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SNL moments that changed things up and made us cry instead

For over 40 years, Saturday Night Live has made us laugh almost every weekend. Sure, some seasons and some casts have succeeded more than others. The hosting gig is often a coin toss — your latest Oscar winner might totally bomb in front of a live audience, while a B-lister with some theater experience knocks it out of the park. But ever since 1975, when creator Lorne Michaels put a bunch of rapscallion comics on the air to comment on the politics of the day and poke fun of the world at large, we've been tuning in and laughing.

But every once in a while, SNL turns the tables and embraces the sincere or emotional, and in turn makes us weep. As a topical show that uses the news as a big source, there are often awkward times when the seriousness of the world warrants addressing human drama before moving on to the comedy. Whether it's a reaction to a tragedy, a tribute to a departing cast member, or a remembrance of a cast member lost, here are 12 times that Saturday Night Live changed things up and made us cry.

Adam Sandler pays tribute to Chris Farley

Adam Sandler was an SNL cast member from 1990 to 1995, during which he shared the stage with one of his best friends, Chris Farley. The buddies were often paired together in sketches like the Gap Girls or playing an older married couple, often leading to the two breaking during the sketch and laughing. The two were eventually fired together during the off-season, but went on to successful comedic movie careers.

Sandler has always been a musical comedian, so when he returned to host SNL in the spring of 2019, he used the final segment of the show to play a tribute song in honor of his friend Farley, who passed away in 1997 from a drug overdose. The song starts off reminiscing about their good times on the show, and how they used to crack each other up. Eventually, though, the song turns a bit sad, with Sandler singing, "We tell him, 'Slow down, you'll end up like Belushi and Candy'/He said, 'Those guys are my heroes, that's all fine and dandy,'" referencing the tragic deaths of SNL cast member John Belushi and comedian John Candy.

Sandler's song is a heartbreaking tribute to his friend, and while it does reminisce about the fun times Sandler had with Farley and their fellow cast members, it also hits on some really emotional moments that get the tears flowing. Sandler's love for his friend has never been more touching.

Jason Aldean's tribute to Vegas victims and Tom Petty

On Sunday, October 1, 2017, a gunman in Las Vegas opened fire on attendees of the Route 91 Harvest music festival. Country musician Jason Aldean was on stage at the time that the shooting broke out. 58 people died and over 800 were left wounded.

The following Saturday, Aldean was a surprise guest on Saturday Night Live. The musical guest on schedule was Sam Smith, who did perform during the show, but Aldean appeared for the cold open, saying, "Like everyone, I'm struggling to understand what happened that night and how to pick up the pieces and start to heal. So many people are hurting. There are children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends. They're all part of our family. So I want to say to them, we hurt for you and we hurt with you. But you can be sure that we're going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way." 

He then played a cover of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." Petty had passed away that week from cardiac arrest. The cold open that night became a tribute to the Vegas victims as well as a tribute to Petty, whose lyrics, "In a world that keeps on pushin' me around/But I'll stand my ground/And I won't back down," sent a message of perseverance and continued emotional support that left many watching in tears.

Kate McKinnon's post-election tribute to Hillary Clinton

Emmy winner Kate McKinnon played Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live for the entire 2016 election cycle, bringing humor and good spirits to a brutal process. Watching the election coverage, reading the polls, and knowing the issues, you'd be forgiven if you thought that Clinton had the election in the bag and would end up winning (and she did win the popular vote by 2.8 million). But as we all know, that's not how election night 2016 went down, and we've been living with the aftermath ever since.

Usually, Saturday Night Live approaches post-election episodes with humor. One particularly funny episode was the first Saturday after the 2000 election, when the results still weren't finalized. Will Farrell and Darrell Hammond played Bush and Gore in a cold open that addressed the fact that the public still didn't know who had won the election.

But SNL chose to go somber in November of 2016 with McKinnon's cold open. She sat alone on stage at a piano and sang a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." When the song ended, McKinnon said, with tears in her eyes, "I'm not giving up, and neither should you." Perhaps the number was in tribute to the first woman who really had a chance at becoming America's first female President. But it was also a lovely tribute to Cohen, who had passed away earlier that week. But even without Cohen's death, the moment was a sad and somber reaction to one of this country's crazier elections.

Farewell to Obama

Following the 2016 election and McKinnon's touching tribute to Hillary Clinton, we all knew that President Obama's last day in office would be coming. The moment hit in January of 2017, and Saturday Night Live couldn't let the first African American president leave office without some kind of appropriate goodbye and thank you.

On the January 21, 2017 episode of SNL, cast members Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata took a page out of McKinnon's book and hit the stage to sing a song of farewell. Their goodbye number of choice was "To Sir With Love," from the 1967 movie of the same name starring Sidney Poitier. Images of Obama appeared on a screen behind them as they sang lyrics like "The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end/And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend/A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong." As Entertainment Weekly reported then, "After finishing the song, Strong and Zamata broke out a mug reading 'WORLD'S GREATEST PRESIDENT.' 'Thank you,' they said in unison. 'Don't go,' Zamata added before 'Thank You President Obama' flashed on screen."

