Home » Charles Barkley ‘Got a Contact High’ From Nirvana and Other Secrets of His ‘SNL’ Debut

Charles Barkley ‘Got a Contact High’ From Nirvana and Other Secrets of His ‘SNL’ Debut

More than three months after he was defeated by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls on the biggest stage of his career, Charles Barkley picked up a basketball for the first time in September 1993 and stared down his next opponent: a stuntman in a knockoff Barney costume. Despite losing in six games in the 1993 NBA Finals, Charles’ star was as bright as ever — an Olympic gold medalist and MVP starring in movies, commercials, and video games who had been rumored to have hung out with Madonna. Yet when Chuck hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first time, on Sept. 25, 1993, the experience offered a window into what his life after basketball would look like on “Inside the NBA.” And it all started with him kicking Barney’s ass. This exclusive excerpt from “Barkley,” a new biography by Timothy Bella, goes behind the scenes at “SNL” and reveals how the athlete who famously claimed he was not a “role model” became the funniest athlete of his generation.

THE QUESTION POSED to Charles on SNL was blunt: Are you happy?

He had millions of adoring fans, traveled all over the world, got paid an unreal amount of money to do commercials for Nike, played golf in Hawaii, and was set for life. But in his blond wig, blue sweater, and pastel-yellow-collared shirt, Stuart Smalley, a caring nurturer and member of several 12-step programs who was not a licensed therapist, followed up again if all that made him happy.

“Yeah, and the fact that I’m the best basketball player in the world,” said Charles in his checkered suit and black turtleneck. “There is nobody better.”

Looking down and playing with his hands, Smalley, played by Saturday Night Live cast member and writer Al Franken, saw an opening.

“So, I guess since, you know, you’re the best basketball player in the world, then I guess you won a lot of championships then?” the self-help guru asked, eliciting oohs and aahs to go along with the laughter that filled Studio 8H in New York.

“Well,” began a grinning Charles, “actually, I never won the championship.”

Smalley, biting his lip and offering only a “hmm,” dug into the heart of the issue that played out months before: “And Charles, how do you feel about not having won a championship?” He’d tell the host of “Daily Affirmation” that he was fine and not winning a title was “no big deal,” but Smalley dug in. “I guess Cleopatra isn’t the only queen of De-Nial,” he quipped to the faux-angry Charles.

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It had been a summer of blissful inactivity for Charles, who had gone from the start of the 1991-92 season through the end of the 1993 Finals without much of a break. He wouldn’t pick up a basketball for months, opting for golfing, fishing, shooting some commercials and movies, and time with Christiana. He’d also find his way back to Leeds in August 1993 for the town’s “Charles Barkley Day,” which had him signing autographs and refereeing a basketball game in celebration of his life-changing year.

“Can you believe it?” Charcey said of how her once undersized baby had now taken over the world.

If her son hadn’t already become a towering presence in the early part of the decade, he was about to step foot into an arena where few athletes had gone before and fewer had succeeded.

Michael Jordan had stared into a mirror and tried not to laugh as he repeated the lines of daily affirmation from Smalley in front of a raucous SNL crowd in 1991. You know, in case Jordan had any lingering self-doubt: “Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.”

Now it was Charles’s turn to host the iconic show’s season premiere in September 1993. Since quarterback Fran Tarkenton became the first athlete to host the show in 1977, there had been a rich, history of athlete hosts, though to mixed success. For every Bob Uecker that thrived, there was a George Steinbrenner or Joe Montana that proved to be less than memorable. As the 17th person from the sports world to host SNL, Charles had a legitimate chance to be the funniest of the bunch since O.J. Simpson in 1978. He’d also be the first athlete to host since Jordan’s turn in 1991, leading to yet a different kind of comparison between the Finals friends.

Although it was Charles’s first time hosting, expectations were notably high considering he had been a bankable guest for the late-night shows. “You couldn’t find another person like him on television. When you said his name, people smiled,” said Larry King. “My God, what a thing to have.” Charles could make David Letterman laugh at how he would have considered going back to school if he weren’t so loaded.

