A self-described “professional square,” he fell in love with the show, and worked with its writers to tweak questionable material. Cast members called him “Dr. No.”
Photo: William G. Clotworthy shortly before his retirement in 1991 from NBC, where his responsibilities included serving as the in-house censor for “Saturday Night Live.”Credit…via Clotworthy Family
William G. Clotworthy, who as the in-house censor for “Saturday Night Live” from 1979 to 1990 decided whether Eddie Murphy could say “bastard,” whether Joe Piscopo could make fart jokes and whether inebriated Romans could vomit on network television, died on Aug. 19 in Salt Lake City. He was 95.
His son Robert confirmed his death, at a hospice facility.
Mr. Clotworthy, who described himself as “a professional square,” had never seen an episode of “Saturday Night Live” when he arrived in 1979, coming off a career of nearly 30 years in advertising and looking for a midlife career change.
His predecessors had struggled with the late-night sketch show’s limits-pushing humor and had often rejected entire skits. Mr. Clotworthy was different. A trained actor, he fell in love with the show and its brand of satire, and he worked with its writers to tweak questionable material.
“A writer once asked me what was the first thing I did when I read a script, and I said, ‘I laugh,’” he wrote in his memoir, “Saturday Night Live: Equal Opportunity Offender” (2001). “After I laugh, then I go to work with the scissors and blue pencil, screaming or begging.”
Mr. Clotworthy, by then in his mid-50s, was liked and respected by the show’s anti-authoritarian young cast and writing staff. He chuckled along when they called him “Dr. No” and guffawed when one cast member, Tim Kazurinsky, took to interrupting skits as the prudish censor “Worthington Clotman.”
“He was an ally,” said the former United States senator Al Franken, who as a longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer often clashed with Mr. Clotworthy — but who also considered him a friend. “Sometimes I’d lose, sometimes I’d win, but he was always sophisticated in his understanding of what we were doing.”
Another writer, Kevin Kelton, recalled one of his earliest skits, in which Mr. Murphy, playing his recurring character Mister Robinson — a riff on Mister Rogers — finds a baby outside his apartment door. Like Mister Rogers, Mister Robinson often had a “word of the day” written on a board for his purported juvenile audience. The word for that episode was “bastard.”
Mr. Clotworthy said no, they could not say “bastard” on network TV. But instead of shutting down the skit, he and Mr. Kelton negotiated. Eventually they came up with a compromise: The word would appear on the board, but Mr. Murphy would be pulled away by a visitor before he could say it.
“He had as tough a job as anyone had there, but he was very friendly,” Mr. Kelton said in an interview. “Even though he was the censor, he understood his job wasn’t to impede the show.”
By his own admission, Mr. Clotworthy wasn’t perfect. He regretted killing a sketch in which several fraternity brothers, in the middle of lighting their farts, are interrupted by a parody of Smokey Bear, played by Mr. Piscopo, and he equally regretted giving approval to “Vomitorium,” in which Roman men drink and eat too much and then throw up.
“I wish I had the script so I could recall why the heck we ever let that one in,” he wrote in his memoir.
William Griffith Clotworthy was born on Jan. 13, 1926, in Westfield, N.J. His father, William Rice Clotworthy, worked for AT&T, and his mother, Annabelle (Griffith) Clotworthy, was a homemaker. He traced his family line to 11th-century England and his American roots to Jamestown, the first English settlement in North America.
His first two marriages ended with his wives’ deaths. Along with his son Robert, he is survived by his third wife, Jo Ann Clotworthy; another son, Donald; his daughters, Lynne and Amy Clotworthy; his stepsons, Peter Bailey and Bradford Jenkins; and a grandson.
Mr. Clotworthy entered the Navy after graduating from high school and later attended Yale and Wesleyan before enrolling at Syracuse University, where he studied theater, graduating in 1948.
He headed to New York City intent on an acting career and arrived at the dawn of the television era, something he got to watch firsthand after being hired as an NBC page. The premier program at the time was “Texaco Star Theater,” hosted by Milton Berle, and among Mr. Clotworthy’s tasks was escorting Mr. Berle’s mother up to Studio 8H before every performance.
He left NBC after eight months and, after a brief, unsuccessful stab at acting, took a job with the advertising agency B.B.D.O.
First in New York and later in Los Angeles, he worked as an agency representative. In the early days of television, many shows were owned by corporations, some of them B.B.D.O. clients, and it was Mr. Clotworthy’s task to see that their interests were protected. On “General Electric Theater,” for example, he made sure that there were no gas ranges on kitchen sets.
He became especially close friends with the host of “General Electric Theater,” Ronald Reagan, and was among those encouraging him to move into politics in the 1950s. When Mr. Clotworthy told Reagan he should run for mayor of Los Angeles, he recalled, Reagan replied, “Nah, it’s president or nothin’!”
Mr. Clotworthy returned to New York in 1974, and five years later he went back to NBC, this time as the head of standards and practices for the East Coast.
The job had him overseeing several programs, including soap operas, movies and, later, “Late Night With David Letterman,” where he would visit comics in their dressing rooms and ask them to run through their acts just minutes before going on air.
“He was not a jovial, yuck-a-minute guy,” said Carol Leifer, a former writer for “Saturday Night Live” who often appeared as a stand-up comic on “Letterman.” “I would always be more relaxed when I went on because I knew my routine couldn’t go over as badly as it did with Bill.”
But the bulk of his time was spent on “Saturday Night Live.” He would sit in on the first script read-through, on Wednesday, raising flags and suggesting edits. He would remain in and around the studio up through the broadcast, watching nervously from the control room to make sure no one let slip an obscenity.
That’s just what happened in February 1981, when one of the show’s cast members, Charlie Rocket, uttered a forbidden four-letter word toward the end of a skit.
“The control room went absolutely silent, then, as on swivels, every head turned to look at me,” Mr. Clotworthy wrote in his memoir. “I saw this through my fingers, mind you, as my hands were covering my face, just before I beat my head against the console.”
The word was deleted from the tape before it aired on the West Coast. With the show’s ratings already sinking, Mr. Rocket was let go a month later, along with two other cast members, four writers and the producer.
Mr. Clotworthy retired in 1990, after which he became an amateur historian and wrote several books, including one in which he recounted visiting every site that claimed “George Washington slept here.”
Mr. Clotworthy rarely socialized with the cast or writing staff, and he kept his personal and political opinions to himself, especially when the show poked fun at his old friend President Reagan. It was, he later wrote, all about the delicate balance between enforcement and negotiation, between taking a hard line and letting things slide.
“The hardest part of the job,” he wrote, “is to say ‘No’ and make them like it.”