If there’s something to be learned from the enduring popularity of shows such as Rick & Morty and South Park, it’s that there’s a large and loyal audience for programs that push the envelope. Inevitably it’s a tempting prospect for many shows to try, but it’s a tricky prospect. There’s the risk of riling up censors, alienating the audience, or making the characters unlikeable. Pushing the envelope wouldn’t be so rare if there weren’t consequences, after all. Consequences that these programs took the full brunt of, sometimes for decades at a time. Not that all of them are necessarily crass, violent, or racy. As you’ll see, the line can be crossed in the most unpredictable of ways.
10. The X-Files / “Home”
On October 11, 1996, federal agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully switched from investigating astronauts that had been potentially possessed by extraterrestrial spirits and insects placing people in cocoons, to taking on a case with more realistic and thus more horrifying aspects. After the body of an infant with severe birth defects is discovered on a baseball field, the agents investigate the booby-trapped home of the Peacock family on the suspicion that there’s a kidnapped woman that is being used for breeding purposes. There not only is, but her limbs have been amputated. Also, almost all the members of the Peacock family are themselves the result of inbreeding. Makes the notion of alien abductions seem like a pleasant fairy tale by comparison, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider it was loosely inspired by a pair of true stories, one in Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography and another a 1992 familial murder. Not to mention scenes like an amputated pig’s head at the foot of some stairs that was taken from an experience the father of one of the writers recounted.
Although the episode was run with a content warning, it still shocked enough audience members into complaining to the network that it was banned from reruns for three years. When it finally came back to the air in 1999, somewhat salacious ads were put out about how controversial the episode was. When the writers pitched the idea of writing a sequel to “Home” they were specifically told by Fox that those characters would never be on television again.
9. The Boondocks / “The Hunger Strike” and “The Uncle Ruckus”
Aaron McGruder’s Adult Swim series, which premiered in 2005, was both irreverent and socially conscious enough that it featured an episode where Martin Luther King Jr. himself yelled racial slurs at an audience of black people to get their attention after they’d become so obsessed with the trappings of hip hop culture that they’d lost sight of their political situation. Of its 51 episodes, the two that were banned from the airwaves arrived in that unhappy state not because they angered general audiences, but for getting under the skin of a rival network. Of all networks, it was Black Entertainment Television.
In “The Hunger Strike,” the show’s protagonist Huey Freeman goes on the titular hunger strike until BET is off the air. In “The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show,” the anti-black African-American character is given a show on BET where he spouts off slurs and stereotypes. In the show, BET becomes Black Evil Television and the real manager of BET Debra Lee was caricatured as Debra Leevil, and naturally characterized as being like the character Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers series. Quite silly, but enough that BET threatened legal action against The Boondocks’ owners Cartoon Network and Sony Pictures Television and the two episodes were banned from the air, only seeing the light of day in a DVD release in 2008.
8. Sesame Street / Episode 847
Now who would have thought that this utterly wholesome public television program would ever step out of line, even knowing some of the weird films Jim Henson made before the show began? Well, back in 1976, one episode managed it with its special guest star. It was none other than Margaret Hamilton: school teacher, ’70s TV coffee saleswoman, and Wicked Witch of the West herself, pre-Wicked.
It’s not that Hamilton as the Wicked Witch did anything particularly edgy even by the standards of a ’70s kids show villain. She spends most of the episode trying to recover her broom after flying over Sesame Street. About the meanest thing she does is threaten to turn Big Bird into a feather duster. Yet parents sent numerous complaints to the network, and continued complaining when test screenings for children were held at the studio. The main piece of information derived from the children themselves was that her green-painted face was particularly captivating. Nonetheless, the network pulled the episode from circulation. It must have been flattering for Margaret Hamilton to know that 38 years after starring in the role for The Wizard of Oz, she still had it.
7. Dexter’s Laboratory / “Rude Removal”
While some episodes of children’s television crossed the line honestly, others seemed to be asking for it. This segment from the second season of Genndy Tarkovsky’s Cartoon Network series is definitely one of the latter, particularly for something from 1997. The episode can’t wait to get to the content meant to provoke the censors, so it does that before the story even starts. DeeDee, the sister of the child protagonist on the show, is extending her middle finger at the viewer in the title card. Or at least, it would be her middle finger if she had five fingers instead of the standard cartoony four.
The premise of the episode is that Dexter has developed a machine that removes rudeness from people, which he intends to use to stop DeeDee from pestering him. Through a comical mishap, both of them end up in the machine, but the machine has the unforeseen effect of creating clones. While the original Dexter and DeeDee speak in overly polite tones, the clones are using profanity from their first sentence and pretty much never stop. The fact all the swearing was censored didn’t seem to help since context clues made it pretty clear what was being said, and the segment wasn’t officially released to the public until Adult Swim aired it in 2013.
