BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Clotworthy says he's the man they call "The Dr. No" on Saturday Night Live. He was that program's network-imposed censor for a dozen years, from 1979 to 1991. As he writes in his book, Saturday Night Live: Equal Opportunity Offender, quote "I'm the guy a lot of people thought didn't exist. I'm the one who decided how much painted-on pubic hair could be shown on a nude statue on national television. It was my responsibility to define how large a bull's balls could be and still get on the air." To be sure, it must take a finely tuned sensibility to determine when a joke is merely naughty and when it's downright noxious.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ACTOR: I'm Dr. Richard Ludwin. Let's face it --there's some problems we'd rather not talk about. [SOUND OF FLATULENCE] Like flatulence. [LAUGHTER] Maybe it's time for you to discover what millions of Americans already know. It's this: [SPRIGHTLY MUSIC] The Magic Mouth -- from Timpleton Medical. [LAUGHTER] Excessive gas gets caught in the digestive [SOUND OF FLATULENCE] tract, [LAUGHTER] and it can produce some embarrassing [SOUND OF FLATULENCE] results! [SOUND OF FLATULENCE] Magic Mouth inserts comfortably between the cheeks [LAUGHTER] of the buttocks [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE] [where] gas normally escapes, so instead of this--: [SOUND OF FLATULENCE] [LAUGHTER] You hear this:
ROBOT-LIKE MAN'S VOICE: Did you see Charlie Rose last night? [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ACTRESS: Why yes!
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ACTOR: Magic Man. It's like having a professor up your butt. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That joke was a little after your time on the show, but would it have passed muster with you?
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: [LAUGHS] I don't think so. [LAUGHS] The thing that struck me first -- the name is Dr. Richard Ludwin who happens to be a friend of mine [LAUGHS] and was the program guy on the show for many years. [LAUGHTER] Was that actually on Saturday Night Live?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes.
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY:Well, we had one sketch that we turned down --bunch of guys in a fraternity house trying to light farts. You didn't see anything, but you heard the voiceover and then there was this big explosion, and Joe Piscopo was dressed as Smokey the Bear, and he came out and said that should be a lesson to everyone -- don't fart with fire. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well you didn't have fixed rules. These were all judgment calls, weren't they?
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY:Oh, no. We called them "guidelines." For example -- sex. [READING] "Sexual scenes must be sensitively handled and contribute to plot or characterization. Gratuitous, overly explicit sexual action is unacceptable and the depiction of physical coercion intended to satisfy prurient interests is to be avoided." That's the type of disingenuous writing that these guidelines were - and there was one for drug use, stereotyping and so forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean by "disingenuous?"
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Because you can really interpret those [LAUGHS] almost any way you want!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Very, very early in your career you worked on Milton Berle's show. He wasn't exactly a paragon of good taste. Do you remember if he ran into trouble with the censors?
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Somebody once said - Well gee, Milton Berle wasn't it offensive to the gay community, cause he was always in drag. You know I said lookit - drag humor goes back to Aristophanes!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I believe that fart humor goes back to Aristophanes [LAUGHS] too.
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Look, most humor [LAUGHS] does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But you see, that brings us to the question --if these standards were written in a kind of slippery, slidy way -- the ones you had to follow -- what makes a fart joke okay if Ben Franklin writes about it and, and not okay if Will Farrell does a skit on it?
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Benjamin Franklin is not on television. You know we had to set these standards for what we considered a general audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems you also had to have a finely tuned sense of potential offensiveness to minority groups that are rarely considered. You wrote that you'd heard from Americans with neurofibromatosis after a skin on the Elephant Man and a group representing Czechoslovakians was heard from after the classic skit featuring Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd as the "wild and crazy guys!"
STEVE MARTIN AS WILD AND CRAZY GUY: The two most swinging foxes had the hots on for us and are coming here tonight to let us hold on to their big American breasts!!! [LAUGHTER]
DAN AKROYD AS WILD AND CRAZY GUY: Why not? There's no other pair of Czech brothers who cruise and swing so successfully in tight slacks. [LAUGHTER]
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: There's just something about that kind of hilarity that minimizes the offensiveness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dick Cavett wrote, as you quote in your book, "Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the 4-letter word itself would."
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Yeah, I agree with that. I'm going to go back and just clarify one thing. Censorship, according to Webster, is "the restriction of any expression believed to threaten the political, social or moral order." Well-- you know - I'm not sure that television entertainment may jeopardize [LAUGHS] the moral a little bit, but we didn't call it "censorship." We considered it "tasteful editing." [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a particular skit that you killed that you wish you hadn't?
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Yeah. That was that fraternity fart joke. I loved it. [LAUGHTER] I loved it, [LAUGHS] and I was overruled by my boss. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, William Clotworthy, thank you very much.
WILLIAM CLOTWORTHY: Thanks very much for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Clotworthy is the author of Saturday Night Live: Equal Opportunity Offender. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis and Michael Kavanagh; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help this one last time from Lu Olkowski -- thank you very much, Lu. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.