SNL Performances That Destroyed Careers

It's hard to believe, but Saturday Night Live has been on the air for over 30 years. In that time, the show has logged a seemingly infinite number of memorable performances, both from hosts and musicians. If the opinions of the A.V. Club are to be believed (and they usually are), a performance on Saturday Night Live can still make or break an artist's career. As the site puts it, "[Show creator Lorne Michaels has] maintained the integrity of his show as an up-to-date snapshot of contemporary pop culture... SNL is easily the single most important television show on which not to bomb." No pressure, hosts, bands, and musicians. 

In the cases of the following acts (both musical and "comedic"), a poor showing on SNL ended up putting a real damper on some careers, or portended a downward spiral. Curious to find out who paid the price for floundering on live TV? Read on.

Ashlee Simpson

We haven't heard too much from Ashlee Simpson in recent years, but back in 2004 she was still relevant on the pop music scene, what with her reality show and notable fashion sense. But it all came crashing down when she was caught blatantly lip-synching on Saturday Night Live

When Simpson got up to perform her second song of the evening, "Autobiography," pre-recorded vocals for another song, "Pieces of Me," started playing while she had the mic held away from her face, visibly not singing. Whoops! Simpson's knee jerk reaction was to do a weird little jig and then run off stage as her band awkwardly played on. 

Cut to commercial and cue major backlash, including from Saturday Night Live show creator Lorne Michaels himself. Simpson later called in to MTV's Total Request Live to explain that she'd been suffering from severe acid reflux and her manager/father had insisted that she use a backing track to help her out. She told the show, "It's so embarrassing... because it sucks. The total situation was a bummer. I made a complete fool of myself." 

Audiences and music lovers agreed, and Simpson's career took a major dip in the aftermath. As Entertainment Tonight detailed in 2014, although her personal life underwent a number of developments (including two marriages), there's been little movement in terms of music-making. According to Idolator, Simpson saw poor album sales and only one of her songs eked its way on to the charts after the whole debacle.

Sinead O'Connor

Irish singer Sinead O'Connor caused a major stir with a 1992 SNL performance most remembered for its prescient political statement. At the end of her a cappella performance of Bob Marley's song "War," O'Connor pulled out a photograph of the pope, ripped it to shreds, and said, "Fight the real enemy." As the Herald-Journal described, network officials were horrified by O'Connor's unrehearsed actions. 

According to Rolling Stone, the performance prompted more than 4,000 angered phone calls to NBC, and O'Connor was subsequently banned from the show. She experienced major backlash, as detailed by the New York Daily News, and spent the rest of the 90s making music (though nothing came close to the popularity of her 1990 single "Nothing Compares 2 U") and then announcing her (ultimately temporary) retirement. According to the paper, in 1997 she denounced her behavior on SNL, saying it was "a ridiculous act, the gesture of a girl rebel."

In the 2000s, O'Connor reemerged after a long hiatus to explain her beef with the Catholic Church, justifying her SNL performance as a protest against the physical and sexual abuse endured by children at the hands of the church. Writing in The Washington Post, O'Connor explained, "Irish Catholics are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization... I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist." In recent years, O'Connor has made headlines again for her erratic behavior, though sadly not as much for her artistry.

Adrien Brody

Okay, so Adrien Brody is still acting (Peaky Blinders, anyone?), but it's safe to say he destroyed his career as an SNL host with a weird moment during his appearance as host back in 2003. When it came time for him to introduce musical guest Sean Paul, Brody appeared on camera wearing a dreadlocks wig, launching into an excruciating improvised 45 seconds in his best Jamaican accent. The unscripted stunt must have seriously pissed someone off, because Brody has never been invited back to host. 

When Andy Cohen later asked SNL cast member and writer Tina Fey on Watch What Happens Live! who she thought had been the worst host ever, Fey silently but clearly mouthed "Adrien Brody" (via The Dishmaster). Brody later told Moviefone (via The Huffington Post) that he'd heard the rumors that he's banned forever (although Lorne Michaels had never officially told him so), but he sure hoped not, because he'd love to host again and "had a great time" the first time around. Well, that makes one of us.

