Saturday Night Live has had many controversial moments over more than four decades, but the sketch that unofficially holds the record for most complaints aired on Oct. 15, 1988.

By this point, the writers at SNL were well-versed in pushing the limits of what you could say on television. The n-word and profanity had already made it onto the show, although the latter was an accident rather than a scripted scene. As much as SNL managed to get on the air, many more scandalous sketches remained on the cutting-room floor.

Then NBC reduced the role of its standards and practices department in August 1988, and Saturday Night Live was given more autonomy over its content. Naturally, they sought to test this newfound power as quickly as possible.

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A sketch titled “Nude Beach” had been floating around the Saturday Night Live writers' room for months. The concept was simple: a man visiting a nude beach for the first time is welcomed by a group of regulars who, in casual conversation, comment on each other’s genitalia. The running gag was the word “penis” – then taboo to say on television – which was used in the sketch more than 40 times.

NBC Censors Disagreed About ‘Nude Beach’

A pair of famed SNL writers – Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien – were behind “Nude Beach.” Their goal was to prove that “penis” was not crude but clinical, and thus safe for the airwaves. NBC’s censors disagreed.

“They just said, ‘There’s no way you can do this,’” O’Brien later recalled, “and we were arguing that it’s part of the anatomy. You should be able to say penis.”

Initially, “Nude Beach” was written for the Jan. 30, 1988, episode hosted by Carl Weathers, but censors struck it down. It was revived on Oct. 8 for a show with Tom Hanks, only to be once again cut after rehearsals. Minor tweaks followed, and “Nude Beach” was finally allowed to air on the Oct. 15, 1988, episode hosted by Matthew Broderick.

Former censor William G. Clotworthy explained why he eventually gave “Nude Beach” a green light in his book Saturday Night Live: Equal Opportunity Offender. “We debated hotly within the Broadcast Standard Department,” Clotworthy recalled, “finally deciding to consider the material less than tasteful, perhaps, but not obscene.”

“Nude Beach” featured many of SNL’s biggest stars at the time, as Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, John Lovitz and – in a rare non-Weekend Update segment – Dennis Miller appeared alongside Broderick. From the first “penis” uttered, the studio audience reacted with both shock and delight.

Lines like “Enough small penis talk,” “You could pick a lock with that penis” and “Hey, you’ve really got your dad’s penis” garnered plenty of laughs. By the time the men launched into “The Penis Song,” it seemed clear the audience was comfortable with the gag. People watching at home, however, were less thrilled.

Watch 'The Nude Beach' Sketch

Reaction to 'Nude Beach'

The Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, was shocked and appalled by the sketch’s content. His organization had a history of conservative activism, including boycotting Sears in 1978 for sponsoring the “objectionable” TV shows All in the Family, Charlie's Angels and Three's Company.

“Nude Beach” drew Wildmon’s ire, so he organized a letter-writing campaign among his followers. More than 46,000 complaints were sent to NBC, with the majority stemming from Wildmon's efforts.

Saturday Night Live also took a hit at the corporate level due to the controversial sketch.

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"We lost Toyota. We lost two, three big sponsors," SNL creator Lorne Michaels said in 2022. "Because people would say, whoever has the dealership in Mississippi is calling central headquarters going, 'There's people outside here protesting. Why are you sponsoring that show?'"

Still, “Nude Beach” underscored what Saturday Night Live did best - pushing the boundaries of comedy and taste. Years later, New York Times reporter Bill Carter noted that the skit “put SNL back in the news again for its outrageousness."

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