TV | July 26, 2019 6:00 am

Lorne Michaels on How Humor and Censorship Have Changed Since the ’70s

"There's almost nothing we did in the 70's we could do now"

Lorne Michaels
Times have changed since the early days of SNL
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for NRDC

While few people today would bat an eye at most of the the seven words you couldn’t say on TV back when George Carlin was rattling off obscenities, today’s comedians have their own set of social taboos to navigate, perhaps even more so than their predecessors.

Legendary Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels addressed some of the changes the comedy world has seen in the decades since SNL first premiered in an appearance on the David Rubenstein Show last month.

“There’s almost nothing we did in the ’70s that I could do now,” said Michaels, citing shifting cultural attitudes that now encourage a more thoughtful and socially conscious treatment of topics like race and mental illness, which were once considered prime fodder for what was at the time largely uncontroversial comedy.

“Values change,” said Michaels, listing a number of comedians who once appeared on the show in what would now be considered problematic performances, including John Belushi’s portrayal of a Japanese individual and Garrett Morris’s “News for the Hard of Hearing.”

According to Michaels, this shift in cultural attitudes was a rapid one. “I always say that between the movie Arthur and the movie Arthur 2, alcoholism became a disease,” he said. “No one wanted to laugh at drunks anymore, whereas for 200 years they laughed at drunks.”

Indeed, many SNL skits of yore would probably spark controversy today for entirely different reasons than even the most irreverent comedians of the day had in mind. Ahead of the show’s first episode, Michaels recalled, the biggest issue at hand was George Carlin’s wardrobe. “The biggest controversy in that first show was the network wanted him to wear a suit,” said Michaels. “He didn’t want to. He wanted to wear a tee-shirt.”

The solution? Carlin wore a suit with a tee-shirt. It certainly was a simpler time.

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