The Daily Need

Muffingate, or the making of a PBS-style euphemism

There’s no question that Peter Sagal is a perfect addition to the Need to Know family; he’s funny, insightful and game to take on the tricky role of show closer. If you haven’t caught it yet, check out his first “advice column.” But this three-minute essay came with a problem we hadn’t run into before at Need to Know: How do we say a dirty word without saying a dirty word?

Peter calls Rahm Emanuel a “monkey fighter,” a euphemism we concocted for another, more explicit dig that uses an “M-F” construction. We like it because it’s hard to mistake what he really means, and it just sounds funny. But initially, Peter’s copy was a little less … abstract. In its first iteration, the word in question was: “mother lover.” And although we loved Peter’s script, our PBS spidey sense went off. After much brow furrowing and head scratching, we decided that “mother lover” was just too close to the term it attempted to sub for. We don’t have any problem with people loving their mothers, but we felt that “mother lover” was evoking something a little too explicit for our air.

At first, the solution seemed obvious: just substitute the term with something a little softer that would still convey the core conceit. But this was a deceptively difficult task. We couldn’t just make it “doody head” or “poo brain” because those terms don’t characterize the person in question as particularly tough, which the classic “MF” certainly does.

Enter our fearless leader, executive producer Shelley Lewis.

Peter filmed the segment in our midtown offices a couple of weeks ago when he was in New York for a taping of “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” at Carnegie Hall. That morning, Shelley took him out to breakfast and they batted around ideas for a substitute term. Perhaps inspired by the diner fare, they came back with the hilarious “muffin lover.” We all agreed that it sounded similar enough to the R-rated term, but was silly enough to be funny on its own. So we recorded it that way. Here’s a screen grab of Peter saying “muffin lover,” in this never broadcast version:

The segment got edited, and everyone was happy with it until Thursday night at the 11th hour when another of our producers gently raised a new issue. She pointed out that “muffin” is a common bit of slang for the female reproductive organ, and we all dropped our baked goods in response.

Although half of us had never heard that particular usage of muffin, and the other half thought that, in context, it couldn’t be construed that way, we couldn’t ignore the growing chorus of giggling around the office. It now seemed that an audience could reasonably assume we were implying that Rahm Emanuel had a strong appetite for, um, baked goods.

Because Peter had returned to Chicago days before, we tried to save the segment with a bit of post-production: I simply bleeped out every instance of him saying “muffin lover.”  The new conceit was that Peter wasn’t trying to euphemize at all – he was just getting bleeped because you can’t say “MF” on PBS. But it just didn’t work as well. The tone had shifted. And Peter, to his credit, thought we’d do better to just start over. The segment was pulled.

What you saw on Friday’s broadcast was an entirely new recording, in which “monkey fighter” subbed for “muffin lover” which subbed for “mother lover” which subbed for you-know-what. Naturally, Shelley baked muffins for the staff’s morning meeting.

So what do you think? Were we too worried here? Would viewers like you have taken offense to any of the other iterations? Can you beat “monkey fighter?”

Also, Peter will be back this week, with some election-week-themed advice for someone special. Tune in Friday.

Editor’s note: The category for this post, “The sausage” (as in “how the sausage is made”), refers to a new section we’ve created for The Daily Need, wherein we can offer up some insight into things (hopefully not all of them embarrassing) that go on here at Need to Know.

 
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Comments

  • Dagwan

    “Sausage?” Really? Don’t you know what that refers to? How could you possible cock that one up?

    Talk about out of the frying pan and into the penis euphemism.

  • lovenpr

    I’m pretty positive that anyone that watches this show would be fine with it…in fact marvel at the nuance. Let’s face it, half the country doesn’t even know who Rahm Emanuel is, let alone what his personality is like. Peter Sagal is loved and appreciated by many…but we are a certain kind of people. The kind of people that appreciate “behind the scenes” stories like this, to begin with.

  • Vicky Whysong

    I’m pretty positive that anyone that watches this show would be fine with it…in fact marvel at the nuance. Let’s face it, half the country doesn’t even know who Rahm Emanuel is, let alone what his personality is like. Peter Sagal is loved and appreciated by many…but we are a certain kind of people. The kind of people that appreciate “behind the scenes” stories like this, to begin with.

  • lovenpr

    I’m pretty positive that anyone that watches this show would be fine with it…in fact marvel at the nuance. Let’s face it, half the country doesn’t even know who Rahm Emanuel is, let alone what his personality is like. Peter Sagal is loved and appreciated by many…but we are a certain kind of people. The kind of people that appreciate “behind the scenes” stories like this, to begin with.

  • Ade

    I’ve lately been partial to “monster trucker”.

  • Anonymous

    Id like to point out that”The sausage” (the category this is in) is a euphemism for male genitalia. And sorry folks, Im not bringing you any bratwurst for your meetings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susanna.tyagi Susanna Golden Tyagi

    Grow up people. Just grow up!

  • 1kbillys

    … in the expergated tv version of ‘snakes on a plane’ samuel l jackson famously yells ‘… monkey- fighting snakes on this monday friday plane !’

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=711763191 Rashid Kenyatte Sykes

    Look you ‘mubber fubbers’ stop ‘fubbin’ around and get on with it all ‘fubbin’ ready. what’s a ‘mubber fubber’ gotta do in this world just to say a couple of ‘fubbin’ words to get the right ‘fubbin’ point across? start substituting ‘fubbin’ words? that’s some ‘mubber fubbin bubble script’ if you ‘fubbin’ ask me. potty mouthes. hahahahahahaha!

