With the premiere of the Lorne Michaels-produced Alien News Desk starring Will Forte and Heidi Gardner on the Syfy channel, we take a look back at Saturday Night Live’s animated past.
Animation and Saturday Night Live have a long and storied history. The relationship goes back to the very beginning when the show was still called “NBC’s Saturday Night” and a little clay figure named Mr. Bill. From sketches to spinoffs, here’s a comprehensive history of animation on Saturday Night Live and the impact it has had on popular culture. Let’s start from the beginning.
Mr. Bill: Sketch Debut – Season 1, Episode 15 (1976)
Ever since its first season, NBC’s Saturday Night encouraged viewers to submit their home movies to the show. A New Orleans man by the name of Walter Williams answered the call and on February 28, 1976, Mr. Bill made his television debut with an introduction by Dan Aykroyd.
The grainy Super 8 short won audiences over with its amateur claymation parody of a children’s show. The first episode of Mr. Bill was titled “The Mr. Bill Holiday Special” and introduced audiences to Bill, his dog Spot, the evil Sluggo and the omniscient Mr. Hands who optimistically serves Bill endless amounts of torture.
Four successful submissions later and Williams was hired as a full-time SNL writer in 1978. He continued to write and direct Mr. Bill shorts and other Saturday Night Live sketches until his departure in 1981. But even after leaving SNL, the indestructible Mr. Bill would continue to entertain television audiences for decades to come. Some of Mr. Bill’s post-SNL production projects include a TV special, home videos, and a short-lived series. Mr. Bill has also done commercial work for Pringles with Bruce Jenner and Fred Flintstone, Burger King, Ramada Inn, and more recently MasterCard and Subway.
Jay Clay: Sketch Debut – Season 7, Episode 12 (1982)
In 1982, Saturday Night Live selected another home movie to share with their audience. It was a stop-motion short titled “Fracas” by Tim Hittle from Lumington, Indiana. The minute-long clip featured a stop-motion clay figure called Jay Clay.
NERD NOTE: 1980-1985 is considered to be the “SNL Dark Years“. Executive producer Lorne Michaels and the Not Ready for Prime Time Players left the show after their five-year contracts were up. NBC executive Dick Ebersol was now in charge of a show that had a cancellation threat looming over its head. By this time, Eddie Murphy had joined the cast. His popularity on the show is often credited for saving Saturday Night Live during an otherwise bleak era. The return of Lorne Michaels for the 1985-1986 season ended this difficult period in the show’s history.
Tim Hittle’s Jay Clay character would get at least one more appearance during the 7th season of SNL. The animated short titled “Jay Clay Gets Depressed”, aired on an episode hosted by Johnny Cash with musical guest Elton John. In the episode, Elton performed an emotional version of “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)“, a tribute to his recently murdered friend, John Lennon.
Possibly due to its dark subject matter, it’s very hard to find a video clip of “Jay Clay Gets Depressed” on the Internet. In the short, Jay Clay fails multiple suicide attempts. However, it ends with a laugh when a failed hanging attempt results in Jay’s head bouncing around and landing on his butt. The painting featured in the film is “L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas.
Hittle would go on to create three more amazing Jay Clay short films: The Potato Hunter (1991), Canhead (1996) which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film, and The Quiet Life (2010). Aside from creating the Jay Clay films, Hittle was also a stop-motion animator for Gumby, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Then in the late 1990s, Hittle made the move to 3D animation and started working for Pixar on Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, Wall-E, The Incredibles and more.
The Coneheads (1983)
The Coneheads animated series was an attempt by Lorne Michaels and Dan Aykroyd to turn the popular live sketch into a weekly primetime cartoon. The Coneheads pilot feels very much like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, similar to The Flintstones and The Jetsons, complete with a laugh track and canned applause. Several SNL cast members voiced the characters in The Coneheads cartoon pilot, including Dan Aykroyd as Beldar, Jane Curtain as Prymaat, and Laraine Newman as Connie.
The Coneheads cartoon was never picked up as a weekly series, so NBC aired the pilot as a television special in 1983. It was later released on VHS by Warner Bros.
What’s amazing to watch is how closely the cartoon is mirrored by the underrated Coneheads (1993) feature film. Not only is the entire premise exactly the same, but complete scenes, dialogue and supporting characters such as Ronnie, later played by Chris Farley, are recycled.
Tippi Turtle: Sketch Debut – Season 10, Episode 2 (1984)
Tippi Turtle was created by Arthur Jack Zander, longtime animator for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and early Tom and Jerry cartoons. In 1970 he started Zander’s Animation Parlour in New York City where he produced commercials for brands like Pepsi and AT&T. Zander also created three animated shorts for Saturday Night Live starring the surly Tippi Turtle voiced by SNL cast member Christopher Guest. In each short, Tippi took great joy in playing practical jokes on innocent people in what Lisa Simpson taught us is called “schadenfreude“. Only three Tippi Turtle sketches would air on the show.
