Did Prince Get Away with Swearing on ‘Saturday Night Live?’
For his debut musical performance on Saturday Night Live on Feb. 21, 1981, Prince may have let the F-bomb slip. But if he did, he managed to elude the consequences.
Though adored by his fans, the 22-year-old Prince was not yet the global icon he would ultimately become. In 1981, he was ready to make his mark on the SNL stage and enter a new, more visible phase of his career. But as he tore through "Partyup," the closing track from 1980's Dirty Mind, his energetic singing seemingly let loose a strictly forbidden word.
At about the 1:16 mark in the video below, Prince appears to sing his original, uncensored lyric, "Fightin' war is such a fuckin' bore." But the word can also be interpreted as "friggin" or "freakin'."
"Did he say 'fuckin'?" SNL writer Neil Levy asked censor Bill Clotworthy as they monitored the performance live from the control room. The pair recalled the incident for the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. "Nah, he said 'friggin'," Clotworthy replied, unwilling to make it a big deal. The show went on.
Watch Prince Play 'Partyup' on Saturday Night Live in February 1981
But later, moments before the closing credits, cast member Charles Rocket quite clearly crossed that exact same line. After a parody sketch of the famous "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas, Rocket, posing as a wounded gun shot victim, was asked by Dallas star and SNL host Charlene Tilton, how he was feeling.
"It's the first time I've ever been shot in my life," he replied. "I'd like to know who the fuck did it."
Unlike Prince, there was no denying the phrase. The surrounding cast members giggled and tried to hide their shock, but as Rocket sat nonchalantly in his prop wheelchair, the curse was clear. He was fired from the show not long after.
And Prince, who frequently used explicit lyrics, ultimately wound up swearing off swearing for good.
“Marsha Ambrosius, Lianne La Havas and Janelle Monae are all my sisters," he said to Essence in 2014, referring to a few of the guests that had made recent appearances on his songs. "We shouldn’t curse at them. We need to treat them, and all people, like royalty. Did you ever hear Muhammed Ali curse? Would you curse in front of your kids or to your mother?”
Whether or not Rocket would curse in such a setting, he indisputably did so in front of a live television audience that night. When someone in the control room asked if Rocket had really said "fuck," Levy tried to diffuse the situation by calling back to Clotworthy's earlier joke: "Nah, he said 'friggin'." But nobody was laughing this time.