NBC’s Saturday Night has had no shortage of bickering backstage over the years
Although its format has remained unchanged for decades, the comedy program which originated as NBC’s Saturday Night in the fall of 1975 has in some ways been several different shows over the years. Following political, social, and cultural trends, as well as numerous changes to casts and writers ensured it would undergo dramatic changes. At times the show was near cancellation. At other times it has been a cutting-edge presentation of satire and national discourse. Many times over the course of its existence there have been tensions on the set, resulting from differences between cast members, guest hosts, musical guests, producers, critics, and performers no longer with the show. Its longevity is remarkable, being that it began with a cast of unknowns, to considerable controversy, at a formerly unenviable time slot. It didn’t just attract viewers already watching at 11.30 PM Eastern time, it drew in a new audience.
It did so with controversy, irreverence, and an open contempt for NBC’s censors. To say the original cast had a chip on its shoulder is an understatement. That same arrogance led to innumerable conflicts on set. On of the earliest was a disagreement which degenerated into a full-blown fist fight between Chevy Chase, an original member of the cast, and Bill Murray. Chase had been the breakout star of the show during the first season (1975) and left for what he hoped would be greener pastures in 1977. Murray joined the main cast in 1976, after being an occasional performer during the first year. By 1978 he was one of the cast’s leading lights. That year Chase returned as a guest host for one episode, and personal tensions between Murray and Chase were soon apparent to the other members of the cast, who obviously knew both performers well.
There was mutual resentment on the set of the show, now named Saturday Night Live
When Chevy Chase returned to host Saturday Night Live he showed up with what his former castmates perceived as a chip on his shoulder. He demanded a return to the Weekend Update news desk, which he had routinely occupied during his tenure on the show. He also castigated writers, criticized other members of the cast, and argued frequently with Chase. During rehearsals in the week leading up to the show, Murray and Chase exchanged numerous barbs. In one Chase described Murray, to his famously pock-marked face, that he looked as if Neil Armstrong could use it for a landing site (Armstrong had by then landed on the moon among its many craters). Murray had already uttered a salty comment regarding Chase’s wife, with whom the comedian was then experiencing marital difficulties. Heavy drug use among the performers exacerbated the tensions throughout the week.
Finally, minutes before the live program was to begin with a Chase monologue, he confronted Murray in John Belushi’s dressing room. The fist fight was brief, though punches were landed by both. Most of them landed on Belushi, who jumped to separate the two, quickly assisted by other cast and crew. Among them was Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray. Fellow cast member Laraine Newman later called the scuffle, “…very sad and painful and awful”. Chase left field of conflict to start the week’s program before an audience clueless as to what had just occurred. Years later both combatants acknowledged their roles in the altercation and claimed that although they are not close (Murray is famously reclusively) they are on friendly terms, befitting two stars of Caddyshack.
Tensions with Steven Seagal led to him being banned from the show
Over the more than fifty years Saturday Night Live has been on the air, more than one guest host has proven to be a flop. But none exceeded the program hosted by Steven Seagal. The week which preceded the show was so fraught with tension between cast, writers, and host, the crew considered cancelling the Under Siege star and presenting that week’s program without a host at all. Seagal alienated writers, cast members, crew, and others involved with the production, refusing to perform in sketches in which he was the subject of humor. Instead, he suggested sketches which typically had him disposing of the performers onstage with him by throwing them across tables, through office machinery, out windows, and into each other. The live broadcast of April 20, 1991, has never been repeated in full, blocked by SNL staff and producers.
“The biggest problem with Steven Seagal was that he would complain about jokes he didn’t get”, Tim Meadows later commented. “he just wasn’t funny…” What was worse for the rest of the performers was that Seagal was abrasive, insulting to writers, and critical of performers. The week’s tensions led to a show so bad that Rolling Stone expressed surprise the host didn’t quit in mid-show. Seagal was banned from ever appearing on the show again, a list which is not undistinguished. He shares the distinction with Chevy Chase, Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, Frank Zappa, and several others. Nor was he the only guest host to create a tense atmosphere for the cast and crew of the show, which over the years has dealt with scores of them, magnified by the show being broadcast live.
