From the mid-‘90s through the aughts, one of the most popular SNL segments was “TV Funhouse,” an animated series of parodies from writer Robert Smigel. Smigel and team got away with a lot. It’s responsible for such classics as “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” “Fun with Real Audio,” “The New Adventures of Mr. T” (including one where he plays Torvald in a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), and numerous Disney parodies, including one that toured the shocking secrets concealed in the “Disney Vault.” Then there’s the holiday favorite “Christmastime for the Jews.”
One segment, however, only aired once. On the March 14, 1998 episode, featuring Julianne Moore and The Backstreet Boys, the week’s “TV Funhouse” consisted of a Schoolhouse Rock! send-up called “Conspiracy Theory Rock.” What was the conspiracy theory? That there was a “media-opoly,” in which a small number of corporations control everything people see, read, and consume, and can even control what gets covered on the news. Crazy, right?
After the sketch aired, SNL honcho Lorne Michaels announced it would be yanked from reruns, replaced by a second Backstreet Boys performance. The cartoon has long been the subject of its own conspiracy theory, namely that NBC effectively deep-sixed it over its edgy truth-telling, especially considering it directly roasted NBC and its then-parent company General Electric.
The debunkers over at Snopes worked their magic on this one ages ago, but theories rarely stay dead for long. The sketch recently made the rounds again, prompting Smigel to do two things: post a decent version of it on the Instagram page for arguably his most famous creation, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog; and tell the “actual story” behind why it was disappeared from syndicated reruns.
“Yes, it was pulled after its initial airing & it’s easy to see why. BUT what always amazed me was that NBC let it on in the first place,” Smigel wrote in the caption. He also says that among the NBC/General Electric highers-up, there was “a real willingness not to censor the piece.” It did go through an “extensive note process,” even “beyond the Standards dept & up the executive ladder.”
To cover his back, Smigel added the “voices in my head” line for the narrator, to make him seem crazier — “not that it made a big difference.” Still, he was surprised that even “NBC West Coast” top brass Don Ohlmeyer even allowed a joke about NBC firing Weekend Update host Norm Macdonald for doing too many O.J. Simpson jokes.
Still, Michaels tried to cover his butt. The segment aired much later than usual, as Michaels said NBC’s then-president Bob Wright usually turned it off after Weekend Update. “On this night, however, Bob Wright got home late, and saw what he saw,” Smigel recalled. Nothing happened for months, until word broke that it was being cut from the rerun. “I wasn’t especially surprised 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.”
Smigel ended by pointing out the sketch made it to the “TV Funhouse” best-of DVD, “so it’s only been Kinda Banned since 2006.”
You can watch the sketch in the embedded Instagram post above.