For Jay Leno, it was the quickness of their exchanges. Leno valued Charles’s authenticity and speed of his back-and-forths. “Charles Barkley was one of my all-time favorite guests on The Tonight Show,” Leno said. “Charles was always prepared with great stories, and we always enjoyed having him.”

Conan O’Brien lauded him for his wit, timing, and a great deadpan — as well as eyebrows that the comedian considers to be one of Charles’s secret weapons: “When he trains those eyebrows on you and he gives you that very fierce look he has, it adds to the comedy of what he’s saying.”

Hosting SNL, however, would be a different animal than spending a few minutes on a late-night couch. SNL wanted a part of him at a time when some critics were saying the shows had fallen flat creatively. Eric Mink of the New York Daily News, noted that even the celebrated political sketches of the 18th season had been “mostly exercises in bloodless, if often hilarious, mimicry aided by makeup wizardry rather than cutting political satire.”

In his first week as a writer on SNL, Jay Mohr didn’t bring any ideas with him into Lorne Michaels’s office on Sept. 20, 1993. For Mohr, who had come to the show after serving as host of the MTV lip-sync show Lip Service, this was trouble. As he wrote in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime, Mohr was struggling to come up with anything when the likes of Franken and Adam Sandler were pitching Charles around the semicircle. Sandler, a hoops junkie, immediately gravitated to Charles. The same went for David Spade, and especially for Chris Farley, who Charles was equally fond of. Charles, for his part, captivated the cast.

“If there were 10 great comedians in a room and Barkley came in the room and started telling a story, every comedian would stop talking and listen to Barkley and be happiest to hear him tell a story,” Sandler recalled. “When he was sitting at the front of the table for the read-through at SNL, anything he said made us happy and laugh — and how great it was when he laughed. Anytime Barkley laughed that week, we were like little kids thinking, ‘OK, I think Charles likes us.’”

A couple of the group’s initial pitches fell flat, and Mohr feared that he was about to face a similar fate. He remembered one idea from writer Tom Davis in which he proposed that Charles tap-dance in an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Charles brushed it off with a frosty one-word reply: “What?

“Even if my idea — the one I had not yet conceived — sucked,” Mohr wrote, “at least it wouldn’t be as bad as Charles Barkley tap-dancing for chicken.”

His lack of acting experience aside, the Barkley bravado was alive and well throughout rehearsals. Wally Feresten was admittedly in way over his head in his first weeks as the head cue-card guy for the show. But as Charles would soon figure out, Feresten had a high threshold for stress, as well as the frequent jokes made about his hair.

“What I remember clearly from that first show is he constantly made fun of my hair. I had short spiky hair, I was 28, and it was something he locked on to,” Feresten recalled. “Whenever he was standing around during rehearsal, he made fun of my hair. It got to the point that he did it so often that I would say, ‘Hey, at least I have hair.’ He would respond with, ‘I’m bald, but if I had hair, I would not want hair like yours.’ It was all good-natured, testing me to see if I could take the ribbing.”

But Charles wasn’t the only NBA player to grace the SNL stage that week. The show had brought on Muggsy Bogues, the league’s five-foot-three fan favorite, to serve as both a foil and familiar face. Bogues remembered Charles being nervous in rehearsal. Bogues said Franken offered advice.

“It was all so off-the-cuff, and the guy who played Stuart Smalley told him to loosen up and just be himself, ‘Be Charles Barkley, the outspoken guy,’” Bogues said. “He had this look on his face and said, ‘What are you trying to say, Al?’”

While Charles dominated the year in sports, there was no bigger act in the world than Nirvana. In two years, Nirvana had become a cultural phenomenon from the commercial and critical success of the band’s 1991 album Nevermind, a rock and punk masterpiece that elevated grunge culture to new heights among young people. Through the album, considered one of the most acclaimed in the history of music, Nirvana would be the soundtrack to a generation of disaffected and cynical teens looking for someone or something to put into words what they were going through.

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Musical guest Nirvana perform “Heart-Shaped Box” on Sept. 25, 1993.

