45 Years Ago: O.J. Simpson Hosts ‘Saturday Night Live’
The relentless churn of famous figures who’ve hosted Saturday Night Live over the years has left the show with not a few regrets. Being a bad host is one thing, with SNL’s shark-like momentum simply shaking off a bummer of an episode and moving on. (Or, as in the cases of such universally reviled outings from hosts Milton Berle and Frank Zappa, being pulled from syndication by producer Lorne Michaels for a time.)
But then there are the host bookings that, thanks to the host’s life away from the SNL spotlight, leave a stain that Michaels and NBC would much rather just ignore. Some, like the invites to presidential candidate Donald Trump and the pre-Twitter Elon Musk, were doomed from the moment the booking was announced, their already problematic profiles poisoning viewers (and some cast and crew) against an episode. And then there are the seemingly innocuous bookings that become a problem only much later when the host in question revealed their true, often very ugly face to the world.
O.J. Simpson was an understandable pick to host the 12th episode of Season 3 on Feb. 25, 1978. While his legendary NFL career was winding down, the canny Simpson had been positioning for his post-sports career in film and TV, his sporadic movie roles (The Towering Inferno, The Cassandra Crossing) vying with his ubiquity as a TV pitchman and broadcaster to make Simpson a daily presence in America’s media landscape. SNL had — and retains — a fondness for bringing in professional athletes to host, despite the non-actors’ invariable shakiness in front of the live audience. Simpson, while never particularly confident on the big or small screens when not wearing a Buffalo Bills (later San Francisco 49ers) uniform, had been appearing in TV and movie roles since the late ’60s and so theoretically had a leg up on the previous season’s SNL jock host, Fran Tarkenton.
And Simpson indeed made a splash, as he came out for his monologue sporting a prosthetic, appropriately flesh-colored Coneheads cone. The monologue itself, however, indicated the wobbly show to come, with the smiling and enthusiastic Simpson delivering a very long personal story about his football career and his longtime wish to be there in Studio 8H, supposedly inspired by Richard Pryor’s legendary 1975 hosting stint. Simpson rattled off his lengthy monologue with practiced professionalism, the football-heavy story feeling more at home to a sports banquet than a comedy show.
There’s a running gag about the band breaking in with anecdote-appropriate music that’s too tentative to work, and Simpson himself steamrolls past the few actual jokes. The one gag that almost lands came when Simpson mentioned in passing that his Bills career was delayed because they didn’t have a helmet to fit him, the only reference to the Coneheads bit. In the end, Simpson made a plea for the audience to “remember me for what I was, and not what I may become here tonight.”
The show that followed revealed that Simpson was the earnest, game and somewhat stiff performer that ultimately prevented him from reaching the big-screen success of other contemporary NFL stars like Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. As a Saturday Night Live host, Simpson’s on par with the vast majority of athletes who’d take the stage in the ensuing decades. Various cast members have noted that a professional athlete’s lifetime of repetition, routine and goal-focused accomplishment makes for a willing, if uninspired, scene partner, something borne out by Simpson’s affable mediocrity all night.
Not that the football icon was seemingly too worried about his image. Apart from donning that giant, fleshy conehead, Simpson appeared beside John Belushi’s samurai in a parody of Saturday Night Fever, disco dancing and parodying the film’s B-plot about John Travolta’s brother leaving the priesthood, with Simpson’s returning big brother dropping the bomb on his Italian family that he doesn’t want to be Black anymore. “I never could get the walk right,” Simpson sheepishly admits to Belushi’s preening Futaba.
Later, Simpson would push his squeaky-clean image even further, with a sketch advertising Mandingo II seeing him playing a slave and making out with everyone from Laraine Newman’s southern belle to Garrett Morris (in drag) as a fellow enslaved woman, and finally Bill Murray as the lusty plantation owner. It’s a loaded, funny piece, going all-in mocking that infamously salacious 1975 potboiler’s sweaty stew of race, sex and exploitation.
And if the quick editing and awkward face-mashing smack of NBC’s squeamishness, everyone involved is game for the bit. Simpson, returning for the Saturday Night Live: 15th Anniversary special in 1989, joked about his lip-locks with Morris and Murray representing the first male-male kisses in TV history, although Simpson went on to claim that it was Chicago Bears star Walter Payton who did the deeds.
As himself on Saturday Night Live, Simpson introduced a clip of Belushi’s Babe Ruth promising dying child Morris he’d hit a homer for him, leaning into the host’s sports background as he played the straight man. There’s a funny conceit in that Simpson keeps getting caught eating from a box of Cracker Jacks when the camera cuts to him in his leather presenter’s chair, but it’s Morris’ terrified child (he finds out how serious his condition is over the radio as Belushi’s beer-swilling Babe repeatedly strikes out) who gets the laughs.
Simpson was himself four more times, one as he and pals Belushi, Morris and Dan Aykroyd (one of whom is addressed as “A.C.,” a reference to real-life teammate and future getaway Bronco driver Al Cowlings, presumably) watch as Payton attempts to break Simpson’s single-season rushing record. The premise that the laid-back Simpson is secretly hiding a Payton voodoo doll in his fridge is a cheeky bit of self-parody, Simpson prodding his carefully scrubbed good-guy image. The same goes for a parody of Simpson’s Hertz car-rental ads, which sees an irate Simpson losing his reservation to Payton. “We also have to go with a winner,” explains Newman’s brusque rental clerk, referencing both Hertz’s slogan and the fact that Payton did, indeed, have a better season than Simpson. (At the end of the filmed piece, Simpson raises his hand as if to strike Newman, something that plays differently now that Simpson’s history of domestic violence has come to light.)
A "Weekend Update" piece finds Newman teaming with Simpson as himself, Newman’s intrepid correspondent announced as the first woman to conduct interviews from an all-male pro locker room. It’s one long “O.J. has a big dick” joke, with the nude and preening Simpson relishing in Newman’s undisguised and unprofessional glances below camera range. And then Simpson plays Simpson one more time, teaming up with Morris’ tooth-blacked Leon Spinks in the TV competition “Celebrity Battle of the Races and Sexes” against Gilda Radner’s Marie Osmond and Newman’s Sandy Duncan. Here, Saturday Night Live’s spotty history with racial humor gets particularly queasy, as the prizes include flashy pimp attire and a tricked-out purple Cadillac, and Bill Murray’s Brent Musburger announces that the lopsided victory for the Simpson-Spinks team “ran away with the spear-chucking competition.”
Overall, the O.J. Simpson hosting experience was unremarkable, if amusing. Season 3 SNL was hitting its stride, and Simpson lands in the upper reaches of athlete hosts, for what that’s worth. But the episode plays very differently now, with Simpson’s 1994 arrest for the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman forever tarnishing the Hall of Fame running back’s long-protected image.
Ultimately acquitted in one of the most-watched trials in history, Simpson yet was found responsible for the deaths in a subsequent civil trial, was jailed in 2007 after he led an armed robbery and kidnapping related to some old sports memorabilia, and, upon his 2017 release from prison, lives as an outcast from the sports and media worlds he sought so earnestly to conquer. In the annals of Saturday Night Live hosts, Simpson joins Season 8 host Robert Blake in being persona non grata at further reunions, while he’s much more associated now with "Update" anchor Norm Macdonald’s controversial firing, thanks to years of “O.J. did it” jokes. Eerily like Simpson, Blake was acquitted of his wife’s 2001 murder but then found liable in a subsequent civil trial, marking them, at least in the court of public opinion, the only two known murderers ever to host Saturday Night Live.