Lost & Found: Remember That Time L.A. Punks Caused a Riot on ‘SNL’?
On Oct. 31, 1981, ‘Saturday Night Live’ played host to a chaos-filled Halloween party like no one had ever seen on television before … or since.
Former cast member John Belushi was riding high on the success of the Blues Brothers (both the movie and the group) at the time, and had become one of the nation’s most bankable stars. While living in Los Angeles, he had become enamored — or should we say obsessed? — with the city’s punk scene. Belushi had initially commissioned the band Fear to record the music for his movie ‘Neighbors,’ but that plan fell apart.
So to make it up to them, he promised he would get them on national television. Belushi, along with ‘SNL’ writer Michael O’Donoghue, sold the idea to producer Dick Ebersol (who had temporarily replaced Lorne Michaels), with the promise that Belushi would make a return guest appearance on the struggling TV show. Belushi and O’Donoghue had become fans of the band after seeing them in the 1981 punk-rock documentary ‘The Decline of Western Civilization.’
The show that night was hosted by ‘Halloween’ star Donald Pleasence, who seemed to take it all in stride as the mayhem began. Fear blitzed through ‘Beef Bologna’ and ‘New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones’ as the crowd (including Belushi and Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye) began slam-dancing and generally going nuts.
Many in the audience (including MacKaye) came from Washington, D.C. to be part of the action. The band then launched into ‘Let’s Have a War,’ but the plug was soon pulled as the screen faded to black. In the spirit of the season, the crowd demolished a pumpkin.
Rumors immediately began to go around about the amount of damage caused by the punks. According to an article in the New York Post titled ‘Fear Riot Leaves “Saturday Night” Glad to Be Alive,’ it was reported that the band and its fans caused an estimated $200,000 worth of damage. The article stated that the entire green room, a camera and other property had been left in ruins. “I’ve been in the business for years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said one unnamed NBC technician. “This was a life-threatening situation. It’s amazing no one was killed.”
The truth, however, was nowhere near this catastrophic. “The New York Post did not check its facts and chose to print an erroneous story,” NBC spokesperson Peter Hamilton told Billboard. “We had to pay $40 in labor penalties. That was the extent of it.” The actual amount of damages later turned out to be around $20,000. But it sure made for one awesome night of television.