Lana Del Rey

Appearing on the Jan. 14, 2012 episode, then-debut artist Del Rey's stiff performance of her song "Video Games" was widely and swiftly panned. Rolling Stone described the backlash, explaining that, "[Del Rey's] shaky, slightly dead-eyed Saturday Night Live debut was treated like a national emergency, inspiring weeks of debate..." News anchor Brian Williams even sipped the haterade, writing to Gawker blogger Nick Denton, "Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night — booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show's history, for starters."

As Entertainment Weekly reported at the time, Twitter also went crazy after the performance; actress Juliette Lewis even felt compelled to comment, writing in a since-deleted Tweet, "Wow watching this 'singer' on SNL is like watching a 12 yearold [sic] in their bedroom when theyre pretending to sing and perform #signofourtimes." Del Rey told Rolling Stone about the negative impact the performance nearly had on her career, explaining how, "Everyone I knew suddenly wasn't so sure about me... They were like, 'Maybe I don't want to be associated with her — not a great reputation." However, the magazine reported, her producer Jimmy Iovine came to the rescue and introduced her to in-ear monitors. 

In this case, the SNL-induced career meltdown was short-lived; Del Rey's album Born to Die was released two weeks later on Jan. 27, and went on to sell over 7 million copies as of 2014, according to The Fader


Haven't heard of Karmin? There's a chance that their widely-criticized 2012 Saturday Night Live appearance might have something to do with that. The duo, who found a ton of early fanfare on YouTube where they showcased covers of other people's songs, performed two original songs, "Brokenhearted" and "I Told You So," on the show. Spin subsequently ripped their performances apart, calling their music "anonymously upbeat would-be club bangers co-written by the usual chart 40 hitmakers, the kind of hip-hop songs that use phrases like 'hip-hop song.'...This was hip-hop even Mitt Romney could enjoy, though he seems to have a little bit more personality." Sorry Mitt, but ouch.

In the aftermath of their performance, Gawker dismissed the band as a "YouTube novelty act" while Grantland called them "the favored music among people who post on Facebook 12 times per day." In following years, their albums barely charted and their career pretty much fizzled out. They've since broken up.


On Halloween 1981, punk band Fear put in a seriously memorable Saturday Night Live performance in which, per The Daily Beast, "Noses were broken, brawls broke out between New York and Washington, D.C., natives, pumpkins were launched at security guards' heads and a NYPD-versus-punks chase out of Rockefeller Center spilled into the streets outside." The band was apparently a favorite of then-cast member John Belushi, Grantland reported, also noting that "Fear got on because nobody at SNL knew what they were doing at the time."

According to Flavorwire, the performance left the show with an estimated $20,000 in damages; a la Adrien Brody, they were officially banned from appearing again and some clubs refused to book them. Fear's frontman Lee Ving later explained to Rolling Stone, "They swore that night they'd never rebroadcast our footage... It was shortsighted of the Saturday Night Live staff and ownership to dis-include the performance in their anniversary episodes." 

The band certainly gained infamy, if not actual fame, from the performance. 

Steven Seagal

When Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels calls you out as the "biggest jerk who's ever been on the show" and remembers you as "the worst host ever" you know you've really failed spectacularly. Such was the case with actor Steven Seagal, who appeared as the host on an excruciating 1991 episode and was, you guessed it, subsequently banned.

Cast member David Spade reminisced of Seagal to Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live"He was a little tough...tough to work with. He was hard, he didn't want to play along." Norm Macdonald, another cast member, recalled Seagal to the New York Daily News as "just not a nice guy." And finally, Tim Meadows told the authors of Live from New York, "[H]e would complain about jokes he didn't get...He just wasn't funny."

It's difficult to say if SNL alone led to Seagal's downward trajectory, but what is undeniable is that his career flamed out, with Seagal ending up in mostly straight-to-video projects by the 2000s. Things haven't been going too swimmingly recently either: in 2013, Vice dubbed him "the lamest guy ever," and in 2017 and 2018 he faced multiple allegations of sexual assault, including from actress Portia de Rossi. 

Ready to experience some serious unfunny-ness for yourself? Watch Seagal at work here