I am grateful for this second chance. I promise not to let you down this time.
See, first, the seven words you can never say on television.
The date is Monday, 02 December 2002; the setting is the "Saturday Night Live" offices; the scene is a writers' meeting.
Lorne Michaels is talking to his staff. Next to him is a giant notepad resting on an easel. There is nothing on it at first.
LORNE: All right, everybody, listen up, this is important. Do you all remember that bit George Carlin used to do about the seven words you can never say on television? Anybody know what they were?
WRITER ONE: Yeah, I think they were <bleep>, <bleep>, <bleep>, <bleep>,--
WRITER TWO: <bleep>sucker, mother<bleep>,--
WRITER ONE: Yeah, and <bleep>.
LORNE: Correct. Very good. For those who don't remember, I've put them up on this board, just to kinda jog your memories.
Lorne turns over the blank sheet of paper to reveal seven blacked-out lines of text. Ostensibly, the seven words you can never say on television are underneath the blackouts.
LORNE: That worked well for a while, the FCC thought, but in recent years we've seen some tightening of the reins, especially when it comes to satire. For instance, when our current president took office, the first thing he did was sign an executive order saying that the words "stupid", "dumb", and "ignorant", and the phrase "completely and totally controlled by mastermind handlers and corporate backers", could never be said on television. Rachel, I think you got in trouble once for that "completely and totally controlled" phrase, didn't you?
RACHEL: Yeah, I did. I was using it in a totally different context, but the FCC still didn't go for it. They were like, "Well, if we let you use it in this other context, then everybody's going to want to use it in some other contexts. And, let's be honest, there just aren't that many contexts for it to be used in."
LORNE: Right. Anyway, so, yeah, we started with the seven words you can never say on television, and then we added "stupid", "dumb", "ignorant", and the phrase "completely and totally controlled by mastermind handlers and corporate backers". And I think that, now, we're thanking our current president for those new restrictions. They make us try, as satirists, just a little bit harder, you know? It would have been really easy to talk about how stupid he is, how ignorant he is, and how he is completely and totally controlled by mastermind handlers and corporate backers, but it takes a really strong writer, and a really strong performer, to say something deeper and more substantive than that. So I think we can all agree that it was a good thing he did, making sure we couldn't say those words or that phrase.
LORNE (cont'd): Then, our collected way of life was incomprably altered by the horrific events of September the eleventh. We were all hurt and very deeply affected by that tragedy, and we knew we were going to need a paradigm shift in terms of the way we were running our show. Unfortunately, we didn't know what we were going to have to change. Obviously, we couldn't say stuff like "towelhead" anymore, or whatever. Most, if not all, jokes about terrorism were pretty much off-limits, we figured. Then, though, those guys down in Washington did us what may be the biggest favor of our lives, and passed the USA Patriot Act, in which was included an amended list of words you can never say on television. In addition to the original seven, in addition to "stupid", "dumb", "ignorant", and the phrase "completely and totally controlled by mastermind handlers and corporate backers", there were now several hundred closely-typed pages of words we could not say on television. And, again, I think we're all thankful that our Congress passed that act, because, again, it brought that challenge to a new level. We couldn't be sophomoric by cussing; we couldn't hit our current president below the belt by saying he was "dumb" or "completely and totally controlled by mastermind handlers and corporate backers", and now there were all sorts of other cheap shots and easy ways out we couldn't take. And, quite frankly, I think our writing eventually got a lot stronger because of it.
LORNE (cont'd): Then, as time went on, and we got interested in Afghanistan, and then we got interested in Iraq, and Iran, and the whole North Korean nuclear crisis, there were more executive orders and more bills passed in the Congress, and our jobs got more and more challenging. And, all the while, you pulled through it with marvelous aplomb, resulting in what I think are some of the best shows "SNL" has ever done. So, now, as you all know, Patriot Act II is on its way, and, as you're probably guessing, there's another compilation of words you can never say on television. And I'm talking, like, a ream of paper. An entire ream of paper devoted to words you can never say on television. Ream. This could be our biggest challenge yet, but, again, I think you all are up to the task, and I think we're going to be a smashing success with these new rules, too.
LORNE (cont'd): Now, because there are now so many words we can never say on television, those boys down in Washington have been gracious enough -- and, truly, they have been kind, gracious, generous, and just all-around great with all of this new censorship business -- to circulate around to some of the more important shows a second, alternative kind of list, because they -- in their glorious intelligence -- know that it would almost take so much time to read up on all of the words you can never say on television, that we wouldn't be able to do a show. So, there's this alternate list, as I say, that they've been giving to the better, more important shows. And I got a hold of that list on Friday, and so now I'm gonna give it to you, the writers, to digest and start working with so we can try to put something out that complies with all the rules by Saturday. And so, without further ado, here's that second list.