The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley (1988)
Martin Short‘s Ed Grimley character made his television debut on Canada’s SCTV. But Short brought the character with him to SNL during his stint as a cast member in season 10. The popularity of the character resulted in an animated series deal with Hanna-Barbera. The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley animated series aired on Saturday mornings on NBC in 1988. The series is perhaps more closely tied to SCTV than SNL, with live-action segments starring Joe Flaherty in “Count Floyd’s Scary Story”, and voice work by former SCTV cast members Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara. Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas guested in episodes, as well as Christopher Guest who was an SNL castmate of Martin’s. In 2013, “The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley: The Complete Series” was released on DVD as part of the Hanna-Barbera Classics Collection.
Coldcock Malt Liquor: Season 17, Episode 4 (1991)
Coldcock is an SNL commercial parody that combines live-action and animation. The sketch stars Tim Meadows, Chris Rock, and Ellen Cleghorne. The commercial is a parody of Billy Dee Williams‘ infamous Colt 45 malt liquor ads and features an animated hand that knocks you out. The tagline is “It’s all just talk unless it’s the one they call Coldcock.”
NERD NOTE: Another sketch comedy show, In Living Color, also parodied the Colt 45 commercials. However, the insensitive sketch titled “Bolt 45“, featuring Keenen Ivory Wayans and Kim Coles, used date rape as a punch line and was quickly banned. It was cut from both reruns as well as all complications of the show.
The Cluckin’ Chicken: Season 18, Episode 7 (1992)
J.J. Sedelmaier Productions is a New York-based animation studio established in 1990 to produce animated television commercials. In 1992 SNL Senior Producer/Director Jim Signorelli teamed up with writer Robert Smigel for their first collaboration, “The Cluckin’ Chicken”. The commercial parody features Phil Hartman and the decapitated head of Clucky voiced by Adam Sandler. The success of the sketch led to further collaborations between J.J. Sedelmaier Productions and Smigel who together created the wildly popular TV Funhouse in 1996.
Office Space: Sketch Debut – Season 19, Episode 1 (1993)
Long before Office Space (1999) was a movie, it was an animated short in MTV‘s Liquid Television series (1992). This was the first time audiences got to know the infamous Milton Waddams character (red stapler guy). In addition to “Office Space“, a young Mike Judge also debuted several other animated shorts including “Huh?“, “The Honky Problem” and “Frog Baseball“. All of Judge’s work was positively received, but it was Frog Baseball that would prove to be a major catalyst for his career. The short featured two animated characters, Beavis and Butt-Head, that eventually got their own MTV series in 1993.
After the popularity of Beavis and Butt-Head, SNL teamed up with MTV and Judge to re-air some of his old animated sketches. The animated “Office Space” short made its broadcast TV debut in the 19th season premiere of SNL with host Charles Barkley and musical guest Nirvana.
Another Office Space animated short titled “Billable Hours” was supposed to air on the 9th episode of season 19 of SNL with Sally Field and Tony! Toni! Toné!. Unfortunately, it was cut because of time constraints.
The next Milton short titled “The Continuing Story of Milton” aired later that season in an episode with Snoop Doggy Dogg (as he was still called then) and Helen Hunt. This episode also debuted David Spade‘s very popular “Buh-Bye” sketch.
The fourth and final Office Space cartoon short aired the following season in a classic Dana Carvey-hosted episode featuring George H. W. Bush in the cold open poking fun at Carvey’s impression of him.
The live-action version of Office Space wouldn’t hit theaters until five years later, with Milton serving as only a minor role played by Stephen Root. When 20th Century Fox approached Judge to make the film, they wanted it to focus completely around the Milton character. Judge refused, feeling Milton wasn’t strong enough to carry his own film. He proposed an ensemble cast with Bill Lumbergh becoming a more central role, brought to life by Gary Cole. Thankfully, the studio listened and history was made.
Bug Off: Season 21, Episode 5 (1995)
In his first season as a cast member, Will Ferrell was a roach trap spokesman in the “Bug Off” commercial parody of the Black Flag Roach Motel ads. Thanks to some funny CGI animation, viewers get a look inside the Bug Off roach trap, which not only holds the insect hostage but tortures it mercilessly. It even features a Clear-Vu Window so the whole family can enjoy!
TV Funhouse: Sketch Debut – Season 22, Episode 1 (1996)
The brainchild of Robert Smigel, TV Funhouse became the longest-running animated segment in Saturday Night Live history. Starting in 1996, it aired for over a decade and even spawned its own short-lived TV series on Comedy Central from 2000-2001. J.J. Sedelmaier Productions produced TV Funhouse for the first three seasons before it was taken over by Wachtenheim/Marianetti Animation in 1999. The first TV Funhouse sketch was an episode titled “It Takes Two to Tango” from The Ambiguously Gay Duo. Stephen Colbert (Ace) and Steve Carell (Gary) were the voices of the Gay Duo long before they became the household names they are today.
