Liberating Late Night

Saturday Night Live vs. the censors.


Now that Saturday Night Live is firmly ensconced as a small-screen institution, it's hard to recapture the original energy and excitement behind the show. When producer Lorne Michaels started SNL in 1975, he wanted it to be revolutionary—for television, anyway. He wanted his program to have the freedom that already existed for books, magazines, movies, and theater. Michaels and his actors and writers were intent on using characters, concepts, and, yes, words that had never before been on TV.

Standing in SNL's way was NBC's Broadcast Standards Department, which was charged with making sure the network upheld the "public interest," a condition for keeping its federal broadcast license. While the public interest has never been defined satisfactorily, this much is indisputable: The rule made television remarkably tame. The tension between the SNL crew and network restrictions shoots through two new books about the show and its influence, Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live, by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (Little, Brown), and Saturday Night Live, Equal Opportunity Offender: The Uncensored Censor, by William G. Clotworthy (1st Books Library).

In its infancy, the show was an ongoing experiment in testing boundaries in pursuit of laughs. As staff writer Rosie Shuster tells Shales and Miller, "Comedy writing was all about flirting with taboos and seeing how far you could push it. Not just gratuitously, though; it had to be funny." The comedy in SNL's early years was often sophomoric, such as the infamous "vomitorium" sketch. But just as often it was political satire with actual bite, including presidential debates in which Gerald Ford thought there'd be no math questions and Jimmy Carter took pride in flip-flopping on abortion.

Such envelope pushing made Clotworthy's job as SNL censor a busy one. To his credit, he gave as good as he got. Whenever anyone threw the First Amendment at him, he responded, "Wake up and smell the coffee, boys, this is network television." He notes that "the fact of life in television is you cannot say whatever you want….there were limits and it was our job to define those limits."

Clotworthy comes across as a nice guy. He has a sense of humor, clearly liked the SNL crew, swears occasionally, and saves his greatest scorn for organized bluenoses. But he lacks a proper sense of the absurdity of his job. He discusses sketches he allowed (such as a nude beach bit where the word penis is repeated over and over), prohibited (mass-produced towels based on the Shroud of Turin), and even changed his mind about (a game show called What's My Addiction?).

Yet what horrors did he imagine happening if he had allowed them all on the air? (Indeed, why is it OK to write about such dangerous material?) Even for those who favor the networks protecting kids during prime time, there's something silly about a grown man deciding if it's OK to talk about (not even show!) breasts on Saturday nights at 11:30.

Clotworthy's book is most valuable in showing that much of the censorship ended up being political. His main job was placating countless watchdog groups who'd been told that "the public" owns the airwaves and hence believed that nothing on TV should offend them. He heard from Japanese Americans bothered when Joe Piscopo's Sinatra used a slur, from Central Europeans outraged by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd's Czech Brothers, and from one pale fellow exercised by Great Moments in the History of White Trash.

Over the past several decades, the semi-blue language and sexuality that SNL helped pioneer has become the boob tube's lingua franca. Has such vulgarity been good for TV? At the very least, many of the best episodes of such network hits as Seinfeld, Friends, and The Simpsons would not have been possible without the trail blazed by SNL. Although cable doesn't face the same federal content restrictions, it's clear that shows such as The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Oz, and The Larry Sanders Show have greatly benefited from SNL's example too.

But has such vulgarity been good for the country? In the '90s, when these changes had become truly ubiquitous, SAT scores rose while suicide and divorce rates went down. Crime—violent and nonviolent—dropped significantly, and rates of gonorrhea and syphilis fell even faster.

No one is claiming such welcome developments were due to increased profanity on TV, but that's a more plausible explanation than the one offered by doomsayers who complain about the world going to hell in a 19-inch handbasket. At least it has the facts—and the jokes—on its side.