On Nov. 11, 1995, Quentin Tarantino hosted Saturday Night Live.
Eighteen months after Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, eight months after he picked up the Oscar for Best Screenplay, and seven months after the film became the first American independent film to cross $100 million at the box office, Tarantino took a victory lap in studio 8H. The SNL cast members at the time included Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Tim Meadows, and Darrell Hammond. The Smashing Pumpkins were the musical guest. This really happened.
Each season of Saturday Night Live has its fair share of non-actor hosts. There have been sports stars, political figures, news personalities, rich people running for president (Steve Forbes, Donald Trump), and one total bystander: 80-year-old Miskel Spillman, who won a contest and hosted the show in 1977.
But Tarantino, whose new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hits theaters this week, remains the only writer-director to host the series on his own. You might debate this point: Norman Lear hosted in the early days, but despite directing films like Cold Turkey with Dick Van Dyke, is legendary for his TV work. Francis Ford Coppola co-hosted an episode in 1986, but had the co-hosting crutch that was George Wendt. Rob Reiner led the show, but that was nine years before he directed This Is Spinal Tap. A handful of actors-turned-directors also hosted the show over the years, but Tarantino only belongs in that category if you think he was “good” in Reservoir Dogs.
Still, SNL wasn’t exactly offering hosting duties to Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Kathryn Bigelow or Richard Linklater. The hosting gig was against the grain.
The ’90s were different. A video-clerk-turned-American-auteur could be hot enough to gain entry into the most mainstream comedic arena imaginable. The documented obsessions, the gossip, the problematic tendencies, the controversial choices, and his lasting stamp on cinema had yet to come. On Nov. 11, 1995, Quentin Tarantino was just a big shot. He hosted Saturday Night Live because he could.
So here’s what happened.
“Quentin Tarantino SNL promo”
Not technically a sketch, but a bellwether for what’s to come: Tarantino’s patented motormouth zipping through teleprompter copy. On the actual episode, he fares pretty well while in character. Playing himself in this promo is a surreal 30 seconds I keep watching over and over and over, wondering if his fedora fell off and sits somewhere off screen.
“Quentin Tarantino’s Monologue”
Did Tarantino whip up any of his own material? It’s a mystery that only Colin Quinn, Paula Pell, and the mid-’90s writing staff could answer. His monologue, which riffs on his well-documented pop culture knowledge, rocks the cadence of his movies.
“One of the things that’s so terrific about being on this show is that it’s a piece of television history ... so what would be better to do for the monologue than to do my tribute to the greatest moment in the history of television?”
The greatest moment in the history of television being Elizabeth Montgomery’s performance of “I’m Gonna Blow You A Kiss In The Wind” during the sixth season of Bewitched. No other cast members join Tarantino for his song-and-dance opening, which gives us an idea of what it would be like to karaoke with the guy who made Jackie Brown.
“Spartan Cheerleaders at a Football Game”
Fun fact: Tarantino co-starred in the very first version of Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleaders sketch. And they still went ahead and did it again!
QT stays afloat in this sketch, considering he’s cast against the show’s two powerhouses. He dons the Spartan uniform and howl like a angry little league dad in the final stretch. His greatest asset to the SNL writing staff, it seems, was being fully committed to acting BIG.
“Clara Turley’s Bible Challenge”
This game show sketch finds a buttoned-up host (Nancy Wells) asking a question, immediately giving the answer, then asking God-fearing contestants whether they knew it or not. It’s kind of funny. Tarantino plays Dr. Gene Spalding, a visiting Biblical scholar from Southern Baptist College in Atlanta. He once again helps a regular cast member introduce a character. This time it’s Noram McDonald’s Stan Hooper, who’d pop up in several other sketches, then again his sitcom A Minute with Stan Hooper. Tarantino’s single hosting stint was low-key SNL history.
Stan Hooper “knows” the answer to every question because he doesn’t live by the honor system. No such luck for Dr. Gene Spalding, who tries to call Stan out, but falls back into place. It’s a reserved and cheeky performance by Tarantino, who is not the reason this sketch limps along.
“Directors on Directing”
The three things the SNL writers knew about Tarantino: he knows a shit ton about Hollywood history, his movies are extremely violent, and his whole vibe is a little sleazy. “Directors on Directing” starts out mining from category one before uncomfortably barreling into category three.
Featuring delightfully esoteric impressions of Spike Lee (Tim Meadows), Oliver Stone (David Koechner), and Gus van Sant (Mark McKinney), the sketch finds Tarantino poking his director buddies for hot goss. It’s intentionally gross, but also seriously gross. After recounting how Kim Basinger stood up for Lee after the Oscars’ snubbed Do the Right Thing in 1990, QT asks his contemporary, “Did you jam her?”
Later, Tarantino imagines Stone’s behavior on the set of the Vietnam War film Heaven & Earth. The SNL writers load him up with some truly ugly puns. The sketch ends with the directors turning the table and asking about Uma Thurman and the Pulp Fiction set. “I jammed every chick on that set!” As if the Kill Bill set weren’t awkward enough.
Couldn’t we just get a sketch of McKinney’s Gus van Sant describing To Die For? That would have been enough!
In yet another chat show sketch, Debbie Reynolds (Cheri Oteri) and Ann Miller (Molly Shannon) interview the real Tarantino, who they think is a choreographer because of the “You Never Can Tell” dance scene from Pulp Fiction. This is actually a hoot. The world is a much nicer place when QT yuks it up with Oteri and Shannon’s golden age duo as they perform Reservoir Dogs: The Musical, rather than leaning into his weird I’m-a-rockstar shtick.
“White Trash Around a Campfire”
Tarantino’s violent streaks earned him a reputation in the industry, filmmaking schools, and apparently the halls of 30 Rock. The joke of this befuddling sketch tries to connect some dots by pushing camping activities to the extreme. First a cracked egg turns into a yolk bath worthy of Reservoir Dogs’ squibs. Then a beer explodes. Eventually actual blood sprays. The audience is ... eerily muted. The campers are also “white trash” knuckleheads because some writer knew the sight gags weren’t enough.
If “White Trash Around a Campfire,” was implicitly gratuitous, “All Aboard!” goes full hog with Tarantinoesque violence. The sketch casts the director as Chester Millbrush, the elderly host of a model train public access show, and oddly, it’s a one-man show — none of the main cast show up to support the bit. Instead, it’s just Tarantino talking about trains ... and killing hobos. The hobos also turn out to be innocent people. Then, as he brutally murders a stuffed hobo, the audience questions reality itself. Who is this man? What has he done? The Tarantino caricature implodes in the strangest way imaginable, the only way an episode starring Quentin Tarantino possibly could.