Paul Simon and Rudy Giuliani After 9/11

Season 27 of Saturday Night Live was set to premiere on September 29, 2001. 18 days prior, on September 11, 2001, America experienced the largest and most devastating terrorist attack in its history. After the Twin Towers fell, New York City would never be the same.

A little over two weeks later, Saturday Night Live would go on with the show. The host for the evening's premiere was Reese Witherspoon with Alicia Keys performing as the musical guest. But before Witherspoon took the stage to host, the cold open took a moment to honor the city and the lives lost on 9/11.

Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani stood on stage with members of the FDNY, NYPD, and Port Authority. Many of the police officers and firemen who appeared on stage had come straight from Ground Zero, having worked for days on end. Giuliani opened the show by saying, "Our hearts are broken, but they are beating, and they are beating stronger than ever. New Yorkers are unified." Frequent musical guest and previous host Paul Simon then appeared on the side stage to sing his 1969 hit "The Boxer." Lyrics like "In the clearing stands a boxer/And a fighter by his trade/And he carries the reminders/Of ev'ry glove that laid him down" echoed Giuliani's message of perseverance. Though the moment brought on tears, it ended in humor, with Lorne Michaels joining Giuliani to ask, "Can we be funny?" to which the mayor replied, "Why start now?"

Stefon's farewell

Bill Hader absolutely nailed a ton of impersonations during his eight-year run as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. From Vincent Price to Al Pacino to James Carville, Hader had a knack for impressions. But the biggest impression he left was with an original character, Stefon, the NYC travel expert who frequently appeared on Weekend Update to futz and flirt with anchor Seth Meyers. Stefon's recommendations of clubs, restaurants, and nightlife were always wild and ridiculous, leading to many breaks from Meyers and Hader, who developed a Stefon tick of covering his nose and mouth to hide his laughter.

When Hader left SNL in 2013, Stefon made one final appearance on Weekend Update, during which he announced he was leaving to get married and would never return. Meyers was visibly upset as he tried to continue the show, but when his co-anchor, Amy Poehler, said, "Go to him," Meyers took off to crash the wedding.

Stefon's wedding to Anderson Cooper was filled with many of the wacky characters he had referenced in his previous appearances, like HoboCops (homeless RoboCops), Jewish Dracula, Sidney Applebaum, and Stefon's brother, Ben Affleck. Thankfully, Meyers convinced Stefon to abandon his marriage to Anderson Cooper and run off with him, as host Affleck cheered from the crowd. The sketch brought on tears of laughter, but when they finally appeared on the live stage again in front of the audience, Meyers' emotional goodbye to Hader definitely brought out some more.

A tribute to Jan Hooks

Thankfully, Stefon's farewell wasn't the last time we'd see Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live. In 2014 he returned to host, and he was joined by his Skeleton Twins co-star (and former fellow SNL cast member) Kristen Wiig, who had left the show in 2012, to pay tribute to another legendary cast member who departed this world too soon. On October 9, 2014, actor and comedian Jan Hooks passed away from throat cancer. Hooks was an SNL cast member from 1986 through 1991, and made a number of return appearances until 1994, most notably as Hillary Clinton.

"She was one of the best that ever was and her influence is clear in every one of us who has been here since," Wiig said during their introduction to the tribute, which turned out to be a replay of the 1987 sketch "Love is a Dream," in which Hooks and SNL co-star Phil Hartman performed a more sentimental departure from SNL's usual gags.

As Entertainment Weekly detailed, "'Love is a Dream' begins in black and white, with Hooks dressed as an older woman carefully removing a tiara from a storage box. That tiara transports Hooks to her youth, and she suddenly appears decades younger as Hartman stands beside her. The dream begins now: Hooks and Hartman go on to sing and dance in a ballroom until Hartman leads Hooks back to her black and white world." By revisiting the sketch, SNL also played tribute to Hartman, who died in 1998, which definitely made fans cry.

Kristen Wiig's goodbye

Speaking of Wiig's departure, hers was tear-filled as well. Wiig was a cast member from 2005 to 2012, during which she played a number of popular recurring characters, like the Target Lady, Dooneese, and Gilly. But Wiig's star was on the rise, and after the success of her role in the breakout film Bridesmaids, it was clear that she was on to bigger things.

Wiig's final show came in 2012, at the end of Season 37. The host was Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and the musical guest was Arcade Fire. The episode featured a number of surprise appearances. Steve Martin and Jon Hamm played bit roles, the Foo Fighters joined Jagger and Arcade Fire for some of the musical numbers, and former cast members Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Chris Kattan, and Will Forte all visited for the final goodbye to Wiig.

