Since its debut in 1975, SNL has had its ups and downs, most of which were always attributed to the cast du jour (and sometimes the writers). However, even when the show was at its peak both cast- and writer-wise, some shows bombed like Boy George at a tractor pull. A few examples come to mind:
1. Milton Berle
Lorne Michaels was against having Uncle Miltie host the show from the get-go, but the network Powers That Be pressured him, saying "How can you not have the comedian known as Mr. Television host the hippest TV show of the 70s?" Berle's 1979 appearance was a train wreck from Day One. No matter what instructions the director gave him, he'd mug for the camera, do broad spit-takes, and ad-lib jokes directly to the camera. He took it upon himself to give direction to the stagehands and lighting crew, since he'd been working in television since before they were born. Worse still, his lewd backstage behavior did little to endear him to the staff. He insisted on walking around in his boxer shorts and "proving" the oft-whispered Hollywood rumors about his physique to anyone who ambled by. (Gilda Radner happened to walk into a dressing room at the very moment Berle was proudly displaying himself to one of the show's writers.) The proverbial straw that broke Lorne Michaels' back, however, was when Uncle Miltie advised him just prior to the show's finale that a standing ovation was "guaranteed." Berle had used his allotted tickets to fill the audience with friends and relatives who obediently stood and applauded when he sang a dreary version of "September Song."
2. Louise Lasser
The former Mrs. Woody Allen was riding a wave of success in 1976. She was starring in the late-night satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and her face was all over the covers of Rolling Stone, People and TV Guide. Lasser was tapped to host the last episode of the first season in July 1976, and producer Lorne Michaels almost immediately regretted the choice. Lasser had a substance abuse problem (she'd been arrested for possession of cocaine just weeks before) and displayed erratic behavior during rehearsal week, including crawling on her hands and knees into various Rockefeller Center offices looking for drugs. Then on the day of the show, she locked herself in her dressing room and refused to come out. Chevy Chase shouted through the door that he'd wear braids and perform her parts if necessary. Lasser finally complied, and even though her performance was uneven and confounded the live audience, it wasn't quite as awful as some pundits have claimed. (She was, after all, doing her trademarked Mary Hartman stream-of-consciousness rambling). But based on her unprofessional pre-show behavior, she became the first host officially banned by Lorne Michaels.
3. Frank Zappa
Zappa was a musical innovator, filmmaker and overall renaissance man, but sometimes genius isn't enough to sustain you through a Saturday Night Live opening monologue. Zappa had done well as a musical guest on a previous show, but he was painfully out of his element when he hosted in 1978. Dress rehearsal was disastrous, which had happened with other hosts. But, as writer Don Novello once noted, most hosts shaken by a poor "dress" take time afterward to recoup and re-focus and then try harder for the actual performance. Zappa, however, decided to play it differently. He very deliberately delivered his lines in a sarcastic monotone, making it obvious that he was reading cue cards. He was trying for a snide "I am sooo above sketch comedy" type of attitude, but all he succeeded in doing was alienating the cast (many of whom were Zappa fans) and infuriating Lorne Michaels.
4. Jodie Foster
In 1976 Jodie Foster was many years away from winning her first Academy Award, but she had racked up some impressive credits as a child actress in films like Taxi Driver, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and Bugsy Malone. Her resumÃ© caught the attention of the SNL producers and they enlisted the 14-year-old actress as a host. Sadly, the writers were caught unprepared and had written sketches based around the worldly characters Foster had played. They didn't realize that Jodie was actually a typical tomboy-ish 14-year-old who'd only been performing under a director's instructions in that very adult film. Foster was so nervous about her hosting gig that she'd spilled an Orange Julius on herself just prior to taking the stage. She took it personally as skit after skit fell flat, and with the natural self-consciousness of an early teen she grew more awkward as the show progressed. When the camera cut back to her for the finale after the last commercial, the audience was so silent you could almost hear crickets chirping. After an uncomfortable pause, Foster simply said "thank you" and the credits rolled.
5. Chevy Chase
Chase was an integral member of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and became the series' first breakout star (mainly because as the Weekend Update anchor he got to announce his name mid-show every week). He left SNL after one season to pursue a movie career, and returned as a guest host in 1978. There was no love lost between Chase and his former castmates, and he didn't help the situation by acting the diva upon his return. During rehearsals he'd scream and insult everyone from the writers to the stage hands. He insisted on anchoring the Weekend Update segment, even though Jane Curtin had been doing it for the past year. "My fans expect it," he told Lorne Michaels. Bill Murray, the newest cast member, was the target of many of Chevy's jibes, including juvenile schoolyard cracks about Murray's acne-scarred complexion. Murray retorted with a remark about Chevy's relationship with his wife (the couple's turbulent marriage had been recent tabloid fodder), and the pair came to blows just minutes before show time. Even though Chase received an enthusiastic response from the audience, there was a palpable tension onstage between him and the rest of the cast that became more obvious as the show progressed.