Part of Saturday Night Live‘s allure is the “live” part – the sense that anything can happen as the show flies without a net. That theory was proven correct on April 8, 1978, when Michael Palin hosted the sketch show covered in cat feces.
The episode brought together some of the funniest people from both sides of the pond. Palin was a member of the beloved English comedy group Monty Python, while Saturday Night Live, then in its third season, featured such comedy legends as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray in its lineup.
Despite his years of comedy experience, Palin admitted to being nervous before his SNL gig. Some of that stress subsided after the dress rehearsal, which took place only a few hours before showtime.
Rather than deliver a standard opening monologue in which the host greets the audience, rattles off a few jokes and declares, “We’ve got a great show tonight…” Palin opted to start his hosting gig in character. After his introduction, the comedian emerged onstage pretending to be his own manager, Sid Biggs, apologizing that his client was late.
“I just came to say that Mr. Palin will be out in a minute,” he began, speaking in a thick Cockney accent. “Anyway, I said I’d just come out and keep you quiet for a bit.”
As Biggs (Palin) stalled for time, he offered to perform his “act” for the crowd. Stagehands then brought seafood salad and two cats onstage, all of which Palin proceeded to shove into his pants while dancing.
This, of course, was all planned. What happened next was not.
“All is going well, but the cats have stage fright,” Palin recalled in his personal diary from that day. “As I gyrate and at the same time try and coax these pussies into my trousers, I become aware of a frightful smell, and a warm, brown mess all down my arm. Even as I am grinning manically and pushing it down, the cat is shitting more violently. I can’t hear the audience reaction above the band, but I know that the worst is happening. This is going to be tele-embarrassment on a monumental scale.”
Despite the grossness of the ordeal, Palin never broke character. Ever the professional, he just kept on dancing, even as he felt — and smelled — the cat defecating on his arm.
“The offending cat leapt away, and I was left stroking the other one’s little marmalade head as it peeked out of my trousers,” he recalled. “I caught sight of myself on the monitor and it looked nightmarishly obscene. But the red light of the camera shone unblinkingly at me — revealing to the entire U.S. a man who looked as if he was masturbating with an arm covered in shit.”
Palin didn’t get any reprieve once the cameras turned off. Saturday Night Live runs on a notoriously tight schedule, with swift costume between sketches. This meant the host had no time to wash the disgusting excrement off his arm before returning to the stage. Making matters worse, Palin’s next two scenes — as a priest in a confessional and as a man locked in a trunk — were performed in very tight spaces, leaving him trapped with the stench.
“Half an hour of high-pressure insanity had gone by before I was able to stop and think and gauge reactions to the hideous occurrences during the opening monologue,” Palin later recalled, adding that SNL producer Lorne Michaels insisted the cat sketch had been hilarious. “I realized that nobody knew the hell of embarrassment I’d been through. After all, you can’t smell on TV.”
Amazingly, Palin’s debut Saturday Night Live experience didn’t dissuade him from hosting again. He returned to the show on three more occasions: twice in 1979 and once more in 1984.