By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009; C04
"Saturday Night Live" began its 35th season this weekend by making a bit of broadcasting history -- again. As hasn't happened in 28 years, a cast member uttered the most forbidden of four-letter words on the air, and NBC executives quickly hid themselves away, hoping the glitch would be forgotten and mercifully forgiven.
Jenny Slate, one of two actors hired over the summer to join the repertory cast, was making her "SNL" debut in the sketch, called "Biker Chick Chat," which aired in the last 20 minutes of the season premiere. Slate and Kristen Wiig played surly motorcycle babes who used the substitute words "frickin' " or "friggin' " in every sentence they spoke.
But when, at about 12:43 a.m., Slate was supposed to say to Wiig, "You stood up for yourself, and I friggin love you for that," she mistakenly said the real f-word instead. Slate made a face -- puffing up her cheeks, basically -- but the sketch went on with no other problems.
Lorne Michaels, the show's executive producer, said from New York late yesterday that the moment was especially traumatic for Slate because "it was literally her first time on the show. There was nothing dirty, just a slip of the tongue. It was 'frickin', frickin', frickin' ' and then boom! The pain that Jenny is going through is, I'm sure, considerably worse than that experienced by anybody who saw it."
Michaels indicated that times may have changed enough since 1981, when "SNL" player Charles Rocket uttered the word, so that the incident may not cause the uproar it did then. He said the NBC switchboard did not "light up" with angry viewer phone calls. And because "SNL" is tape-delayed to the West and Midwest, the word was only heard in the Eastern portion of the country.
There are two big technological differences between 1981 and today that will make it hard to overlook the glitch, however. In 1981 there was no Internet to preserve and disseminate such a moment worldwide and ad infinitum. And home video recording was still in its infancy. Both these marvels today make it hard to deal quietly with anything unplanned that appears on television, including a flub such as this.
And it was a flub, Michaels said, not an intentional act -- as some feel it had been in '81, when Rocket, disgruntled and scheduled to leave the show, substituted the word for the inoffensive one in the script. The show was then in a five-year period during which it was produced not by Michaels but by Dick Ebersol, the NBC executive who is now president of NBC Sports and executive producer of the network's Olympic coverage.
"It has to be an actor's worst nightmare," Michaels said. "Your first time on 'Saturday Night Live' and this happens. You could sense the mortification in the studio." Michaels noted that there's been "so much government scrutiny" of TV in recent years -- sparked largely by Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during halftime at the Super Bowl in 2004 -- that he is somewhat worried about the aftermath.
"Saturday Night Live" does not use a so-called "seven-second delay" to prevent any unplanned utterances from going out on the air. "We've used an honor system," Michaels said, "and pretty much everyone has played by it forever." Although the FCC went wild doling out enormous fines for alleged obscenities during the George W. Bush era, it's believed in some circles that the Obama administration will have less interest in such matters.
Regardless, the tiny moment tainted an otherwise festive season opener for the long-running series. "I don't want that show to be remembered for one word," Michaels said. "I feel awful."