A New Generation of Hosts Peppers ‘SNL’ With Salty Talk

Analysis: Many people don't mind profanity on TV, but that doesn't mean "Saturday Night Live" shouldn't give a, well, you know, about hosts who like to swear

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

You could call it Jenny Slate’s Revenge. In 2009, during a sketch called “Biker Chick Chat,” the comic actress, during her first time on the show, accidentally spoke a word on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — one that its cast members were not supposed to say, one that starts with an “f.” The utterance raised eyebrows.

On this week’s show, host Sam Rockwell did much the same thing. No one seems to have blinked.

Rockwell, who recently won a Golden Globe award, let loose an “f-bomb” late Saturday night while in the midst of a sketch that looked at a frustrated science teacher on a fake PBS kids program. Cast members Cecily Strong and Mikey Day kept things moving along. NBC bleeped the offending word on the west coast and has subsequently cut it on “YouTube,” where viewers can see the actor say it, but can’t hear what he said. A spokeswoman for the show said after last night’s broadcast that producers declined to comment on the incident.

Profanity hasn’t been the norm on “Saturday Night Live,” and its use has cost cast members in the past. Charles Rocket was removed from the program in 1981 after uttering an “f,” and Slate has said in interviews since leaving the program she felt the incident affected her tenure on “SNL” (despite the fact she stayed in the cast for the rest of the season).  In recent seasons, however, the show has had to contend not with nervous cast members throwing caution to the wind, but rather with guest hosts who don’t seem to understand language that much of society has accepted as casual and routine can still draw the notice of select viewers and, potentially, government regulators.

Cussing cast members have been so few and far between you can probably count them on a few fingers: Rocket. Slate.  Cheri Oteri, who said “s–t” in a 1995 broadcast – then repented immediately by placing money in a “swear jar” when the cast bid the audience farewell in the show’s final segment. Norm MacDonald on “Weekend Update” in 1997. Most of the incidents took place across several years.

The number of celebrity hosts who have used profanity, however, seems to be growing. Ariana Grande uttered “Oh, s–t” after flubbing part of her musical monologue in 2016. Kristen Stewart last season said “f–k” during a monologue in February. With Rockwell’s flub last night, that amounts to one incident per season.

The content of “SNL” in 2018 doesn’t contain 5% of the profanity of what HBO’s ultra-profane drama “Deadwood” had in 2004. Samantha Bee uses more so-called “swear words” in a single episode of her “Full Frontal” on cable’s TBS than “Saturday Night Live” has broadcast in more than four decades on the air. Hard talk has popped up across the set-top box, from FX’s “The Shield” to TNT’s “Southland.” Consumers clearly accept what were once called “discouraging words” in the national lexicon. Even TV-news outlets, once fearful of offending viewers with graphic footage of crime or war, has given up the ghost. After reports of President Trump using a vulgar word to refer to foreign countries crashed the news cycle, TV outlets like CNN and MSNBC were posting profane words on screen.  So who really gives a — oops, no.

Some consumers may welcome such terms into popular conversation, but “SNL” these days is more mainstream than ever. Since last Spring, NBC has broadcast the show live across the nation. It airs around 11:30 p.m. on the east coast, but in primetime for viewers in California, Las Vegas and other western markets. Those viewers last night didn’t hear Rockwell’s slip – nor two utterances of the word “s–thole” during “Weekend Update” – thanks to delays. That’s a far cry from the show’s debut in 1975, when host George Carlin, best known for talking about seven dirty words no one could say on television, descended from the audience balcony and said none of them. But without NBC’s standards-and-practices technology at work, the network could have been in more trouble than it would like.

Big-audience TV tends to tilt toward the conservative, because the larger an audience gets, the more opportunity a broadcaster has to offend some segment of the crowd. Consider CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, when a halftime show featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson sparked a national conversation on decency after Timberlake exposed part of Jackson’s breast on TV. In the aftermath of the event, the NFL took more control over its Super Bowl halftime program (MTV had planned the one on CBS) and CBS spent years working its way out of being fined by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Saturday Night Live” has always been subversive. The show makes fun of politicians, advertisers – even the executives of its own network, as anyone who recalls Jimmy Fallon doing an impression of former NBC entertainment chief (and NBCUniversal CEO) Jeff Zucker can tell you. But the program has over the years – more than 40 – become an institution. Institutions have mass acceptance and command the interest of a large number of people. “SNL” would probably do well to tell a new generation of hosts that readily drops an “f” or an “s” in everyday conversation to watch the language once they get on stage.