The ‘SNL’ Cartoon That Gave the Middle Finger to NBC Owner General Electric

The ‘SNL’ Cartoon That Gave the Middle Finger to NBC Owner General Electric

One of Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse” cartoons on Saturday Night Live was so outrageous and so pointed in its criticism of NBC owner General Electric that it only aired once, with the bit yoinked from future reruns. “What always amazed me,” wrote Smigel in an Instagram post, “was that NBC let it on in the first place.”

What got NBC’s (and GE’s) undies in a bundle? The offending animation was an homage to Schoolhouse Rock, the 1970s series of cartoons that explained things like history, science, civics and math to Saturday morning viewers on a Fruity Pebbles sugar high. Smigel’s Conspiracy Theory Rock taught something else entirely — how large corporations, including GE, conspire to control American minds through a media-opoly. Here’s how the story begins, as explained by these cheerful lyrics:

Singers: The whole media’s controlled by a few corporations / Thanks to deregulation by the FCC.

Hippie: You mean Disney, Fox, Westinghouse and good ol’ GE?

Singers: They own networks from CBS to CNBC.

Hippie: They can use them to say whatever they please / And put down the opinions of anyone who disagrees.

Singers: Or stuff about PCBs. 

Hippie: What are PCBs?

Singers: They come from electric power plants built by Westinghouse and GE.

Hippie: They can give you lots of cancer / That can hurt your body.

You get the idea. Smigel even blames General Electric for firing Norm Macdonald over his O.J. Simpson jokes. Speaking of jokes, the cartoon is interrupted by a fake “Please Stand By” slate when the pointed satire goes too far, thumbing its nose at network censors enforcing the corporate will. But somehow, those same censors approved the bit to air on a 1998 episode with Julianne Moore as host.

That proved to be one airing too many.  When the episode was rerun a few months later, Conspiracy Theory Rock was missing. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why, but Lorne Michaels tried to take the fall, telling The Nation that while “it’s unusual to excise portions of a rerun,” he made the decision to cut this particular TV Funhouse because “I didn’t think it worked comedically.” No one from NBC or GE had anything to do with the decision, Michaels insisted. (Sure, they didn’t.)

According to the book Saturday Night Live FAQ, NBC President Robert Wright was upset that the cartoon had aired. GE, unsurprisingly, had a similar negative reaction. In Smigel’s memory, Michaels purposely had placed Conspiracy Theory Rock late in the episode’s original airing since Wright usually turned off the show after Weekend Update. That night, the NBC prez couldn’t sleep and saw it anyway. “Months passed, and all was calm until Adam McKay approached me,” Smigel wrote on Instagram. An angry SNL staffer told McKay that the cartoon was replaced by a second Backstreet Boys song, “which had no mentions of GE polluting the environment.” 

Smigel more or less expected it, but “Adam was fired up. He leaked the story to a few TV journalists who’d written about the cartoons, NBC claimed it wasn’t funny (not that it was) and that’s why people know & still talk about it today.”

There’s at least one consolation, Smigel maintained. Conspiracy Theory Rock did make it on the Best of TV Funhouse DVD, “so since 2006, it’s only been kinda banned.”


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