On this day, 41 years ago, Saturday Night Live was nearly canceled.
In 1981, Saturday Night Live was in its 6th season and things weren’t going so well. Lorne Michaels had left the program and he had taken what was left of the original cast with him. The new producer, Jean Doumanian, had hired an entirely new group of writers and performers. Doumanian felt that her biggest star would be a former news anchorman-turned-comedian named Charles Rocket. In order to prop up Rocket, she surrounded him with a cast that included Gilbert Gottfried, Denny Dillon, and Joe Piscopo. (Among those who auditioned but were not selected: Jim Carrey, John Goodman and Paul Reubens.) Seeking a black comedian who could take over the roles that were previously played by Garrett Morris, Doumanian tried to recruit a performer named Charlie Barnett. When Barnett skipped his second audition, she then considered hiring Robert Townsend before she finally settled on a 19 year-old stand-up comedian named Eddie Murphy.
To no one’s surprise, the initial reviews of the new Saturday Night Live were brutal. Everyone knew it would be difficult, at first, to win over the critics who were used to Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Belushi, Aykroyd, and Lorne Michaels. What no one expected was that the reviews would never get better and that, instead of Charles Rocket, it would be Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo who would emerge as the new fan favorites. Reportedly, a few of the cast members resented Murphy and Piscopo’s success. No one was happy with the way Doumanian was running the show. It didn’t take long until Season 6 was better known for its backstage tension than for it comedy. As ratings plunged, there were even rumors that the show might not be renewed.
On February 21st, 1981, those tensions went from being backstage to being on thousands of televisions. The night’s episode was hosted by Charlene Tilton, a cast member of what was then the most popular show in prime time, Dallas. Everyone in the country was debating who had shot J.R. Ewing. Saturday Night Live decided to do its own tak on the phenomenon by asking, “Who shot Charles Rocket?” Over the course of the show, Rocket was shown having a conflict with every member of the cast. Finally, towards the end of the episode, Rocket was shot. During the traditional goodbyes, Rocket appeared sitting in a wheelchair and smoking a cigarette. With the rest of the cast surrounding him, Tilton asked him how he was feeling.
Here’s what happened:
“Oh, man.” Rocket said, “I’ve never been shot before. I wish I knew who the fuck did it.” It can be difficult to hear him in the video above but you can tell from the reactions of the cast that everyone immediately knew what Rocket had said.
This may not seem like a big deal today but this happened in 1981. This was before HBO started producing their own shows. This was before anyone had ever heard of a streaming service. This was when there was only three major networks and they were all closely watched by the FCC. Dropping an F-bomb on live television, with no tape delay or chance to bleep it out, was a big deal.
Later, Charles Rocket would say that he didn’t even realize what he had said. That could have been true but the look on his face after he said it suggests that Rocket was aware of what he was saying. Before Rocket said it, there had been reports that NBC was planning on firing the entire cast at the end of the season. Did Rocket make an honest mistake (one that has since been made a few more times by cast members and guests on SNL) or was he going out with a bang? Was this Rocket’s way of getting back at a network that didn’t appreciate him?
The reports about NBC planning to make changes were true, to an extent. The plan was to fire Doumanian and replace her with Dick Ebersol. Most of the cast was going to be fired but NBC was specifically planning on keeping the three performers who it was felt were the strongest members of the ensemble: Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and Charles Rocket! Needless to say, after Rocket’s bit of improvisation, NBC changed its mind.
At first, it seemed like the show itself might also get canceled as a result. In1981, the networks had to deal with people like Jerry Falwell leading crusades to cleans up network television. Just as Fredric Wertham once blamed juvenile delinquency on comic books, all sorts of problems were being blamed on television. Jean Doumanian was fired after one more episode, along with Charles Rocket, Gilbert Gottfried, and cast member Ann Risley. Tragically, Charles Rocket’s career never recovered from this moment. Today, it probably wouldn’t be as big a deal. NBC would get hit by a fine but the moment itself would go viral and lead to even bigger ratings. But in 1981, saying the F-word on national television was a career killer. Rocket did appear in several movies, usually playing smarmy villains. But he never reached the stardom that had been predicted for him and ended up taking his own life in 2005.
In the end, the only thing that saved Saturday Night Live was that the Writers Guild went on strike and production on every NBC show shut down. By the time the strike was settled, the season was over and Dick Ebersol had managed to convince NBC to let him keep the series going by focusing on Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. When Saturday Night Live returned for its seventh season, Murphy was the undisputed center of the show. He achieved the stardom that had originally been predicted for Charles Rocket.
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