5 Creative Ways Comedians Have Worked Around Censorship

If all else fails, curse in Jamaican
5 Creative Ways Comedians Have Worked Around Censorship

Comedians have always worried about being canceled. And it used to be with good reason — some comics actually spent time in prison for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But clever comics have always found ways to speak their comedy truths, even with censors and scolds standing in their way. Here are five creative ways comedians found a way to slide around censorship…

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Embrace the Euphemism

Believe it or not, CBS censors thought the very idea of pregnancy was too much for I Love Lucy viewers in the 1950s. Why, that meant Lucy and Ricky were, you know, (whispers) doing it. But facts were facts: Lucy was pregnant, and she had the most popular comedy show on television. 

Censors stood their ground: Delicate American ears were not ready to hear the word “pregnancy” over the national airwaves. So Desi and Lucy got creative — could they say “expecting”? Could they tease “a blessed event”? Those euphemisms were mild enough for the CBS thought police, who also approved the French title for the episode when Lucy shared the big news with Ricky: “Lucy Is Enceinte.”

Bring the Bleep

Here’s a funny thing about the censor’s bleep — used judiciously, the sound effect can be even more hilarious than the profanity it replaces. Take, for example, “Natalie Raps,” the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Portman furiously spits profane rhymes. 

If you’ve ever heard the uncensored version, it’s somehow less funny. Why? First, there’s something ridiculously entertaining about the normally demure Portman being continuously bleeped for her potty mouth. Second, the bleeps allow us to fill in the blanks with the nastiest stuff our imaginations can muster: “It must be really bad if they bleeped it!” If the censors thought Andy Samberg wrote dirty lyrics, they ought to get a load of what our brains can do if left to their own devices. 

Take Advantage of Ignorance

When Keenen Ivory Wayans produced In Living Color, the show’s writers regularly took advantage of censors’ ignorance to slide in the raunchy stuff. At a show reunion panel, Wayans got big laughs telling the story of how they convinced the oblivious network to replace “kayak city” with “toss your salad.” The show also snuck in Jamaican curse words like “bumboclaat” (basically “motherfucker”). Eventually, Jamaican viewers wrote the network, but it was far too late for Standards & Practices to do anything about it. “We’d already won by that point,” said David Alan Grier.

The Innocent Word Substitution

Every few years, Saturday Night Live will drop a sketch like “Cork Soakers.” What? They simply love soaking corks.

Give the Censors Something Else to Cut

A great strategy for preserving bawdy humor is giving the censors something even worse to cut. Trey Parker and Matt Stone took their puppet sex scene to graphic extremes, all so the censors could say, “You gotta cut the golden shower bit!” The rest, of course, stayed. “Meanwhile,” says Parker, “were taking other puppets and blowing their heads off, they're covered with blood and stuff, and the MPAA didnt have a word to say about that.”

In Living Color employed a similar strategy. “We would put things in that we didn’t want to be in (the final cut),” Wayans has explained. “We would laugh really hard at the table reads or the rehearsal, and the censor would get nervous and they would come in and say, ‘You can’t say that! You’ve gotta come up with something else.’“ The stuff they actually wanted stayed in. 

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