  • The Muffin Man

    For Gill’s sake, we need a special report about the making of this special report. There was so much crank yankin’ and snausage wranglin’ in this article to make me laugh so hard I nearly Q’ed my pants laughing. These kinds of back-and-forths about words and context is a bunch of blue ship, but it would make for funny farkin television.

  • Gil

    There are really only two options. Either hire people who choose to express themselves without using a particular subset of the English language, or accept that subset as being valid.

    Trying to find a happy medium merely steals credibility in both directions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Claudia-Weber-Wagner/1414118726 Claudia Weber Wagner

    The show was entertaining. The background article was entertaining. the comments are entertaining. Go PBS!

  • Anonymous

    two “TV” versions of the phrase I really like: melon farmer and mister falcon.

  • Anon

    It doesn’t bother me when people swear, but I see how others take exception to it. Try “melon farmer” instead. (Yes, I am a big fan of “Pineapple Express.”)

  • Michael

    somehow I think the term “monkey fighter” might be worse than any other choice you could have gone with. “Minkey fighter” has a connotation to it that some could hear as a racist remark. There should have been nothing wrong with “mother lover.” I think it was foolish on the producers’ part to change that.

  • Outercow

    Words are just words are just words. Though I care more about journalists actually using the words torture and gerrymandering than “curse” words.

  • Jduche

    How funny that the folks at PBS never saw the spoof of sister service NPR on SNL a while back: http://www.hulu.com/watch/147961/saturday-night-live-npr

    Betty White sure knows her muffins.

  • http://leenoox.livejournal.com/ Baylink

    Nicely done. And anyone who’s looking to assume that “monkey” automatically means “black person” *is* the racist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=523066512 Michael Foley

    “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the baddest muffin lover in the valley.” meh, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, cause I am the baddest monkey fighter in the valley”, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. Is there such a thing as hypocrisy cubed? In this new section about “how the sausage is made” behind the scenes there at PBS (1) with a popular NPR personality known to push the boundaries (squared) in a editorial about NOT being fake (cubed) you did this, twice, for the NEWS. Ok maybe it was only squared on the air, or maybe you can lose one degree by claiming it was ironic. Treating your audience like children, when even children use the real term. All you should have done is bleeped it, don’t be a muffin, don’t even put the term in your scripted segments, but News is News, “quotes” are “QUOTES”, stop dumbing down society for the extremes.

  • djunia

    But “mother lover” is the euphemism Dylan used in “Alice’s Restaurant.” If it was good enough for the 70s…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000298986510 Timothy Urban

    In the edited for television version of Snakes On A Plane, Samuel L Jackson’s infamous line was replaced with “I’m sick of these monkey fighting snakes on this Monday through Friday plane!” Apparently he couldn’t get a weekend flight….

  • BB

    If it never aired, isn’t the point moot? Why are you bringing this up now? It seems rather salacious for PBS. As well, I find the whole discussion of “muffins” to be awkward. Like, what? If half your team knew the reference … why didn’t they say anything? And, for those that didn’t, well, you should. You should be more informed to pop culture. Rolling my eyes. You didn’t air it … but by publishing this little write-up you may as well have. You’ve made yourselves and public broadcast as a whole look foolish. Mr. Sagal could easily have lost his job for this slip up?

  • Nycfrogman

    “Muffin” has nothing to do with “pop culture”. It’s been around for over 70 years, in form of “muff divers”.

  • Dan in Orlando

    Just one more reason why I thoroughly enjoy PBS/NPR programming… keep up the great work!

  • Nunya

    “Monkey Fighter” makes me think of “spanking the monkey.” When I saw “Can you beat “monkey fighter?” I thought I might choke. Hilarious!

  • mellifluous

    I simultaneously deplore, on one hand, the increasing refelexive coarseness in American culture and on the other, seemingly requisite political correctness and squealing sanctimony seemingly devoid of any human feeling or common sense. I am cognizant of two old saws: that profanity is the vocabulary crutch of inarticulate muffin-lovers (There! I said it!) and Lenny Bruce died for your sins.

    When watching the original piece, I thought the euphemism “monkey fighter” was kind of inspired — in that I thought it confirmed something of the character described in everything I’ve read about Mr. Emanuel — and funny. It seemed to me to be as much a bit about how sometimes nothing conveys the sense of the meaning as well as the correct piece of profanity (see Mark Twain’s comment about the difference between the right word and the almost right word being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug) as it was about a former presidential chief of staff running for mayor of Chicago. The piece (as I recall) reflected on the tendency of Chicagoans to be more plain-spoken than a homogenized, deracinated America at large, and the challenges of approximating plain speech for a national broadcast audience on an outlet that is partially funded from public sources. I enjoyed the piece, and I appreciated this look behind the scenes, so thank you for both, phallic title notwithstanding. Please continue in this vein for the viewers who get it, not the sourpusses (take that one at face value) who don’t.

    Incidentally, regarding Rahm Emanuel: I lived in San Francisco when we replaced Frank Jordan, a seemingly hapless former police chief, as mayor with Willie Brown, who had for many years been Speaker of the California Assembly and a legendarily sharp operator. I think the feeling among the electorate was that the guy may be a crook, but he’s *our* crook and would presumably subsume personal ambition and employ his diabolical powers of persuasion in service of the public weal. I reckon the experience of San Francisco indicates that narcissistic, chauvinistic and amoral infighters tend to act as devious and secretive, perhaps even sociopathic executives. I hate being always put in the position of voting against Republicans: couldn’t we have a binding ‘None of the above’ option in elections? That way, we could “throw bums out” without settling for the lesser of two evils.

  • mellifluous

    Speaking of almost right words, I meant ‘sublimate’ in that last paragraph, not ‘subsume’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustygrooves Ricefield Slick

    “Marble Farter”