The Unfunny Night Frank Zappa Got Himself Banned From ‘SNL’
Dropping into a flat, characterless voice he continued: "Thank you. It's an awesome responsibility being selected out of millions of people to become the banner of NBC's new look. God, I hope I'm good."
He wasn't – and his first guest host spot was also his last, during a week in which the SNL cast all found it impossible to work with him.
Naturally, hopes had been high that Zappa's return (he'd been a musical guest in 1976) would provide the kind of excitement and energy that his catalog did. But it wasn't to be, and by the time John Belushi opened the show in a sketch that hailed Zappa's appeal, he wasn't the only one who seemed unconvinced.
"When he arrived he immediately started giving orders," wrote Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad in their 2014 book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. "Al Franken remembers Zappa saying things like: 'Here's some ideas. I want to have pumpkins hanging on a Christmas tree, pumpkins that eat people's faces. Pull that together by Saturday.'"
They noted: "On the show he committed the cardinal sin of mugging to the camera in the middle of sketches" – something that made the other actors' jobs almost impossible. He ruined a Coneheads sketch by breaking character, and during the Halloween-themed "Night on Freak Mountain" section, it seemed almost as if he was actively trying to ruin things.
Pointing out that Zappa had actually liked the Coneheads piece, Dan Aykroyd told Playboy in 1993: "We were all in position to do it when Frank, said, 'What am I supposed to do? Read these cards?' It totally broke the reality; it was awful...Maybe he thought he was above the whole thing or he was nervous or he didn't like the script. Maybe he thought he was being funny. But in fact the audience sort of gasped."
Actor Don Novello described the show as "one of the worst ever" in the 2015 book Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. He added: "I really liked seeing how awkward he was in that. Zappa's a genius, but he doesn't trust people; he does everything by himself. A lot of performers after dress [rehearsal] are shaken; it doesn't go well and all of a sudden, 'Oh God, in two hours I'm going on live.'"
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Confirming that the dress rehearsal had been "terrible," he added that everyone wondered what Zappa was going to do about it. "What he did, not telling anybody, was he turned into Dean Martin...he read the cards like he was reading the cards. ... That was his approach to the humor. No one else in the sketches knew it. It was real bad, because I always liked Zappa – I think everybody did – but it was just a terrible show. Lorne [Michaels] was really upset."
Frank Zappa Said He Didn't Have a Prayer on 'SNL'
Predictably, Zappa's musical performances went well; but the atmosphere was broken. By the end of the show, during the goodnight section, the cast members made their feelings clear – they all stood back from Zappa, leaving as much space as they possibly could between host and stars.
The following year he defended his performance, telling Stereo Review: "It's a very difficult thing to do; they never make it easy on anyone who hosts the show. All the direction and attention goes to the sketches. They're not called skits – they become incensed if you call them skits – and it's all designed to accommodate the people who are regulars on the show, so anybody who goes on there to host is at a severe disadvantage."
He said he was never told which camera to face, and wasn't allowed to learn his lines because "they're rewriting right up to show time." The result, he continued, was that "unless you're used to acting live on TV, you haven't got a prayer; you'll be looking at the wrong camera."
He also reported that he hadn't found out until the day after the show that the SNL production had decided they didn't like him at their first meeting. "But no one said anything to my face while I was working on the thing. ... [T]hey had written dialogue for me to say that I wouldn't normally say; they wouldn't let me write any of my own stuff.
"I think I'd be a fantastic television personality. I think I'd be a real good interviewer if I had a talk show, or a variety show...But just to get up there and be the dumbbell in 'A Night on Freak Mountain'...I mean, sure, I'll do that for a laugh, but I'm not gonna build a life on it."
He wasn't wiped from SNL memory, however – Dana Carvey appeared as Zappa in two later sketches, and Zappa later wrote a song called "Conehead."
It's been suggested that there had been a culture clash between his strict anti-drugs stance and the far more easy-going approach taken by the cast. It's also been suggested that it was an age-old clash of egos that simply went too far. In any case, he never appeared on the show again.
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin