With the jury out on whether Slate’s first show will be her last, it’s worth noting the reaction to that particular word’s occasional guest appearances on "SNL" over the last 35 seasons has varied, seemingly based on the performer’s intent – and perhaps the tenor of the times.
The most infamous utterance came in 1981, after Rocket appeared in a sketch satirizing the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger from “Dallas” (for those not old enough to remember, it was a national obsession at the time, believe it or not). “I’d like to know who the f--- did it,” he blurted at the end of the show.
Just under a year earlier, Paul Shaffer, playing an English rocker in a sketch that made repeated use of the euphemism “floggin’,” slipped just once.
Rocket soon was fired, and his career never recovered. Shaffer stayed with "SNL" and, of course, went onto to one of the greatest, longest-lasting gigs in late night, as David Letterman’s bandleader/sidekick, first on NBC and now on CBS.
Maybe the disparity in outcomes stemmed from intent: Rocket’s declaration appeared intentional, while Shaffer’s clearly was an accident. Another difference: Rocket’s misfire came a month into the Reagan era, as the nation began a rightward shift.
Fast forward a generation: In 1995, as “NYPD Blue,” was bringing the occasional curse and bare buttock to suddenly liberal primetime, then-"SNL" player Cheri Oteri laughed off an accidental s-word by putting a dollar in the “swear jar” at the end of the show. Two years, later, Norm Macdonald got away with a warning for letting the F-word fly on “Weekend Update” as he expressed his dismay at something stuck in his throat.
Slate’s flub comes at an unsettled, often contradictory time in TV decency standards, with big differences between network and cable fare. Less offensive curses still show up these days after 10 p.m., while Comedy Central often airs uncensored versions of everything from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” to its bawdy celebrity roasts on weekends after 1 a.m.
Slate’s miscue also follows Janet Jackson’s slippage of another kind, which earned CBS a $550,000 fine in 2005 – a case that’s made the struggling networks far more cautious about running afoul of the feds in recent years.
Earlier this month, the FCC said it would review the Jackson incident following a May U.S. Supreme Court order directing a lower court to reconsider its ruling striking down the fine. It’s unclear how the FCC review will shake out, but its decision could be a signal of where federal decency standards are headed in the Obama era.
Unlike past “SNL” mess-ups from the pre-Web age, Slate’s hit the Internet within minutes – making her, for better or worse, a household name, at least for a day, and magnifying what appears to be a rookie mistake.
Her foul-up came in last half hour of the show’s 35th season opener as she played a biker chick, and displayed some potential, holding her own with the great Kristen Wiig (The Huffington Post has video here – NSFW, of course).
"SNL" has endured worse – let’s hope Slate survives to get another chance to make us laugh.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.