On September 26, “Saturday Night Live” started off its 35th season with a bang—or, more accurately, a bomb. In her first appearance on the show, as a biker chick who overuses the word “freaking,” featured player Jenny Slate accidentally said “fucking” on-air. This story has been blogged, reblogged, and re-reblogged ad infinitum over the last few weeks. It appeared in newspapers and magazines from “The New York Times” to “Entertainment Weekly,” and “Gawker” posted its first round of coverage at 1:19 a.m—a smooth turn-around on the 12:40 a.m. event. But should one phoneme make that much of a difference?
Many viewers speculated as to what sort of backlash “Saturday Night Live” and NBC could expect from the Federal Communications Commission. It was, after all, the FCC that levied a fine of $325,000 at the sight of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the 2004 Superbowl, though—who knows?—they might have been willing to knock down the price for the pair. It turns out, though, that in the so-called “safe harbor” period, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., television stations can technically air whatever profanity they like.
If what happened was perfectly legal, what’s the big deal? After all, none of the major news sources openly criticized Slate—instead, everyone seemed to be cringing, holding their breath and awaiting a statement from NBC. Weirdly enough, on the very next episode of “Saturday Night Live,” musical guest Lady Gaga didn’t bother to remove the word “shit” from the lyrics of her song “Paparazzi.” And almost no one cared. Of all the coverage of her “SNL” appearance, few stories acknowledged her verbal indiscretion. The reporters and bloggers that mentioned it did so only briefly in their mad rush to describe the kiss that Gaga shared with Madonna in a staged catfight sketch. Is it just me, or is the taboo of TV profanity starting to seem a little arbitrary?
Of course, the “F”-word doesn’t necessarily stand for “funny.” It’s not that we should allow profanity in television solely for naughtiness’ sake, but because it is something that, in reality, we use. Why are we so scandalized by something that so many of us say every day? The nature of Jenny’s mistake is itself telling. It wasn’t a purely mechanical speech error; she didn’t say “frogging” or “flocking.” She said “fucking” because she was thinking “fucking.” It makes sense—she’s primed for it, as is anyone else who would stay up till the early hours of the morning to watch “Saturday Night Live.”
This is not to say that we should encourage a generation of kids to grow up—as my mother might say—“effing” this and “essing” that, if only because that would be extremely unsettling. But in other countries, broadcast standards are more lax, without any evidence of a nationwide epidemic of depravity. In the United Kingdom, broadcasters must observe a similarly aquatic “watershed” time, from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., but they’re not nearly so demure about it. There are popular British programs chock-full of F-words, S-words, and even C-words.
Even for the United States, NBC’s standards of decency are anomalously high. The Jenny Slate sketch aired almost concurrently with Comedy Central’s weekly “Secret Stash.” This block of R-rated films and stand-up comedy begins at 1 a.m. Sunday and offers all the letter-bombs you can imagine—and even, at times, partial nudity. Comedy Central has the decency to withhold their indecency until several hours into the safe harbor, but couldn’t any “SNL”-watching kid with cable get there with the push of a few buttons on his remote control? By the same token, only a very small number of minors saw Jenny’s mistake on television, but any 13-year-old with an Internet connection could easily bump into an uncensored YouTube video or transcript of the sketch.
There’s a lot of inconsistency when it comes to censorship. Some shows resort to “bleeping,” but you don’t have to be a proficient lip-reader to figure out what’s being said. Many of the most offensive things on television don’t need profanity or nudity to do their damage—I am continually astonished that “Mind of Mencia” hasn’t been cancelled.
When it comes to content, “Saturday Night Live” itself is certainly no angel. Think about the digital shorts, the “SNL” monster hits of recent years. “Jizz in My Pants” has accumulated over 65 million views on YouTube to date. Would you rather explain Slate’s mistake or the premise of that video to a 10-year-old? There’s a big difference between a slip of the tongue and a dick in a box.
Fortunately, it seems like Jenny Slate will be okay. Sharon Pannozzo, publicity director for NBC Universal, told “The New York Daily News” that there was “no truth” to rumors that she might be fired. Slate and fellow newbie Nasim Pedrad join the only two women who remain from last season’s cast: the brilliant Kristen Wiig and featured player Abby Elliott, known for her character, That Girl Who Isn’t Kristen Wiig. But more importantly, in addition to being female, she’s funny. Jenny Slate is half of Gabe & Jenny, the sketch comedy duo whose videos are some of the most bizarre and hilarious on the Internet. “SNL” can’t let her go over something this trivial.
So let’s relax about Slate’s mistake. It was, after all, a welcome break from mind-numbing host Megan Fox, and what is comedy but the manipulation of the unexpected? The taboo on cursing on television is outdated, a holdover from a more innocent time. Censorship? Fuck that shit.