40 Years Ago: Charles Rocket Fired After Dropping F-Bomb on ‘SNL’
In the right context, cursing on the job can be cathartic. But in the wrong setting, it can stain a career — like in the infamous case of Charles Rocket, who was fired from Saturday Night Live soon after dropping an F-bomb during an episode on Feb. 21, 1981.
This wasn't the dismissal of a frivolous bit player — Rocket had been singled out as a potential breakout star in the 1980-81 season, a polarizing and bizarre period in SNL history.
The show's original executive producer, Lorne Michaels, left the sketch series with the intent of taking a year off — assuming they'd all pick back up upon his return. Instead, NBC promoted associated producer Jean Doumanian to be his replacement, a controversial move that prompted the entire cast to leave.
Doumanian was left with a nearly impossible task: finding a new batch of talent with enough star power to replace the original group. She found some quality names, including Joe Piscopo and the unknown Eddie Murphy. But according to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad's Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, she envisioned Rocket, a former TV anchorman and reporter, as a "combination of Chevy Chase and Bill Murray."
The producer was already a Rocket fan, familiar with a video he submitted to Michaels the previous year. And the show put his charisma to good use: Building on his news background, he hosted a recurring bit called "The Rocket Report," playing an overeager on-the-street journalist. He also took over as anchor of "Weekend Update," another showcase for his warped newsman persona.
Despite the promise of some cast members, the creative crew struggled to find chemistry throughout Season Six. (According to A Backstage History, Rocket felt the writers were trying to intentionally sabotage the show; the authors also write that Rocket "made no effort to disguise his condescension" toward Murphy.) Many of the sketches are now ranked among the worst in the show's history — the aforementioned book saves particular venom for one widely panned bit, "The Leather Weather Report," where Denny Dillon plays a dominatrix weather reporter who relishes inflicting pain upon Rocket's character, who's chained to the map.
But the season's most notorious sketch remains "Commie Hunting Season," a failed attempt at social commentary where angry men with Southern accents gear up to shoot Communists. (Rocket's dialogue even included the N-word, leading to an especially awkward audience silence.)
So it's not like Rocket was coasting through this already-rocky stretch by February 1981, when the F-word episode aired. But it became a tipping point for a season already ravaged by critics and struggling to connect with longtime fans.
The sketch in question was an extended parody of the famous "Who Shot J.R. Ewing?" installment of prime-time soap opera Dallas. In a tag closing out the episode, host (and Dallas star) Charlene Tilton sits next to a wounded, wheelchair-bound Rocket. "Charlie, how are you feeling after you've been shot?" she asks. Rocket, a cigarette loosely dangling from his mouth, replies, "It's the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who the fuck did it." The rest of the cast responds with a blend of childlike giggling and jaw-dropped astonishment, all while a grinning Rocket reclines in his chair.
(Ironically, Rocket may not have been the first person to utter "fuck" on that night's show. Some viewers claim Prince, the musical guest, didn't censor his lyric "Fightin' war is such a fuckin' bore" during a funky rendition of "Partyup." A Backstage History notes that censor Bill Clotworthy, when asked in the control room about the potential curse, replied, "Nah. He said 'friggin'" — apparently an effort to avoid trouble.)
A Backstage History recounts the aftermath of Rocket's show-closing F-bomb, noting that he and Doumanian were forced to apologize to a "long procession of NBC executives" over the next week. They noted, accurately, that this wasn't the first F-bomb cameo on SNL: The previous season, Paul Shaffer accidentally muttered the word during a sketch set in a medieval castle, saying "fuckin'" instead of "floggin'."
By this point, Saturday Night Live was already up in flames — Rocket's ill-fated improv was just one more log on the fire.
"Doumanian got out of control," NBC president Fred Silverman recalled in 2002's Live From New York. "I think the thing that really did it was that there was a kid on the show by the name of Charlie Rocket, and one night he did the unpardonable: He said the fuck-word on live television, and it went out to the whole network. And that was it. I said, 'Who needs this aggravation?' I think we'd made the decision even before then that we had to get rid of her. This woman was a train wreck, and the shows were just not watchable."
NBC dismissed Doumanian and replaced her with Dick Ebersol — who then put the show on a month-long hiatus, firing Rocket along with several other writers and cast members.
It's unfair to say the SNL "fuck" incident "ruined" Rocket's career: He subsequently found regular work in TV and film, including notable roles in Max Headroom, Hocus Pocus and Dumb & Dumber. But it's easy to wonder about the ripple effect of that one expletive. The incident did follow him over the years — often appearing in the first sentence of his obituaries.
On Oct. 7, 2005, Rocket was found dead in a field near his Connecticut home at age 56. His death was later ruled a suicide.