Almost Nobody Complains About ‘Saturday Night Live’ Profanity

I'm not sure this is a concern that rises to the level of an article at The Atlantic.

An Atlantic piece titled “Swear Words, Blasphemy, and Justin Timberlake” begins thusly:

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).

Who are these people?

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.

So . . . “around 100” people have complained to the FCC about offensive content on SNL over the last three years. That’s “around” 33 people a year, on average. There are around 319 million people in the United States. My calculator doesn’t have enough zeroes on it to indicate how much less than one percent that is. But one percent is 3.19 million people.

I’m not sure this is a concern that rises to the level of an article at The Atlantic.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Gustopher says:

    James, you ignorant slut!

    I expect that SNL got more complaints back when it was funny, and that we could measure how unfunny it has become with a graph of declining FCC complaints.

  2. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    Who are these people?

    There is that clown, Bozo, sorry, L. Brent Bozell III and the advocacy group he created, Parents Television Council.

    In 2004 the FCC revealed the Parents Television Council as the primary source of most content complaints received.

  3. Pinky says:

    I’m not sure this is a concern that rises to the level of an article at The Atlantic.

    Maybe The Atlantic isn’t as high a target as you think?

  4. Paul Hooson says:

    You’re always going to find a few morality crackpots like those kooks at MORALITY IN MEDIA. For years this organization refused BETTER BUSINESS BUREAU requests for financial accountability for donations it solicited, and even received some government grants thanks to a Republican congressman from Virginia slipping language in bills giving these kook piles of our tax money each year for free for several years. MORALITY IN MEDIA is best known for filing over 100,000 false complaints of criminal obscenity against legal adult entertainment Websites with the FBI each year as well as harassing grocery stores that sell the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE as well as filing FCC complaints against numerous TV shows. It’s this relatively small group of “American Taliban” style morality kooks who are largely responsible for a large portion of the few TV show related FCC complaints. – SNL humor is largely suggestive humor, as is the humor on most sit-coms, which is neither indecent or legally obscene. After the case against NYPD BLUE in which ABC experimented with a little bit of nudity, but ran into legal problems, the use of nudity on TV has been out, and only suggestive dialog or jokes have been in. At the late hour SNL airs, it is also less likely that many small children are up, further weakening any complaint’s worth as well if some of the same jokes or dialog aired at 8pm, but at 8pm, a comedy like TWO BROKE GIRLS often has many sex jokes or suggestive dialog that seems to have little problem with network censors or FCC guidelines.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    Somewhat relevant: I read an interview many years ago with an SNL writer (Al Franken?) where he talked about how they got things past the NBC censor. One technique was to put in something obviously beyond the line, causing the censor to focus on that and miss something that required more thought or at least a deeper knowledge of sexual practices. Which is how they got one of my favorite sketches on. It consisted of a campaign style commercial during the early eighties where the administration was trumpeting a fictional jobs program where anyone could get a job that asked for one. In order to keep it from being the go to employer it would only provide the most boring, hum-drum jobs. And to keep it short and pithy ala a political campaign, these humdrum jobs were shortened to “Hum Jobs”. And then they cut from one cast member to another in typical Ameican guise enthusiastically asking “Ronald Reagan, please give me a hum job!”

  6. Tillman says:

    @Paul Hooson: @MarkedMan: Honestly, suggestive humor offers the greatest depth of creativity in comedy nowadays. And you can reward that on sitcoms with enough barebones continuity to make good suggestive one-liners into in-jokes, forming a community around people who would imitate their favorite characters on sitcoms or borrow from them in forming their own comedy style.

    Television comedy has tried to branch out in other ways. Arrested Development pioneered making jokes that only make sense if you know other movies or television the actor uttering or participating in the gag has done. Hell, I imagine plenty of Transparent fans were people who watched Jeffrey Tambor in season 4 and thought it was a spinoff or giant promotion of the show.