also booked Rage Against the Machine the same night, and the show decided that RATM’s upside-down flags just couldn’t appear on air, leading to an apparent incident where bassist Tim Commerford went into Forbes’ dressing room and threw ripped-up pieces of the flag at Forbes’ entourage. You know, stuff that’s more entertaining than the show itself probably was.

But I think the incident that really sticks with me around SNL and banned performers is The Replacements. They were arguably as unpolished as Musk was—but that was literally their thing, a style they were famous for long before they signed to a major label—and when they appeared on stage for their two songs, they really pissed off Lorne Michaels.

An excerpt from a biography about the band, published in Rolling Stone five years ago, made clear that a barely-heard obscenity, one that made it past censors, was enough to upset the orthodoxy:

As the solo break approached, Westerberg shouted toward Bob, just off mic: “Come on, fucker.” The epithet, delivered as he turned his head, slipped past the censors. “It wasn’t really something I planned,” he said. “It was more me saying to Bob, ‘Let’s give it to ’em with everything we got.'”

Quickly, however, the show’s producers realized that an obscenity had gone out live on the air. Producer Al Franken, standing in front of the band and gripping a clipboard, began to frown. Westerberg gave him an exaggerated vaudeville wink.

After Mars bashed out the climactic machine-gun coda, “Bastards” careened to a halt. Tommy and Paul bowed comically. Bob followed with a backward somersault, revealing a tear in the seat of his outfit — his bare ass flashed briefly on-screen. The crowd, packed with ‘Mats partisans, cheered wildly. Most people in the studio audience had missed Westerberg’s obscenity. But Lorne Michaels hadn’t.


Lorne Michaels was so mad about these guys.

These clips are hard to come by—I remember tracking them down via DailyMotion years ago, but having a hard time with it. (Above is the full “Bastards of Young” performance.)

But last year, freelancer Noel Murray did everyone a solid by uploading them to Twitter. Why Twitter? Well, they kept getting banned everywhere else. SNL really didn’t want to see Paul Westerberg’s barely-heard profanity see the light of day.

The Replacements were literally brought onto SNL as part of an agreement between the show’s music booker and their record label. They had little power; it wasn’t like Tim was flying off the shelves. It was sheer chance they appeared there, and they ended up pissing off Lorne Michaels, who banned the band. (Westerberg would later appear as a solo artist.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that SNL, the home of sketches that vary greatly in quality, favors the powerful. Given the choice to let Rage Against the Machine, whose current single was literally “Bulls on Parade,” make a message that matched their general ethos, or favor the rich billionaire who didn’t even actually get that far in a presidential run, they chose the billionaire.

So Elon Musk, awkward as he was, was on-brand for SNL.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 42 seconds

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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