Paul Scheer Tells Us About His Fight With Network Censors Over Ghost Sex [UPROXX]
Between filming a comedy special aboard a Hollywood tour bus, lending his voice to HBO’s Animals, and producing and writing for Party Over Here withThe Lonely Island, Paul Scheer is a busy man. The 40-year-old comedian doesn’t mind keeping such a schedule — in fact, most comics don’t. However, what Scheer does mind is having to use up so much of his time fighting for the smallest jokes and the biggest sketches with standards and practices — the department housed at every major television network that oversees what is and isn’t allowed to air. In other words, the censors.
Fox’s department has been giving Scheer and his Party Over Here colleagues trouble since the sketch comedy series premiered on March 12. To explain the situation, he reached out to Uproxx to discuss the uphill battle he, the show’s three stars, and even top-tier Fox executives have been fighting to keep broadcasting. He even provided approved and banned versions of the same skit, “Ghost Trappers,” as an example of “how the sausage is made.”
I have to be honest — until I watched this clip, I hadn’t had a chance to watch Party Over Here. I’d heard of it, but I just haven’t watched a full episode yet.
Look, we’ve made this show simply knowing that sketch comedy isn’t tune-in TV worthy. People will tune in to watch American Crime Story or something like that, but I feel like sketch comedy is best watched at a computer, shared via Facebook and Twitter, and all that stuff. So, what we tried to do with the show was make it to be watched that way. Make it available. I want people to watch the show, of course, but we’re also making sure that every part of the show is available online. To Fox’s credit, they’re on board with that. I don’t know if I tuned in every week to watch Key & Peele, but I saw so much of their stuff online. I’d get into a whole, watch six sketches, go back to my day and do the same thing a week or two later. That’s the best way to watch sketch.
Rob Corddry said something similar about TV in general, but you’re talking about sketch specifically. Is it just because we’re watching so much online, or is there another reason we’re not tuning in for sketch comedy?
Everything is evolving constantly. You used to use a VCR to tape things, then there was Tivo and YouTube and all these other things. I think media is adapting, and to a certain extent these things are best served as a distraction. But in a good way. So, in the middle of the day, I decide to watch Inside Amy Schumer, Party Over Here or whatever while I’m eating lunch. I don’t have the time to sit down and watch an entire Walking Dead episode during my lunch break, but if I just want to zone out for a few minutes, sketch is a nice distraction. I like this kind of delivery system, and shows I grew up on — Mr. Show and The Ben Stiller Show — would have flourished with it, as well. Watch these things any which way you want, but tuning in at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night shouldn’t be the only way. Most people aren’t home for that.
Might this be part of the reason why you’re having so much trouble with standards and practices? That you’re crafting Party Over Here like an online show, with streaming’s fewer rules, but for broadcast?
Here’s the thing. I’ve worked primarily on cable channels like MTV, Adult Swim, and FX, and all of these networks pride themselves on pushing boundaries and being as aggressive as possible. One of the coolest things about working with Fox has been their willingness to do the same. Even the executives are on board. So, we get to make these things… until we hit the wall of standards and practices. It’s very Terry Gilliam-esque. For example, I got a note today saying we couldn’t reference “Two Girls, One Cup.” We literally had one of the characters saying “Two Girls, One Cup,” and we couldn’t even say that. But we weren’t showing anything, so I asked them why and they said, “It will make the audience think of that sexually explicit act.” And I thought, “Wait a minute, we have to monitor what the audience is thinking?”
I assume something similar happened with the “Ghost Trappers” sketch.
Yes. The first note we received said we couldn’t show Nicole Byer having sex on screen. She wasn’t having sex with anything — it was a ghost, and there was nothing on screen. They brought up the fact we had to blur out the ghost’s penis, but there wasn’t an actual ghost penis. It was just air! But they said that was too explicit because the audience would understand what Nicole was doing. It became this battle over whether or not we should treat the ghost as a naked person on screen. Just some naked man with a dick, when it was actually a woman, alone in a room. It finally reached a point at which we got a note saying we couldn’t use the word “come” or anything like it. At the end, Nicole says, “I come, give them what they need — that lovin’ — and then they leave.” They took that as sexual and wouldn’t allow it. But she was literally talking about arriving!
We’re constantly fighting this battle with standards and practices, and whenever you try to ask them for suggestions about what to change and how to change it, they refuse. “We can’t tell you that. We just have to see it.” It’s like a referee who won’t let you see a playbook, and you’re never able to find out who their boss is. It’s essentially a big cabal, and you have no idea what the rules are or where to find them. Sometimes certain things are okay, and sometimes they’re not, though we can never say anything sexually. One time Nicole was on stage pointing out hot audiences members and saying she wanted to “fuck” them all. She wasn’t allowed to say that, but she was allowed to say “I want to bone you” or “I want to hump you.” Why not bleep “fuck?” Because it’d make people think she’s saying “fuck.” But if she’s saying “bone” or “hump,” aren’t we connoting the same idea? They agreed, but still wouldn’t let us use the other word. It’s this weird logic.