Gerry Goodstein/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Some of the controversy that found the band unfolded at SNL. They had grown tired of people who were latching on to them due to their fame. They were even more uncomfortable when their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” drew comparisons to Guns N’ Roses, whose views on sexuality, race, and gender were at odds with their own. These concerns came to the forefront during the end credits of Nirvana’s first appearance on the show in 1992. As host Rob Morrow wrapped up the show, the trio could be seen French-kissing each other in an effort to, as they later described it, “piss off the rednecks and the homophobes.” The kisses caused such an uproar that SNL refused to air the clip in rebroadcasts of the episode. Even with all that, Nirvana would be the first band in the history of SNL to perform for a second time.

“We weren’t trying to be subversive or punk rock,” Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain said of kissing his bandmates. “We were just doing something insane and stupid at the last minute.”

Charles didn’t know anything about Nirvana, but considered them to be nice dudes. He couldn’t help but point out the unlikely pairing in his own way. Only on the Saturday Night Live stage could a Black basketball player who went from the projects of Alabama to being one of the most recognizable athletes in the world share the stage with the White alternative rockers from the Pacific Northwest that became the defining band of a generation.

“Knew about ’em in my neighborhood when I was growing up,” he joked of Nirvana.

In recording a promo for that week’s show, Charles, wearing a checkered blazer and wide smile, stood in the middle of the group as if he were their long-lost bandmate. Standing at six-foot-seven, bassist Krist Novoselic was slightly taller than Charles. The host had his hand on the right shoulder of drummer Dave Grohl, who blinked so much that he looked as if he was trying to send a distress signal into the camera. Charles playfully pointed out to his mother in the promo that her son was with her “favorite” band, and Kurt Cobain put on an awkward smile to appease the moms who thought they had found their inner punk from listening once to Nevermind.

“I’m not a role model, and these guys really aren’t role models!” Charles pronounced, which made Cobain laugh at both the player’s ridiculousness and the statement’s truth.

With the SNL dressing rooms virtually on top of each other, Charles kept the door open to allow his friends and family to come in and out. In doing so, he started to feel for himself how the musical guests were spending their downtime three feet across the hall from him.

“Every time those guys from Nirvana opened up their door, I got like a contact high,” Charles recalled. “It was like one of those big mushroom clouds came. I was scared to go to the airport … ‘Do not go to the airport!’”

Whether the smoke from the ganja had anything to do with the stacks of food the production assistants brought him on set was unclear, said David Mandel, an SNL writer at the time. What was more obvious was that Charles was not going to step onstage in front of a live audience on an empty stomach.

“God bless him,” Mandel said. “He ate a lot.”

The booming baritone pipes of legendary announcer Don Pardo filled the room as Charles walked through the door, guessing that he — ”one of the few non-Jewish players in the league” — wasn’t the show’s first choice to host.

“They did want someone from the NBA,” he told the audience in his monologue, “but being Yom Kippur and all, I was the only one they could get.”

In his monologue, Charles reflected on a recent game of one-on-one he had with another popular dinosaur who wanted a piece of him: Barney. In take after take, Charles pummeled Tim Gallin, the stuntman hired to wear the Barney suit. At one point, Charles elbowed Gallin so hard to the face that he knocked off Barney’s head from his body. Gallin loved it.

“I was an independent contractor getting my ass kicked, but he was concerned he was going to hurt me,” Gallin recounted.

“He would help me up off the floor by saying, ‘Hey, man, you cool?’ He was very appreciative of what I was doing.”

Next up was the trip to the couch. On “Daily Affirmation,” “Charles B.” of the “Phoenix S’s,” nicknames used by the sensitive shrink to protect his guest’s identity, gathered that Smalley, recovering from Overeaters Anonymous, was pretty messed up. Charles was taken off guard when Bogues, referred to as “Muggsy B.,” arrived to confront his friend about how his self-esteem was suffering from not living up to his own unrealistic expectations. In the sketch, Charles didn’t take too kindly to seeing Bogues, whom he jokingly called “an ugly midget.” Smalley and Bogues hoped to cut through Charles’s brash ego and get to know his more sensitive side.

“I know how badly you wanted to beat the Bulls,” Bogues said to Charles, who was about ready to crack up on national TV due to his friend’s monotone delivery.