Lorne turns over the sheet with the seven words you can never say on television, to reveal:
SEVEN WORDS YOU CAN SAY ON TELEVISION
LORNE: Okay, let's go through these. Number one: "Hello". A very kind, very cordial greeting. Most conversations start with a greeting, and the FCC feels this is the best greeting there is. Two, three, four: "how are you?" One of the classic questions of all time. I've never met somebody who, in the course of our relationship or friendship, no matter how brief it may have been, hasn't asked me at least once, "How are you?" I mean, it's just such a classic, such a staple of fine comedy writing, that the FCC knew they'd be completely moronic to leave it out of the list of seven words you can say on television. And what's the classic answer to a classic question? "I am fine." Now, because both "am" and "are" are forms of the "to be" verb, the second instance of it -- "am" -- doesn't count. So the response, "I am fine," actually only takes up two of the seven words. And then, to be just as polite as can be about the entire exchange, you cap it all off with the seventh word that you can say on television, "Thanks." So, there you have it. The seven words you can say on television. "Hello. How are you?" "I am fine, thanks."
LORNE (cont'd): Now, I've been told that, with written permission, we can subtly vary these seven words. I've already shown one example, with the "to be" verb changed to both "am" and "are". Also, though, you can probably -- I have to check on this -- change the "how" question to something like "who" or "why". So, let's say we have Jimmy in a sketch with Donald Trump, right? And Jimmy can say to Donald, "Hello, how are you?" To which Trump might possibly reply, "I am fine, thanks." Then, though, Jimmy could do something like, maybe, I don't know ... "Why are you fine?" And then, and here would be something like the punchline, Trump could get all sarcastic, and be like, "Hello!" and, like, point to himself, and to his Rolex, and to his custom-made suit, as if to say, "I'm Donald <bleep> Trump! Why would I not be fine?" But, since we can't say stuff like "<bleep>" or "not", we have to use a lot of nonverbal gestures. But I think everyone here will probably be fine with that, since so much of comedy is nonverbal. I mean, really, what separates the good comedy from the great comedy, I think, is what the actors do nonverbally. And about that "not" thing, our current president feels that negativity is the death of comedy, so, as you can tell, the seven words you can say on television are all either positive or neutral.
LORNE (cont'd): The possibilities are limitless, really. Like, say we got Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz back to do their two lovable losers sketch; you know the one I'm talking about, right? And so, you know, the first girl will walk by, and they can both be like, in their pathetic voices, "Helllloooooo...." and the girl will just completely ignore them, not say anything. Again, nonverbal stuff and body language. Then the second girl walks by, and they go, "You are fiiiine," really putting emphasis on the sixth word you can say on television. And the girl, really nasty and sarcastic, will say something like, "Thanks." But we know, because of her delivery, that she doesn't really want to thank them -- it's just that that's all she can say, but, because she's such a great actress, she makes that one word work for her, and you know that she's actually disgusted by the two.
LORNE (cont'd): And that, I think, is pretty much it. Any questions?
WRITER THREE: Yeah, just one. Can I quit now, or would you rather I waited until the meeting was over?
LORNE: Let's try to wait until after the meeting, thanks.
WRITER FOUR: Uh, same question. Should I also wait, or can I quit now?
LORNE: Well, guys, I really think it interrupts the flow of the meeting if you just stand up and quit right here in the middle of it all. So, please, I'd appreciate it if you could wait until the end of the meeting. There is a pause, in which nobody says anything. Since you bring it up, though, and since we're already talking about it here in the meeting, let me just ask: is there anybody else here who wants to quit right now? That is to say, anybody not up for the challenge of really doing some creative writing, really trying to push the envelope as far as we can, really trying to make a difference with what we put on the air? Any other little sissy babies who think they'd rather go write for Showtime or for the movies, where things are so easy that anybody in the world -- even someone like you, Rick -- could string toghether enough jokes to have a hugely successful movie or prime-time special? Hm? Anybody else wanna give up on what promises to be the most exciting adventure of their careers? Anybody else want to spit in the face of the FCC and of our current president? Who else wants to bail out, along with Jim and Rick, on what could be the most interesting experiment ever embarked upon in the medium of television: performing a ninety-minute, live, topical and satirical sketch show using only what God and our current president gave us: brains, and the seven words you can say on television. Anybody?
WRITER ONE: Yeah, I think I'm with Jim and Rick. But, again, should we quit now or, as they've both asked, wait until after the meeting?
LORNE: I've already addressed that: wait until the end of the meeting. Just because we're talking about it now, that doesn't mean you can do it. Okay, Jim, Rick, and Lorraine are out. Anybody else? There occur ten seconds of silence and perfect stillness. All right, then. That's all I had to say. Jimmy, since Donald Trump is hosting this week, could you run all this by him, and then work with him on the sketch about why he is fine?
JIMMY: Yeah, Lorne, not a problem.
LORNE: Excellent. See you at read-through on Wednesday, everybody.
Exit Lorne. Lots of incomprehensible babbling among the writers. Fade to black as Rick, Jim, and Lorraine stand up and walk away, with everybody else staying behind.
I wrote this, not somebody else.