Kirk Cameron introduced considerable tension on the set of Growing Pains
The situation comedy Growing Pains debuted in 1985 and became a hit, with a young Kirk Cameron emerging as a breakout character, Mike Seaver. Cameron was a 14-year veteran of sitcoms and commercials, though a relative unknown to the general public. During the program’s early years he became a teen idol, appearing in the venerable magazines, Tiger Beat, 16, Teen Beat, and others of a similar vein. Cameron later professed to have been an atheist when his fame began, a position he only adopted after having become a self-described “born again” Christian. Following his conversion his newly-found religious beliefs led to changes on the set of the hit program, and tensions with his fellow performers and producers. He rejected scripts, storylines, and eventually the identification of “born again”, preferring to describe himself as having found God.
Cameron slowly withdrew from the show and personal relations with the cast, which had once been close. “Kirk went through a slow-withdrawal – a fade to black”, fellow actor Alan Thicke later said. Kirk insisted on changes to scripts and even personnel, refusing to involve himself in anything which did not line up with his fundamentalist beliefs. That his decisions affected the careers of his fellow cast members was immaterial to him, and the strain on the set was noticed by all. In 1991 Cameron, in a telephone call to the President of ABC Entertainment Robert Iger, referred to producers Dan Guntzelman, Steve Marshal, and Mike Sullivan as little more than pornographers. All three resigned. The following year the floundering once hit program was canceled. Cameron went on to a career as an evangelist and maker of Christian themed entertainment.
Johnny Carson banished Joan Rivers from his show, refusing to even utter her name
By the mid-1970s Johnny Carson was the undisputed King of late-night television, a man who made careers simply by inviting performers to sit for a few minutes for an interview. Carson inherited The Tonight Show from Jack Paar, who created much of the program’s format. When Paar had comedienne Joan Rivers as a guest one evening, Rivers was a flop. Consequently it was several years before Carson, who took over The Tonight Show in 1962, had Rivers as a guest. That 1965 appearance was considerably more successful. Carson opined that Rivers would be a big star, and she went on to nearly 100 appearances on The Tonight Show over the years. By the early 1980s she was the regular guest host for the often absent Carson, and there was talk of her taking over the reins of the program when Johnny retired.
Several guests of The Tonight Show also had their own talk shows over the years, including Joey Bishop, Oprah Winfrey, Merv Griffin, and others, without retaliation from Johnny Carson. But when in 1986 Joan Rivers signed to host a late night program on Fox, a situation Carson learned of through industry insiders, he was furious. Allegedly his rage was directed at Rivers for not telling him. Rivers was instantly and permanently banned from appearing on his program, reruns of her as host were removed from broadcast schedules, and he refused to allow her name to be spoken within his hearing. Word went out that anyone who appeared on Joan Rivers’ Late Show would never again grace Carson’s stage. When Carson retired in 1992 his successor, Jay Leno, continued to ban Rivers from The Tonight Show, supposedly as a demonstration of loyalty to Carson.
Moonlighting was stricken with classic Hollywood star ego clashes
When Moonlighting appeared first hit the airwaves one of its stars, Bruce Willis, was a virtual unknown. Another, Cybill Shepherd, was a famed supermodel, actress, and celebrity. At first, their off-screen relationship was cordial and professional. It deteriorated rapidly. With the success of the show, Willis became a star, and as his fame grew his ego grew with it. Squabbles on the set between the stars of the show grew with each succeeding season. Some were over creative differences, others were petty ego clashes. Willis demanded a dressing room equal in size to that of his costar. Shepherd developed the reputation of a classic Hollywood diva, threatening to fire anyone involved in the production who dared to tell her no about anything. After just the second season of the show, Shepherd frequently used the “my way or I quit” ruse, getting her way time after time.