Wait a minute, you’re not dragging me into a fight wi…
No, Fox has been on our side. They want to get this on the air. But like I said, we’re fighting this Terry Gilliam-esque system in which you can never talk to the person who’s making decisions. I’m not even sure that person exists. It’s like everything goes into this dark back room where a bunch of people are sitting around talking about the most sexually explicit things and what you can or cannot do or say about them.
I was given a note yesterday. We had a sketch where Jessica McKenna has her top off. She’s raising her arms and wearing a nude bra. She’s wearing a bra, but the illusion is that she’s not. Standards and practices was worried the audience would imagine there’s sideboob and no other safer alternative. Basically we’re holding back the audience’s imagination, which is so crazy to me. I’ve never dealt with anything like that in my life. We’re protecting how an audience imagines things. It’s very Orwellian.
I’m no comedy writer, but aside from the blurred ghost penis, a few quick shots and Nicole’s word choice, I didn’t see too many significant differences between the two versions of “Ghost Trappers.” They had the same spirit (pun intended). So, is this about being truer to the sketch as written?
What you’re seeing in the clean version is literally six to seven hours of phone conversations with standards and practices. We were told straight out we could never air this sketch. We were told not to shoot it, and we were told… we were told every which way. I’m happy you were able to enjoy it for what it is in the cleaner version of it.
As far as the dirty version of the sketch, we’re not trying to make things super dirty. A fourth of the show would fall into this category, but the rest is fine. We’re not having any standards issues. I think it’s always about the voice of the writer, and there are certain times where specific things will make me laugh. In this sketch, Nicole blowing the pixelated ghost penis really makes me laugh. That’s a visual that we’re never going to get on TV, and there’s nothing there but your imagination. That gives me a solid gut laugh. Yes, we’re keeping the spirit of it when we edit it down and it doesn’t really hurt it, but we have to compete in a space where other shows can do more than we can.
Sure, but doesn’t the back-and-forth force you to be more creative? To cut fluff and find ways around things in order to get jokes and sketches on broadcast?
Absolutely! Honestly, the mother of creativity is financial. You don’t have a lot of money to do everything you want to do on these shows, so you’re forced to be more creative. That’s what I’m used to working with. For example, on NTSF:SD:SUV, we wanted to do a Fast and the Furious motorcycle scene. We couldn’t do that, so it became a race with pedicabs. Couldn’t afford that, so it became an 8-bit video game with VR headsets. I honestly believe that was funnier than anything we could’ve done with motorcycles.
What surprised me about this fight with standards and practices is the prudeness about sex and sexuality. If I shot somebody in the head like in 24, that’d be fine. We don’t have violence like that in our show, but whenever we’ve pitched a sketch with violence, there’s never been a problem. But sexuality overtly targeted. Why is sex and showing something sexual so taboo?
Yet the broadcast sketch still involves sex and sexuality.
Yes, we’re able to convey the same thing and it’s not grossly different, but that we’re adhering to what this group of censors thinks is easier for America to digest. And even with what was cut out, the differences aren’t all that much. She’s still fucking ghosts, but it’s okay to say “I had sex with your ghost” instead of “I fucked him.” Does it force me to be more creative? Certainly, but I don’t understand why we’re so caught up in this. We’re not even asking to do anything that extreme.
It’s interesting, because more and more original programming is going to streaming-only platforms that don’t have to follow broadcast standards. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon bring shows to the fore that TV wouldn’t otherwise, sure, but maybe they’re getting away with too much. Like the violence in Daredevil…
Yes, you do need people to give you notes! You need outside eyes. Working in a creative vacuum sometimes has benefits and other times has deficits. One could argue that Louie on FX exists in this bubble in which Louis C.K. gets to do whatever he wants. He gets a certain amount of money, which lets him make his show. People love that show. But sometimes in the wrong hands, it gets too extreme and violent. When I wrote for Deadpool over at Marvel Comics, we ended with the old janitor masturbating Shamu. To their credit, Marvel said they loved the ending and were willing to help us make it happen in a Marvel book. So, we sat with them and we figured out a clever way to make it happen.
I’m not above notes, and everyone’s the same way. You get a note and you’re like, “Fuck them! I’ve got a voice! How dare they!” But a lot of times, notes are helpful. They’re not saying you’re not good. Instead, they come from a place of figuring out why something isn’t working and coming up with other things to try in its place. Oftentimes I’ll look back at old notes and think, “Thank God we got that! It helped us out.” You have to be critical of your own work, and working in a vacuum without people you trust is a bad thing. You need to have the freedom to accomplish what you want, but you also need to be surrounded by people you trust.
You’ve dealt with standards and practices before. What’s so different about this time with Party Over Here?
There’s a great documentary about how movies get rated, This Film is Not Yet Rated. The MPAA isn’t allowed to reveal who makes these decisions, so they tried to figure it out. That, and they tried to understand the reasoning behind rating a movie with 15 people getting shot in the head PG-13, and a film with a sex scene R. So, what I’ve found in working on network TV is, when it comes to sex, everything is off the table. It’s just not a discussion point, and our particular frustration has been that Fox’s standards and practices division is so prude. We’re airing at a late night spot with more flexibility, but we still can’t get away with as much as other network late shows because we’re responsible for what the audience might think or imagine.
New episodes of Party Over Here air Saturdays at 11 p.m. ET on Fox.