The 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards will air this Sunday night on Fox. The telecast will be hosted by Andy Samberg, whose first promo for the show contained the seven dirty words you can say on television (“shuttlecock,” “annals,” etc.), a bit that’s probably as risqué as the one that got Gilbert Gottfried censored more than two decades ago, proving just how much censors have relaxed their standards on network television since the 1990s.
In 1991, Fox hosted the 43rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, though the fledgling network itself only had two nominations (both for In Living Color). Dennis Miller hosted the show. Cheers and L.A. Law won in the outstanding comedy and drama categories, respectively, for the fourth time each. And James Earl Jones became the only actor ever to have won in two categories for two different television series in the same year, taking home awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Gabriel’s Fire and Outstanding Actor in a Miniseries or Special for Heat Wave.
The ceremony also aired just two months after Paul Reubens, best known for playing Pee-wee Herman, was arrested for indecent exposure after he was caught masturbating inside an adult theater in Florida. Enter Gilbert Gottfried, who had edged Paul Reubens out for a slot on the cast of Saturday Night Live years earlier. Gottfried was a presenter that night, and the producers had asked him to “just go up there and have fun.”
After introducing himself as Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-in, Gottfried went into a monologue about Reubens’ arrest. “If masturbation is a crime,” Gottfried said, “I should be on death row. If masturbation is against the law, I should’ve been sent to the electric chair years ago.”
He continued along that vein for more than another minute to the delight of the audience in attendance, but, apparently, not so much to the delight of the network. By today’s standards, it was a relatively tame monologue (in fact, as Gottfried has noted, only a few years later, Seinfeld aired a masturbation episode that is now considered a classic); Fox, nevertheless, was appalled.
“They were absolutely taken by surprise and shocked,” said a spokesman for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at the time. Gottfried’s monologue was censored on the West Coast feed, and Fox sent out a series of public apologies, saying, “We’ll never have him back on the show.” One critic, according to Gottfried, even called it “a sneak attack on the unsuspecting American public,” while another decried Gottfried’s bit as “the most tasteless thing I’ve ever seen on an awards show.”
Ironically, more people ended up seeing it because it was censored, according to Gottfried. “Every news show would pick it up and they would introduce it as a horrible moment that doesn’t belong on television, and then they would broadcast the entire thing. ‘It’s okay, because we’re a news show. We’re not happy showing this, but we have to,’ ” he told The A.V. Club back in 2005.
The other irony is that, at the time, he was recording Aladdin for Disney. “I was too dirty for Fox, but clean enough for Disney,” he told HuffPo. “My career has always been walking the tightrope between morning children’s programming and hardcore pornography.”
It would not be the last time, of course, that Gottfried stirred controversy with tasteless jokes. He has since been called out for making a 9/11 joke only three weeks after the event. He once made a joke about having sex with the late Steve Irwin’s 8-year-old daughter, Bindi. Most recently, he was fired as the spokesman for Aflac in 2011 after making a series of jokes on Twitter about Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.