6. Monty Python’s Wee Wee Sketch
The landmark sketch comedy program Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which premiered in 1969, was famous for the BBC allowing it to push envelopes and mess around with the format. But in 1972, it was felt it crossed a bit of a line when there was a sketch mocking wine connoisseurs. Michael Palin played a character who would take a drink at a restaurant, wax pretentious about the quality of the beverage, try to guess to the waiter what type of wine he’d drunk, only to be informed by the waiter that he’d just drunk urine again.
It’s understandable that one of the network executives (the Pythons remembered it as being Bill Cotton) would make the call to cut it. What was a bit more surprising was that one of the comedians, John Cleese, came down hard against what he felt was a sketch whose comic potential didn’t overcome its “tackiness.” He even claimed that he was fine to be considered a “fuddy duddy” for insisting it be cut, too. Probably wasn’t a coincidence that he had left the show before the next and final season was shot.
5. The Simpsons / “Looking for Mr. Goodbart”
Over its nearly three decades (to date) on the air, The Simpsons has angered many countries or cities that had episodes devoted to them. For example, in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, several episodes that featured meltdowns comedically were banned in European countries. A comedic song about how bad New Orleans is in the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” led to a lot of angry letters from the city until Fox apologized. Still, it’s very unlikely any of the writers anticipated the reaction in Russia to this episode that aired in April 2017.
During the episode, Homer Simpson becomes addicted to Pokemon Go (or Peekimon Get as it’s called in the show). True to his oafish form, in one brief scene he goes so far as playing the game in church. As it happened, in September 2016 a vlogger in Russia named Ruslan Sokolovsky had done the same thing in a cathedral in Yekaterinburg. Unlike Homer, Sokolovsky was arrested and faced 42 months in prison. When the episode aired on the Russian network 2×2, it was seen by a number of Russian Orthodox clerics who complained, most notably archpriest Andrei Nokilov. After being labelled “Hollywood propaganda” the unintentionally topical episode was banned from Russian television, 2×2 not wanting to risk losing its license like it had previously in 2008.
4. Maya the Bee / “King Willi”
This 2012 3D CG cartoon from the Belgian animation company Studio 100 is not the sort of kid’s show that anyone would watch expecting any kind of salacious content. So you can imagine Netflix’s shock when in September 2017 a woman named Chey Robinson posted a screencap of the show which featured a crude drawing of a male genital in the background of the 35th episode, which was by a crass little coincidence titled “King Willi.”
The episode was immediately pulled as quietly as it could be, with neither Netflix nor Studio 100 releasing any sort of comment until eventually it befell the producer to apologize. Frankly, considering how obvious it was in the uncensored episode, it was kind of surprising that no censors noticed it before the episode was listed on Netflix.
3. Ren & Stimpy / “Man’s Best Friend”
On the other hand, this Nickelodeon cartoon that ran from 1991 to 1996 is exactly the sort of edgy kid’s show where everyone was expecting the creators to cross the line sooner or later, and repeatedly. The 1992 episode “Man’s Best Friend” was pinpointed as the episode that led to creator John Kricfalusi being removed from the show.
Featuring a new character named George Liquor, who was created to shake up the show, the episode included an unusually violent scene where Stimpy beats Liquor literally bloody in a style that was supposedly evocative of the more graphic boxing scenes in the 1980 film Raging Bull. There actually was another episode with George Liquor that was shelved for offensiveness at the time, but that particular scene was the straw that broke the cartoon’s back.
2. Family Guy / “Partial Terms of Endearment”
In 2009, the revived animated phenomenon Family Guy had a script submitted by Danny Smith which centered around female lead Lois Griffin considering getting an abortion. Even with all the rape humor and graphic violence that had been permitted up to that point, for years the only public exhibition of the story was when Seth McFarlane had a script reading for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Considering that McFarlane admitted that the show would probably never make it to air, Smith went much further than even the standard episode, although he said that there was nothing unusual in the writer’s room. Fox produced the episode anyway and when they refused to air it, entertainment president Kevin Reilly said it was merely for business reasons instead of any moral objection. This claim seems to have been born out by the episode being released as a standalone on DVD a year later.
1. Cry Baby Lane
In 2000, Nickelodeon aired their first made-for-TV horror movie. The rather bizarre story centered around a tale that a farmer had conjoined twins, one good and one evil. Years after the twins die and are buried separately, some children attempt to reanimate the good twin, but bring back the evil twin and by some means endow him with the ability to possess people. Starring Frank Langella with a cameo by Jim Gaffigan, the story was shelved by Nickelodeon for 10 years for being too scary, being deemed too much even for a home video release. A notable scene that no doubt contributed to this decision involved the underage main character running around in his underwear for more than five minutes.
The movie’s shelved status inevitably led to rumors that it contained content far too disturbing for audiences in general instead of merely being too extreme for a channel aimed at children. There’s even a popular piece of fanfiction for the movie that claims that the director included rape scenes and unsimulated violence in the movie (it’s a story that’s so comically bad that it makes a point of how the pupils of a character were “completely black”… you know, like everyone’s pupils). These ludicrous claims were pretty well put to rest when the movie was finally rerun in 2011 and released to home video.
Dustin Koski also wrote an exciting and hilarious fantasy novel.