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Muggsy Bogues as himself and Charles Barkley as himself during the “Charles Barkley’s Big, Tall & Black Men’s Stores” skit on Sept. 25, 1993.

Gerry Goodstein/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

“Look at Charles. Look at him,” said Smalley. “Muggsy, look at Charles. Charles, look at Muggsy.”

Charles collapsed his face into his hand in an attempt to stifle laughter, almost causing Franken to also break. Onscreen, Charles made his greatest professional disappointment the butt of a joke he was in on and encouraged.

The fake-crying Charles played it up as the studio audience went nuts. Franken was effusive of the pair’s performance many years later, saying they played off each other so well not because of practice but due to their natural timing and recognition of the scene.

Charles introduced Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” before a 40-second appearance in a “Gap Girls” sketch with Sandler, Farley, and Spade. All portraying women characters, the cast members discussed Lucy, Sandler’s character, kissing a girl the night before during a game of truth or dare. Much to their surprise, the woman Lucy spoke of was at the Gap — and she was a sight to see. The towering Akeela was in a dark floral dress with long braids whose makeup hid a dark mustache. Charles’s Akeela, flirted a bit with Spade’s Christy, comparing her to Sharon Stone, before guaranteeing to buy her a free sample down at Hickory Farms.

“He looked more beautiful than all of us,” Sandler said with a laugh.

It would take 17 years, but Charles was asked back to host SNL for a second time, and he crushed it again. He joked in his monologue about the lack of Black people who’ve hosted the show. He took mace to the eyes of Will Forte’s iconic character MacGruber, who claimed he had gone through racial-sensitivity training. As an overmatched contestant on a movie quote game show, he guessed that Jack Nicholson’s legendary line from A Few Good Men was, “You can’t handle my privates!” Teaming up with Kenan Thompson in “Scared Straight,” Charles used the famous scene from the movie Jerry Maguire to outline how trespassing was the gateway misdemeanor that led to, well, bodily fluids in prison. “He won’t say, ‘Show me the money!’” Charles’ character barked at cast member Bill Hader. “He’ll say, ‘Blow me for free!’”

“Charles just is funny,” said Kristen Wiig, a cast member on the show between 2005 and 2012. “There’s an earnestness, innocence, and true dedication to what he does on the show.”

The encore in January 2010, or the two other repeat performances, wouldn’t have been possible without his performance in September 1993. James Andrew Miller, the SNL historian and author of Live From New York, believed the show opened Charles to a new audience of people that couldn’t care less how many rebounds he averaged. Instead, he was the guy who beat up Barney and dressed up as a Gap Girl.

“He wasn’t trying to be anyone who he isn’t, and didn’t try to adopt a different persona,” Miller said. “That genuine quality is something the SNL audience can appreciate.

By the end of the show, Charles, standing onstage next to RuPaul and with his arms around Bogues and Cobain, had conquered SNL and had cemented his place in ’90s royalty.

“We were out of our comfort zone,” Bogues recounted, “but he did it.”

The episode would eventually take on a much heavier legacy. A little more than six months later, Cobain’s body was discovered by an electrician who had arrived at his Seattle home to install a security system. Cobain had killed himself. He was 27 years old. The SNL appearance with Charles was one of Nirvana’s final performances on national television.

Charles’ first turn hosting SNL was immediately deemed a success. Critics were surprised that he had “acquitted himself reasonably well” as host. The overnight Nielsen ratings saw the season premiere pull in a 9.9, good for nearly 5 million homes included in the survey. In Phoenix alone, more than half of the available audience tuned in to see their adopted son under the New York lights. David Casstevens wrote in the Arizona Republic that Charles was the perfect choice to host the show as his personality — irreverent and topical, unpredictable and popular — represented “all the things SNL tries to be.”

The say-whatever-is-on-his-mind star was now a legitimate crossover sensation who proved he could be great at ventures outside of basketball.

Excerpted from “Barkley” © 2022 by Timothy Bella, used with permission by Hanover Square Press.
https://www.harpercollins.com/products/barkley-timothy-bella?variant=40128049512482

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