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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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