Swear Words, Blasphemy, and Justin Timberlake

Three years of FCC documents reveal the recent Saturday Night Live sketches that Americans found most objectionable.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

People have been complaining that Saturday Night Live isn't funny anymore for almost as long as the show has been on air. It's practically a running gag at this point, with the complaints usually going something like this: The sketches are predictable rehashes. A format that was once the edgiest thing on television now seems dated. Everything was better back when Farley (or Fey or Hartman or Radner or Curtain or Belushi) was on the show.

But then there are the viewers who don't find Saturday Night Live funny because they find it offensive. Really offensive. So offensive that they complain to the Federal Communications Commission. FCC complaints are something of a throwback in the Internet age: People get offended by comedy all the time, but American outrage has largely migrated away from traditional gatekeepers (think: letters to the editor) and instead proliferated in the places where people publish their ideas immediately (think: Twitter).

There are still people who complain to the FCC, though. (The agency uses complaints as a way to "spot trends and practices that warrant investigation and enforcement action," it says.) I reviewed three years of FCC complaints about Saturday Night Live (around 100 in total) in an attempt to find out what offends American viewers most, and how viewers' sensibilities have changed. The Federal Communications Commission purges complaints after three years, so it's not possible to see records detailing complaints from earlier eras. And though complaints since 2012 make up a limited sampling—consider how many people are offended by something but don't take the time to contact the FCC, for instance—perusing records offers a revealing glimpse at a vocal population of American television viewers.

These are people who identify, in many cases, as white and Christian. Many of them said they were worried about kids hearing bad words. A few made the point of telling the FCC they weren't prudes as a way to justify or at least contextualize their overall complaints. Several were explicit about how they were "extremely offended." The words "smut" and "garbage" came up more than once. The states where the most complaints originated were Texas, California, New York, Michigan, and Colorado. (Though it's impossible to tell from redacted government documents whether the same individual from these states complained over time, it makes sense that more complaints would emerge from more populous states like New York and California.)

Among the objectionable material are references to masturbation and to human trafficking ("no laughing matter," someone said). One person complained generally about Miley Cyrus. Lady Gaga, too. And plenty of people were concerned with profanity. Most of the words that people found objectionable were Carlinesque. Others were more surprising.

"[I saw a] commercial for Saturday Night Live in which Will Ferrel uses the word 'damn,'" one person wrote. "I realize that word isn't censored typically on TV, but isn't there a rule against targeting young audiences to encourage them to watch shows geared toward adults?" (The commercial had aired in the morning, this person said, when their 7-year-old son was watching cartoons.)

Several people wrote in to complain about the song "Dick in a Box" (originally aired in 2006), and more than one expressed general distrust of Justin Timberlake for singing it. "It began with a profane attempt at humour referencing 'dick in a box,'" someone from Florida wrote.

It was the Christmas show suggesting that men should give women their penis in a box as a present. I was offended, let alone thinking that younger children would have the opportunity to see the program.

It was not funny and it was beyond vulgar. The segment even includes Justin Timberlake whom was involved in the Janet Jackson superbowl stunt.

Another viewer complained that an entire show—hosted by Jimmy Fallon with Timberlake as a musical guest—was intolerable. "Last night's airing of Saturday Night Live ... was the most filthy, obscene and objectionable program I believe I have ever seen in my life. For a 69-year-old, who has seen a lot on broadcast and cable TV, that is saying a lot ... Overtly smutty skits and songs ... I found it necessary after a very short while to tune out and switch to PBS, where our still civilized British cousins provide decent and enjoyable programming."

Apparently, the only thing more objectionable—or at least the only sketch that drew more complaints than Timberlake's crooning—was a fake movie trailer for "DJesus Uncrossed" from December 2013 that parodied the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. The trailer features a vengeful Jesus going on a murdering spree, and the FCC received about two dozen complaints about it from all over the country. "It was a bad night in television," one person wrote. "Even the twenty-somethings I was with were shocked."

"I can take a joke," someone from Maine wrote, "but that was not funny."

"And you also did nothing when they showed a pro-homosexual episode [with] multiple men making out with each other," someone from Michigan wrote. "Do you have a bias against Christianity and do you have a bias that is for promoting homosexuality?"

In what emerged as a theme among those who complained about the "DJesus Uncrossed" sketch, another person wrote, "Would NBC dare create a similar video of the prophet mohammed? Likely not."

Comedy, of course, isn't about equal playing fields. Very often it's about questioning existing power structures. But that didn't stop people from complaining to the FCC that host Jamie Foxx was racist for making a reference to his character in "Django Unchained" "kill[ing] all the white people."

Jamie Foxx is offensive. I am sick and tired of people being racist on TV because they are non-white. If this were a white person it would have been pulled off the air.

I do not like hearing Jamie Foxx on TV talking about killing all the white people. When this country is at a time with all the killings with guns. And now we have Jamie Foxx on TV trying to be funny and racist ... I am outraged that was allowed to be aired on TV.

This has me very concerned for my safety and many others.

Vintage sketches irked viewers, too. Several people complained about Gilda Radner dropping an F-bomb and Richard Pryor using the N-word. "I understand NBC wanted to maintain authenticity as the skit originally aired," one person wrote of Pryor, "but the 'N' word should have been bleeped."

Most of the rest of the recent complaints to the FCC about Saturday Night Live had to do with various portrayals of human sexuality. "I am offended by the gay acceptance message this skit portrays," one person complained about a segment featuring a yeti as a sexual predator.

The 'Drunk Uncle' character made several vulgar and inappropriate statements regarding breasts—[he] used several nicknames for them.

Simply put an actress portraying a porn star made a direct reference to manually stimulating a horse. The term 'Jacked off a horse' was used.

The word 'son-of-a-bitch' was used in a parody of Kris Kringle's elves ... I am offended that we are allowing our culture to devolve language that is not uplifting and only reduces the quality of communication.

What can we glean from all this? Not much about Saturday Night Live, probably, and not all that much about how viewers' sensibilities have changed over time either. Saturday Night Live's brand of humor—at its best, when it's actually funny—captures some of the darkest and most bizarre absurdities of modern culture. But what a person finds offensive isn't ultimately a product of the their time. It is instead deeply personal. Being offended is a way of rejecting or denying something at odds with one's value system. Which means offense, as a state of being, isn't so much about the thing doing the offending—a song about penises, hearing the word "fuck," the existence of Lady Gaga—but a mirror into the way a person believes the world ought to be.