The Ambiguously Gay Duo became the most popular segment on TV Funhouse followed by Fun With Real Audio, The X-Presidents, The Michael Jackson Show and a series of one-off shorts that included Globetrotters X-Mas, Bambi 2002 and 2005’s Christmastime for the Jews animated by Bix Pix Entertainment.
The man behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Smigel is known for pushing boundaries in his humor and TV Funhouse was no exception. One good example is 1998’s “Conspiracy Theory Rock!” which specifically mentions Lorne Michaels and the recent firing of Norm Macdonald. In the final seconds of “Conspiracy Theory Rock!”, the narration implies that Norm was fired for making too many jokes about O.J. Simpson, a close personal friend of NBC President Don Ohlmeyer. The short has since been banned from Saturday Night Live and cut out of any reruns in syndication. Michaels has been quoted as saying it was cut because it “Wasn’t funny.” If you ask me, that’s never stopped SNL from replaying sketches in the past.
The last appearance of TV Funhouse on Saturday Night Live was a 2011 episode of The Ambiguously Gay Duo called “The Dark, Clenched Hole of Evil”. In the sketch, Ace and Gary are transformed into live-action characters with Jon Hamm as Ace and Jimmy Fallon as Gary. The sketch also features Ed Helms, Fred Armisen, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert.
The Blues Brothers: The Animated Series (1997)
In 1997, Dan Aykroyd and Judy Belushi, widow of late John Belushi, licensed the rights of the Blues Brothers franchise to the animation studio Film Roman (The Simpsons, Ultimate Spider-Man). The intent was to premiere a Blues Brothers animated series in 1997 on UPN to help promote the new film Blues Brothers 2000 in February 1998. Apparently, eight episodes were produced but never aired. The cartoon was voiced by Dan’s brother Peter Aykroyd as Elwood Blues and John’s brother Jim Belushi as Jake Blues.
More recently, talk of a Blues Brothers animated TV series resurfaced in 2016 when news spread that Aykroyd and Judy Belushi were working with Bento Box Entertainment (Bob’s Burgers, The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special) to handle the animation. That project also fizzled out with no real word on why.
Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor: Season 25, Episode 11 (2000)
In a 2000 SNL commercial parody, Tracy Morgan portrays Uncle Jemima, husband of the famous “pancake lady”. He lives in a cartoon world surrounded by singing birds, butterflies and various farm animals which seem to be a figment of his own intoxication as he promotes his mash liquor with 95% alcohol content. As a result, Uncle Jemima promises, “You get f@#%ed up for less money!” The sketch is also included in the Saturday Night Live: The Best of Tracy Morgan DVD released in 2004.
Laser Cats!: Sketch Debut – Season 31, Episode 13 (2006)
One of the most successful Lonely Island sketches that aired on SNL was “Laser Cats!” (2006-2012). The premise of the series has Andy Samberg and Bill Hader continuously trying to pitch their digital short to Lorne Michaels who remains unimpressed despite the star power behind the project. Laser Cats had a slew of celebrity cameos including Lindsay Lohan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Christopher Walken, Steve Martin, Drew Barrymore, James Cameron, Tom Hanks, Elton John, Steven Spielberg, and Sigourney Weaver.
Dragon Babies: Season 39, Episode 20 (2014)
In 2014, SNL did a parody of an HBO First Look into the making of Dragon Babies, a children’s film starring Bibbo, voiced by retired Chicago Police officer Rick Shoulders (Mike O’Brien). Taran Killam plays Stuart McGrady, the director of Dragon Babies who seems to have difficulty admitting he’s made a mistake by hiring the gritty ex-cop to voice the main character. Charlize Theron also plays herself in the sketch and reveals her “real-life” crush on Rick Shoulders.
The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special: Season 43 (2017)
The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special aired during Saturday Night Live’s normal timeslot (11:30 pm EST) in lieu of a normal SNL episode. After the popularity of the David S. Pumpkins character played by Tom Hanks in the previous season, the 21-minute Halloween special animated by Bento Box Entertainment was an attempt to capitalize on its success. Hanks reprised his role as David S. Pumpkins in both animated form and live-action in the opening and closing segments. The special also featured Mikey Day, Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, Steve Higgins, Melissa Villasenor and narration by Peter Dinklage.
Ned’s Roach Away: Season 43, Episode 14 (2018)
In this commercial parody starring host Charles Barkley, SNL takes aim at the NRA with another animated sketch about roach extermination (see “Bug Off” above). The concept here is a deeper commentary on the gun law controversies in the United States. Ned’s “Roach Away” sides with the idea that the only way to get rid of “bad” roaches intruders is by arming all “good” roaches with tiny AR-15s.
Animation and Saturday Night Live
Hopefully you liked this journey through Saturday Night Live animated shorts history. SNL has been a powerful influence on the entertainment industry and helped launch so many careers in animation, puppetry and beyond.
Did we forget any of your favorite sketches, animated segments or spinoffs? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Toronto-based writer. Star Wars, sharks and shawarma.