Credit: Stuart Sevastos

When Saturday Night Live tried to censor System of a Down and failed

Saturday Night Live has been an iconic piece late-night live television since the sketch comedy and variety show first burst on to our screens back in 1975. It’s now a staple of the weekends and a chortling chronicle of pop culture. But it’s a show not without its quirks.

As well as championing some of alternative comedy’s finest young stars over the years, the show has also boasted an eclectic offering of musical artists. It has arguably been one of the most forward-thinking mainstream music shows in US TV history. But when you put alternative artists in front of a mainstream audience, you’re always going to have some issues.

Over the years the show has become synonymous with brokering extraordinary talent but also banning the same kind of acts for their on-screen indiscretions. Whether it’s Rage Against The Machine’s flag mix-up or Cypress Hill smoking a joint on stage, producer Lorne Michaels has never been afraid to ban an artist for crossing a line.

It meant that as time progressed the chances of a truly avant-garde and edgy band like Fear reaching the stage at Studio 8H dwindled. As more and more artists took the opportunity of a gigantic audience to make a statement the acts became safer and safer, or at least more willing to play the game. System of a Down were not here to play anyone’s game but their own.

Johnny Knoxville was the host on the 7th May 2005 and welcomed System of a Down to the studio to take up their coveted musical guest spots. It must have worried the producers form the very beginning, Serj Tankian and the group are not usually the type of people to conform to mainstream values and their hunch was quickly proven right.

The group intended to perform their song ‘B.Y.O.B (Bring Your Own Bombs)’ for the audience in the studio and at home—the song had a message and the group were determined to make sure that message was heard. Written as a protest against the Iraq War, the track hangs on a poignant refrain.

The stringent rules SNL reads out for its guests meant that this song, with its deliberate political message, was already toeing the line of inappropriate. Now the band refused to avoid singing the profound “Where the fuck are you?” in the song. NBC decided to let the band sing the song as they pleased but planned to use the five-second delay the show operates on to censor the language.

To their credit, they managed to accurately bleep out the foul language each of the five times the band sung “Where the fuck are you?”. The production room were likely enjoying a collective sigh of relief as they made it through the song and we like to think it was this thought that crossed guitarist Daron Malakian’s mind when he decided to lean into the microphone, with a glint in his eye, and scream “fuck yeah!”

It has seen the band put permanently on the naughty list and they haven’t, as of yet, ever been invited back. While there is form for Saturday Night Live forgiving and forgetting, we can’t see this reconciliation any time soon.
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