At 'SNL,' Allegations of Sexual Assault During its 'Golden Era' for Women

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Jimmy Fallon with tousled hair, wearing a red T-shirt. Next to him is Horatio Sanz wearing sunglasses with red lenses and a blue shirt.
Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz in 2002—the same year that Jane Doe alleges that Sanz abused her and Fallon was complicit. She was 17 at the time. (Evan Agostini/ImageDirect)

It reads like a list of outtakes from The Wolf of Wall Street. Drug-fueled all-night parties. Sex workers hired to entertain men at staff gatherings. Underage teens blacked out on booze and drugs. Older men refusing to keep their hands to themselves. Unsolicited explicit photos sent to women by male colleagues.

But these aren't the actions of a bunch of coked-out day traders in the greed-fueled '80s. They're incidents listed in a lawsuit filed against NBC Universal, Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan and Lorne Michaels. And they're purported to have happened on and around the Saturday Night Live set between 2000 and 2002—a period widely perceived to be the gold standard for women on SNL. If proven true, they will serve as a pertinent reminder that simply hiring more women is often not enough to rid workplaces of sexism.

The complainant is one Jane Doe, who says she had her first direct contact with the SNL cast when she was just 15 years old, starting with Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz. Doe says she quickly became a regular at SNL tapings, afterparties and what the cast and crew referred to at the time as after-afterparties—hedonistic, no holds barred all-nighters. She claims she talked openly about her age to most major cast members as well as to Lorne Michaels, but that she was openly permitted to drink and do drugs in their presence. Doe says other teenage girls were allowed at the parties and treated similarly.

The main focus of Doe's accusations has, by and large, been Sanz. Doe first filed a lawsuit against Sanz last August, but updated it this past week to include Michaels, Fallon and Morgan. Doe says she was groomed and assaulted by Sanz with the full knowledge of some of the SNL cast of the time, as well as numerous NBC employees. The document includes photos of Doe posing with various cast members, and riding in a limo with Sanz. Both Sanz and NBC have issued statements strongly denying Doe's allegations.

If the 44 pages of Doe's allegations are to be believed, SNL fostered a toxic and misogynistic culture behind the scenes, even as an extraordinarily popular group of women led its cast. At the time Doe says she was involved with Sanz, the public perception was that things had changed on the show. In 2012, the New Yorker described the period as "when a group of ambitious female cast members transformed SNL—a notorious boys’ club since its first season, in 1975—into a space where female comedians could collaborate and thrive."


One of the most sobering and disturbing aspects of the lawsuit is how it paints these beloved female cast members as either complicit or unwilling to speak up. Of course, ultimately, the responsibility for incidents of grooming and sexual assault lies with those that commit them—but it's worth examining who turns a blind eye and why. Especially when Doe says that she and her teenage girlfriends were welcomed into SNL's raucous parties by a variety of cast members, including Rachel Dratch.

A group of five laughing women gesture and goof around on the red carpet.
The cast of 'Saturday Night Live' in the early 2000s was dominated by strong women who helped the show shrug off its reputation for being a boys' club. (L-R) Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph in 2002. (DOUG KANTER/AFP via Getty Images))

At one point in the filing, Doe alleges Sanz sexually assaulted her at an after-afterparty in full view of much of the SNL cast, and she describes Dratch and Tina Fey watching and laughing as it happened. When Doe looked directly at the pair, the suit claims, "they immediately hid behind others, though they continued to giggle."

Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph are described as being visibly upset at Sanz's alleged behavior towards Doe that night. Gasteyer, the suit says, was visibly horrified and "looked like she was shaking with fright." Maya Rudolph is described as looking "disgusted." And while Will Ferrell also looked "unhappy," the only two people who tried to directly intervene were apparently two NBC employees who are said to have approached Sanz and said, "Are you fucking serious?"

Overall, the lawsuit describes a top-down culture where both the hedonistic history of the show and Lorne Michaels himself established a tone on set that left badly behaved men unaccountable, and talented women feeling expendable. One part of the complaint even notes: "Over the years, Michaels has famously surrounded himself with a bevy of young, blonde, conventionally attractive female assistants, widely known as 'the Lornettes.'"

What's in Doe's lawsuit is what happens when cultures are built on a solid foundation of male entitlement and female marginalization. It's what happens when a boys club sets the standards of behavior, and everyone else is forced to adapt or get the hell out.

The suit also notes just how many of the women of SNL have hit their limit and done the latter. One section states:

Female cast members over the years have described their experiences in extremely negative terms. For example, Jane Curtin ("World War I"); Julia Sweeney ("Just thinking of [the Lornettes] makes me so happy I quit"); Janeane Garofalo ("The most miserable experience of my life"); Nora Dunn ("Traumatic"); Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Very sexist, very sexist"); Anne Beatts ("The only entrée to that boys club [for women] was basically by fucking somebody in the club"); and Ana Gasteyer ("When I first came to [SNL], women were so—it was so presumed that you were going to crash and burn and be destroyed and chewed up and eaten up by the show that I had nowhere to go but hope.")

It's easy for us now, in a post-#MeToo age, to read the lawsuit's allegations and question just what the hell the women of SNL were thinking. But any woman who has ever attempted to work in a field traditionally dominated by men will tell you that turning a blind eye and keeping one's head down can often become a means of survival, rightly or wrongly. (The lawsuit itself states repeatedly that Doe continued communicating with Sanz after their relationship soured because she had ambitions of writing for the show.)

This suit, then, is a reminder that the mere presence of women in a workplace does not automatically erase a misogynistic foundation. Especially when that foundation was laid decades earlier and then enthusiastically permitted to exist in the years since. Putting women in publicly prominent positions is simply not enough to transform toxic work environments, without other interventions taking place.


Doe says that on one of her first occasions visiting Studio 8H, she was concerned she would be in trouble when she encountered an NBC security guard. Doe says he merely told her, "You know what NBC stands for? Nobody cares."