Saturday Night Live has made news for its fake news plenty of times over the years. On Dec. 12, 1981, however, it simply made fake news.
The eighth episode of season seven, guest-hosted by former cast member Bill Murray, was filled with holiday cheer, including appearances by Santa Claus and a Christmas medley sung by the show’s cast alongside Yale a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs. But during the show-closing goodbye, Murray shared some decidedly serious news with the studio and viewing audience — that the USSR had invaded Poland, including the arrest of the Lech Walesa’s Polish pro-democracy group Solidarity. “I guess that means this is World War III,” Murray noted. “Our hearts should be with, and are with, the good people of Poland. God bless them.” Cast members Christine Ebersole and Robin Duke were visibly shaken and in tears.
Quite a moment. But not the truth.
The idea of a Soviet invasion was not beyond the realm of possibility at the time. Tensions between the then still-Communist nation and its neighbors had been tense all year. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan around Christmas of 1979, leading the U.S. and other nations to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Earlier in ’81, SNL had even poked fun at the USSR-Poland turmoil by reporting that the latter had actually invaded the former in a ‘Weekend Edition’ segment — during which Andy Murphy portrayed an ebullient Polish ambassador. A subsequent pair of Eddie Murphy ‘Newsbreak’ segments, meanwhile, included real-life man-on-the-street interviews asking confused New Yorkers what they thought of the invasion. In Murphy’s second ‘Newsbreak,’ the conflict ended after Polish forces took a wrong turn and headed towards the Arctic Circle.
In December, however, there was no joking around. Former SNL writer Don Novello — who reprised his Father Guido Sarducci character for the episode — told writers of the book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live that the news came from show producer Dick Ebersol during a commercial break before the show close.
“Ebersol suddenly comes running up and says (to Murray), ‘It’s on the news, Russia’s invading Poland, and you should announce it,” Novello recalled. “Bill said, ‘What should I do?’ And I told him, wisely as it turns out, ‘That’s a news thing. This is a comedy show. Why would you want to do it?’ Ebersol says, ‘Come on, we’ve got thirty seconds, you’re going to do it.'” An appalled Novello moved himself to the rear of the stage while “Bill announced it to America that Russia had invaded Poland and ‘the poor people of Poland, our hearts go out to them.’ It was really almost teary-eyed.”
“And it didn’t happen,” Novello noted. “The ‘invasion’ didn’t happen, at least not that night. But I guess Ebersol wanted this to be the comedy show that broke it to America that Russia invaded Poland.”
SNL got through the incident without causing an international incident — perhaps because of the late hour (early across the pond) and the usual closing hubbub of the episode. Quite possibly, viewers thought Murray was kidding because of SNL‘s reputation for satire and parody. And when the Whiffenpoofs are in the house, how bad can things really be, right?