On October 23nd 1992, Lorne Michaels received a 4pm call from Bruce Willis’ agent. Willis, scheduled to host the show that evening, would be unable to do so. (Something to do with his sinuses.) Short on time and shorter on options, the unflappable Lorne Michaels consulted his impressive rolodex and decided to call in a favour from an old friend. 30 minutes later, adorned in his signature toga and smelling of cured meats, famed pizza mascot Little Caesar arrived on the SNL set and proceeded to deliver one of the most memorable hosting performances of all time. Nearly 30 years later the cast and crew reflect on one of the great moments in television history.
David Spade (Performer): I still get asked about that episode, probably once a week.
Alan Sepinwall (Critic): The Little Caesar episode of Saturday Night Live was a watershed moment for the show. I think it’s still one of the five highest rated episodes ever.
Dana Carvey (Performer): He was good, right?
Victoria Jackson (Performer): God, what a night! I still can’t believe he [Lorne Michaels] pulled it off.
Tim Meadows (Performer): I was still new to the show at that time, but I knew what Bruce had done was not good. I understand wanting to keep a low profile after Hudson Hawk and “Return Of Bruno,” but this was totally unprofessional.
Julia Sweeney (Performer): The vibe backstage was somber. I mean, what could we do?! [Rob] Schneider was offering to fill time with his stand-up – no one wanted that! Luckily, Lorne got on the phone.
Kevin Nealon (Performer): 15 minutes later, Lorne comes back down and says, “Good news, people: Little Caesar will be hosting tonight’s show in place of Bruce.” We’re all like, “The pizza guy?”
Lorne Michaels (Creator and Producer): Bruce put us in a tough spot that evening. Fortunately, I was able to find a suitable host in an old friend. We had met at a party at Dean Martin’s in ’68 and quickly bonded over our shared interests of absolute power and pizza. I knew I could count on him.
Mike Myers (Performer): I remember he [Little Caesar] came to set alone, without any handlers, which is pretty unusual for such a big star. Instead, he gathered the cast and crew and said “I know I wasn’t your first choice and that’s okay. Let’s just have some fun tonight.” It really put us at ease.
Robert Smigel (Writer): We had written all these Die Hard parody sketches for Bruce and some musical numbers because he wanted to sing. So when Little Caesar came in, we figured we were going to have to rewrite stuff on the fly, but he was very game. “Sure, I can scale a fake building; heck yeah, I can sing ‘Under The Boardwalk’” He said yes to everything!
Jim Downey (Writer): His only rule was no Shakespeare stuff. Said it was too easy.
With no time for rehearsals, an essential part of the show’s success over the years, the episode began as scheduled and no one knew what to expect.
Kevin Nealon: He was the consummate professional. We learned that pretty quickly. Immediately before showtime, Schneider kept asking the crew to “pull [his] finger.” Little Caesar was like, “I don’t mean to be rude, but let’s all focus on nailing this. Tell you what, Rob, at the after-party, I’ll be first in line to pull your finger. How’s that?”
Fred Wolf (Writer): He absolutely nailed the monologue! George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” bit has always gotten a lot of publicity, and rightfully so, but Little Caesar’s “Seven Dirty Pizza Toppings” joke might be just as good. Opening the monologue with that was a stroke of genius and a risky one at that, but he wasn’t afraid to take chances. People were rolling on the floor by the end of the bit, but that wasn’t good enough for him. After the crowd regained their composure, he passed out free slices of pizza to the studio audience that he’d taken it upon himself to order. Talk about winning people over!
Adam Sandler (Performer): We were all nervous because we hadn’t had time to rehearse with him, but that didn’t last long. I’ll never forget that first sketch where Little Caesar, Spade, and I are playing the Gap Girls and L.C. starts doing that Valley Girl thing with his voice – “OMG, Cindy, what’s for lunch?!” I broke so hard.
Ellen Cleghorne (Performer): My jaw kind of dropped during that opening sketch. I just kind of thought “This guy has got it! Honestly, he forced us all to be better.”
Dana Carvey: Sure, the Gap sketch was solid, but it was the second sketch with the dolphin where he really found his footing.
Jim Downey: The dolphin sketch is a classic. I mean that one ends up on a lot of greatest sketches lists and is all over those best-of specials. It was… well, what can you say about the dolphin sketch that hasn’t been said?
Robert Smigel: He came in with the dolphin idea! Can you believe that? We had about 20 minutes till the show started and he just casually brought it up as an idea he’d had in the cab on the way to the studio. I mean the part with the dancing tunas… the twist at the end with the helicopter… Indescribable! If you haven’t watched the dolphin sketch recently, drop everything and seek it out!
David Spade: After the dolphin, it was off to the races.
Tim Meadows: He got huge laughs the whole night.
Kevin Nealon: He had chemistry with everyone.
Ellen Cleghorne: Little Caesar would have chemistry with a brick wall.
Warren Littlefield (Former NBC President): I don’t think there has ever been a better episode of that show, from top to bottom. Or, for that matter, of any show.
Rob Schnieder (Performer): He brought the house down, rebuilt it, and brought it down again. Rome may not have been built in a day, but Little Caesar became a legend in one night.
Mike Myers: It was just one of those nights that makes you think, “This is the best job in the world. Nothing could be better than this.”
David Spade: We were flying high afterwards. The after party was…whew!
Julia Sweeney: Little Caesar made a pass at me at the after party. I was married at the time, so I just kind of rebuffed it. He was just very charming, just so (inaudible sound). A part of me has always kind of regretted it.
Kevin Nealon: The SNL afterparty is famously a cash bar, but that night Little Caesar footed the bill for everyone, which hosts never do. He was incredibly gracious.
The episode became something of an instant classic. With fans clambering for repeat showings on cable and later illegally bootlegging it in what became known as “The Caesar Tape.” Despite efforts to bring him back as the host the next season, and the season after that, and each season since, Little Caesar never returned to 30 Rockefeller Center.
Lorne Michaels: He’s been invited back… many times.
Adam Sandler: I tried to get him in both Grown Ups movies. You think Nick Swardson was my first choice?
Warren Littlefield: We approached him about developing a show in the vein of a Seinfeld or Mad About You, but the talks stalled. His life was pizza and we just had to accept that.
Bill Murray (Performer): He was missed at SNL 40, but he had to attend a franchise opening in Saginaw. What can you do?
Alan Sepinwall: Nearly 30 years later that episode is still a part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Jon Hamm (Actor): That episode made me want to be an actor. Not very many people know this, but Don Draper is based on Little Caesar.
Kevin Nealon: Imagine being so good at two things. A lot of guys can act and sing or play sports and write a book, but to be as funny as Little Caesar was and as good at pizza too. It’s not fair.
Lorne Michaels: I’m not one to get sentimental, but it was a special night. It remains and will always be an enduring part of the show’s legacy.
*Despite multiple attempts, Little Caesar declined comment.
The Graduate. It’s really good!