How TV platforms and producers are handling old episodes with blackface and other outdated, insensitive content
On Friday, “The Office” proved how far some older shows will go to wipe their slate clean of racially insensitive material, by re-editing one of its episodes to remove a scene featuring a character in blackface. That came the same week that other sitcoms — including “Community” “Scrubs” and “30 Rock” — all had episodes pulled that included characters in blackface.
Those subtractions come amid a larger push that has forced the producers and distributors of older shows to re-evaluate their content for things that may have seemed fine years ago, but look badly outdated in 2020. The decision to pull or re-edit episodes, or in some cases add a disclaimer, is often a collaborative one. At least, that’s the desirable approach.
Even more desirable would be not waiting for a moment of public backlash to right old wrongs. (The most desirable possibility, of course, would be to not create offensive material in the first place.)
One somewhat regular check-up on old material tends to occur when series get licensed for another life on a new platform. Then, old episodes need to be rechecked for numerous reasons, including music rights, according to one industry insider. At that time, socially problematic issues can arise and the episode(s) in question can be re-edited if need be, and in extreme cases, pulled.
Through corporate processes like these, most of the truly problematic stuff would have been removed (quietly) years ago. “Saturday Night Live,” which has been around since 1975, is a good example of this. The culture has changed so much in the last 45 years that what was acceptable as edgy art in the early days might not be in 2020. But because Lorne Michaels’ show has existed on so many platforms (like the short-lived SeeSo, and soon, Peacock), some “Saturday Night Live” library material that wouldn’t fly in the current climate hasn’t actually been available for many years.
Examples of such previously scrubbed material include Jimmy Fallon doing a Chris Rock impersonation in blackface in 2000, and the Chevy Chase-Richard Pryor job interview sketch from the ’70s, in which Chase uses the n-word and other racial epithets during a word-association round. Those can both be found in ripped form on YouTube, but the skits do not exist within the archives of official “SNL” licensing partnerships.
In 2020, social media sometimes knows of a problem before a platform does. Want to get the attention of a network executive? Make an old show trend for all the wrong reasons. Along with “Scrubs,” late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have been called out for previous instances of wearing blackface. In recent weeks, the list of shows that have either been taken down completely or shed specific episodes includes “W/ Bob and David,” Chris Lilley’s “Summer Heights High,” “Angry Boys,” “We Can Be Heroes” and “Jonah From Tonga,” and British comedies like “Fawlty Towers” and “Little Britain.”
And then there are the self-policing producers. On Monday, Tina Fey and partner Robert Carlock took it upon themselves to reach out to each platform where their sitcom “30 Rock” is available, including Hulu and Amazon Prime, and ask that four episodes be taken down. When “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence was asked on Twitter if he would follow suit, he replied it was already in the works. One day later, those episodes were removed.
“Office” creator Greg Daniels went the extra mile by removing a scene in the hopes that the episode in question could still remain. “We cut a shot of an actor wearing blackface that was used to criticize a specific racist European practice,” Daniels told TheWrap. “Blackface is unacceptable and making the point so graphically is hurtful and wrong. I am sorry for the pain that caused.”
When it comes time to yank entire episodes, the platform distributing the series prefers to let producers make the official request to remove potentially offensive material. In most cases, the platform is (generally) paying for the opportunity to offer the program to subscribers and doesn’t own or control the content. The platform would prefer the tough decision be a collaborative one with open communication between the parties.
With “Community,” it was Netflix who made the call to pull an episode of the former NBC comedy that had a character in blackface, an individual with knowledge of the decision told TheWrap. “Community” producer Sony Pictures TV declined to comment.
There are, of course, some exceptions to including everyone in the decision-making process. When Bill Cosby was accused — and then later convicted — of sexual assault, it was clear that presenting “The Cosby Show” to subscribers was just a bad idea. Hulu, which had the streaming rights, did not completely dump the series, though the service ceased promoting the classic sitcom to users and including it on any watch lists. While Hulu let the rights expire, “The Cosby Show” was still technically available for anyone who specifically searched for it. (Amazon Prime never pulled the series, where it’s still available today).
Then there’s the case of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the long-running sitcom that features blackface in a Season 6 episode. Last week, Netflix, which owns the “Sunny” rights overseas, pulled the episode — but it’s still available on Hulu, which has the streaming rights to the FX comedy stateside.
Both Hulu and FX are owned by Disney, and the parent company has tied to the two brands with the launch of “FX on Hulu.” That gives Hulu and FX even more reason to try to make a mutually agreed-upon decision — if creator and co-star Rob McElhenney doesn’t make it for them. Representatives for McElhenney did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
At press time, the episode was still up on the FX on Hulu site.
Instead of pulling content altogether, some platforms may prefer to put a thoughtful disclaimer on a property, as HBO Max did with “Gone With the Wind.” The streamer pulled the 1939 film, which has long been criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of the Antebellum South, two weeks ago. On Wednesday, the Oscar-winning drama returned with a video disclaimer and two short videos that discuss the historical context of the film.
Disney+ has also featured a disclaimer that read “outdated cultural depictions” on some of its decades-old content. But the call to feature disclaimers to pull insensitive material outright really depends on the level of offense — and outcry.
Jenny Maas contributed to this story.