By the end of that season the creator of the successful program, Glenn Caron, was the target of her wrath, and he left the program rather than suffer the ignominy of dismissal. Rumors of an off-camera intimate relationship gone wrong swirled on the set and in the tabloids, never confirmed by either star. Filming incidents increased in intensity, growing from arguments to objects flying across the set propelled by one star in the direction of the other. The program lasted five years in first-runs, ending in 1989, and by the end of the production Willis and Shepherd weren’t speaking to each other, on-set or off, except where their scripts required them to do so. In 2005 Cybill Shepherd told an interviewer, “…it had gotten to where we just hated each other.” Both actors have had stressful relationships with fellow performers during other productions throughout their careers.
That 70’s Show set had its share of squabbles among its stars.
That 70’s Show brought together a cast of unknowns to portray suburban teenagers in a glossing over of the 70s in a manner similar to that of the cast of Happy Days representing an earlier decade. When producers assembled the cast of the show one, Topher Grace, was either led to believe or assumed that he was to be the star of the show. First year scripts did focus more on his character and his relationships with school, friends, and family. As other members of the cast began to emerge as stars, some even more so than Topher, his resentment became evident. Grace distanced himself from the off-screen camaraderie displayed by the other male stars of the series, not taking part in the marathon card games and clubbing forays the others enjoyed. Other problems developed during the series eight-year run, and still others emerged after the show was canceled.
Mila Kunis lied about her age to gain a spot on the cast, discovered by the show’s producers too late to cease production and hire a replacement. Lisa Robin Kelly suffered from a miscarriage and subsequent substance abuse issues, even as the show continued to make drug use a major aspect of its background. Danny Masterson was eventually charged with rapes occurring during his time on the program. Tommy Chong, then a regular on the series, faced nine months in jail for his involvement in the sale of drug paraphernalia. Wilder Valderrama appeared on Howard Stern to brag about his personal conquests with Hollywood stars, and rank their performances in the bedroom. When the program filmed its finale, Topher Grace agreed to return in a brief cameo. He filmed his appearance and left without sharing in the farewells between the rest of the cast.
Mad Men had a rift over, of all things, advertising
Mad Men broke new ground for television with its depiction of 1960s Madison Avenue advertising executives and their relationships with coworkers, clients, and family. The program was controversial throughout its run. One reason for the controversy was its depiction of antisemitism in American business and society. Another was the influence of big business, such as the tobacco industry and its domination of television advertising. The program made Jon Hamm a star. It also generated considerable controversy over its depictions of alcohol and tobacco use, explicit harassment in the workplace, stereotyping, and glorification of all of the above. It also depicted the influence of advertising on the everyday lives and habits, and how that influence could be extreme.
After its extremely successful first four seasons, which aired on AMC, Mad Men devolved into a controversy between its producers and stars and the network which had made it a success. The bone of contention was two minutes per episode. AMC wanted each episode shortened by that amount of time, in order that it could sell more advertising while airing its popular show. The action also reduced the cast budget per episode, which the cast opposed. Selling advertising to support a show about advertising was to them unthinkable if it had an adverse effect on their income. Fans were unhappy about the show’s delayed production, flooding social media with their complaints. Mad Menreturned in 2012 following a negotiated settlement, with real advertising continuing to support fictional advertising for another three seasons.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
“I Love Lucy: An American Legend”. Article, Library of Congress. Online.
“A Book”. Desi Arnaz. 1976
“Did Desi really Love Lucy? The Scandal That Rocked TV’s First Family”. Darin Strauss. Vanity Fair. August 13, 2020
“Ginger or Mary Ann? The Professor knew the answer”. Phil Luciano, Peoria Journal Star. December 30, 2020
“The Avengers: The Emma Peel Years (1965-1968)” Benjamin McVay, Cinema Scholars. June 1, 2021. Online
“Dame Diana Rigg: How the actress battled TV’s gender gap 54 years ago”. Article, BBC News. September 11, 2020. Online
“Everything William Shatner and George Takei Have Said in their Long-Running Feud”. Alexandra Schonfeld, Newsweek. October 18, 2021