The final sketch of the night was set at a high school graduation with Jagger playing the teacher. Sitting among the "graduates," it was obvious that Wiig was already in tears. Jagger then sais he wants to pay some particular attention to a very special departing student, at which point Wiig joined him on stage, tossed her cap and gown, and began to dance with her fellow castmates individually as Arcade Fire played "She's a Rainbow." Wiig got emotional when dancing with her friends Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis, but the final dance went to SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels. The band then switched it up to "Ruby Tuesday," and everyone waved their final goodbyes through wet eyes.

Belushi's "Don't Look Back in Anger"

John Belushi was one of the very first cast members of Saturday Night Live, and he is still one of the most beloved. His brand of over-the-top comedy and exaggerated characters would be imitated by a number of cast members to follow, particularly by the aforementioned Chris Farley.

Watching Belushi's "Look Back in Anger" sketch now, it's ironically tragic. The short film features Belushi in intense age makeup, visiting the graves of the dearly departed "Not Ready for Primetime Players," as the original cast of SNL used to call themselves. But in reality, Belushi was the first major loss of SNL. When he died in 1982 of a drug overdose, the world lost an incredible comedic genius. Knowing that Belushi passed before his time at just 33 years old, the sketch takes on a sadder and more tragic meaning, especially considering the script. "Yeah, they all thought I'd be the first one to go. I was one of those 'Live Fast, Die Young, Leave A Good-Looking Corpse' types, you know? But I guess they were wrong," he says, before crediting his long life to being a dancer… and proving it by dancing on his costars' graves.

"Don't Look Back in Anger" now remains one of SNL's most somber short films because of Belushi's tragic departure. But knowing he may have been having a good laugh while poking fun at his friends does give the sketch a bit of levity.

Steve Martin's Goodbye to Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live when the show premiered in 1975, and remained on the show until 1980. During her tenure, comedian Steve Martin was a frequent host and guest comic, and the two developed a deep friendship. When Radner passed away from ovarian cancer on May 20, 1989, Martin and the SNL team paid her tribute with a final goodbye.

Martin was scheduled to host that evening's episode of SNL. News of Radner's death hit the set during rehearsal for that evening's episode. Martin scrapped his original opening monologue, and instead paid tribute to Radner, saying through tears, "The thing that keeps bringing you back to the show is the people you get to work with. I'd like to show you something that we recorded on this stage in 1978." The show then cut to the classic "Dancing in the Dark" sketch, during which Martin and Radner spot each other in a bar and begin an elaborate romantic dance routine, albeit a rather poor one. Their moves were a spoof on a Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse number from the 1953 movie The Bandwagon, but Radner and Martin's goofy moves made it into pure comedy.

Martin closed his monologue by saying, "I can't help but think how great she was… Gilda, we miss you." To round out their tribute, Radner's ex-husband, SNL band leader G.E. Smith, played a musical tribute with the SNL band. 

Cecily Stong's Paris tribute

On November 13, 2015, members of ISIS attacked the city of Paris, France, in a coordinated terrorist attack. Three suicide bombers struck outside the Stade de France during a soccer game, followed by several mass shootings and suicide bombings at restaurants throughout the city. Gunmen also stormed the Bataclan Theatre music venue where the punk rock group Eagles of Death Metal were performing. The entire night left 130 people dead and another 413 injured.

The next night, Saturday Night Live opened its show with a tribute to Paris. Cast member Cecily Strong stood on stage for the cold open and said, "Paris is the City of Light, and here in New York City, we know that light will never go out. Our love and support is with everyone there tonight. We stand with you." She then repeated the message in French, and then switched back to English for the traditional "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night."

It was a surprisingly short cold open, but the message, delivered through Strong's watery eyes, was perfect. Later, she told Vulture that it was all creator Lorne Michaels' idea. "They knew that I spoke French, and Paris is a city that I really love, and it's always been important to me," she said. "I was sort of wandering around, wanting to do something. I was like, 'How can I find a T-shirt or something?' I was really honored to even have that opportunity. It meant a lot to me."

"Silent Night" tribute to Sandy Hook

The December 14, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut was one of the most tragic mass shootings in American history. 20 children, all between six and seven years old, and 6 adults were murdered by a gunman who broke his way into the school using his mother's firearms. Being that mostly very young children were the victims, the incident was particularly atrocious, and has inspired a number of documentaries and sparked a renewed gun control debate that still rages years later.

On December 16, 2012, Saturday Night Live went serious. Since the tragedy occurred during Christmastime, the New York City Children's Choir opened the show singing "Silent Night." The kids' faces were still and a bit sad as they sang, their tribute being from one set of children to another, as if the adults involved in the ongoing bickering about gun control would never understand. The LA Times wrote of the tribute, "The song, perhaps more than any other carol, elicits the imagery of the childhood innocence, while the singers themselves were near the age of some of the victims of the shooting. After the song, the screen went black momentarily, before the children introduced the show." The lyrics "sleep in heavenly peace" have never been sadder.

The cold open was the evening's sole reference to the tragedy, but later the the chorus returned to join musical guest Paul McCartney during his performance of "Wonderful Christmas Time."