In today’s viral video-happy, talk-show world, they just don’t make ’em unscripted like they used to. There’s no Bette Midler serenading Johnny Carson, no Drew Barrymore flashing David Letterman, no John and Yoko babbling to Mike Douglas about free love. And, 20 years after she dropped 14 F-bombs in the span of one episode, even Madonna’s talk-show behavior is a shell of its former wildness.
On March 31, 1994, Madonna made history — again. Her appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” in which she wore a floor-length black frock with combat boots and smoked a cigar with aplomb, became the most censored episode in American talk-show history. It also provided the host his highest ratings since his August 1993 premiere week. Many were outraged, and they were certain to let the FCC know as much.
Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker eviscerated Madonna’s behavior in an essay the following month, calling the appearance a moment “that will live in infamy for, oh, at least another 15 minutes.” He somewhat missed the mark there. The interview remains one of the most famous in late-night history, and no retrospective of Madonna’s career is complete without it. What he was right about was that Madonna strangely had no new material to hock while ticking off one expletive after the next. The interview revolved mostly around vague references to her recent sexual antics. (By March 1994, “Justify My Love” had been banned on MTV, she’d released “Sex” and her album “Erotica” spawned the controversial Girlie Show Tour, in which she dressed as a dominatrix surrounded by topless dancers.)
“The ‘Letterman’ appearance was another such stunt, a way to keep her name in the papers in lieu of actually producing some sort of creative work,” Tucker wrote.
What Tucker couldn’t have known was what Madonna revealed in a 1996 SPIN magazine interview with Bob Guccione Jr. The singer said the “Late Show” producers even encouraged her F-bomb rampage, telling her it would be “really funny” to rattle off expletives amid constant bleeps. “Well, I came out and started doing it, and David freaked out,” she revealed. “The way he introduced me was derogatory, so my whole thing was, okay, if that’s how you want to play it, you cannot beat me at this game.”
Madonna also said in the SPIN interview that the gesture was an attempt to excoriate the state of television censorship, which allows increasingly graphic violence but won’t permit strong language. “It’s such hypocrisy. The fact that everyone counted how many f–ks I said — how small-minded is that?”
Tucker may be right that Madonna capitalized on a phony publicity moment to continue the loop of controversy she’d established several years prior. There isn’t much substance to the interview, and that’s where she went wrong. But what trumps such criticism is the fact that this interview would never happen in 2014, no matter how much more explicit broadcast television has become. Kanye West’s October 2013 “Jimmy Kimmel Live” interview — you know, the one where he called himself a “creative genius” — was one of the most talked-about late-night moments in recent years, but now it seems like an afterthought. Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre 2009 Letterman appearance, in which he donned sunglasses and an unruly beard and spoke in meaningless non-answers, turned out to be quote-unquote performance art in connection with his movie “I’m Still Here.” It’s memorable and Phoenix was smart to pimp his project with such an approach, but the moment isn’t organic at all — it’s an entirely different sort of stunt: a scripted one.
Madonna’s 1994 moment was a bastion of talk-show greatness. It came just after the days of Carson’s pop-culture sovereignty, when late-night TV was still the stuff of water coolers. Even if Madonna discussed her F-bomb prattle with the “Late Show” producers, it was still her at her most unabashed. She didn’t waste time touting her own clout or pegging her antics to an eccentric passion project.
Today’s stars have to mask their controversial appearances with ulterior motives, as with West, who was responding to a tongue-in-cheek “Kimmel” parody of an interview he’d given. Madonna’s appearance was celebrity controversy at its purest. Jennifer Lawrence can charm us all she wants with her word vomit, but no one moment of her media salvo — save tripping on the Oscar stage — can claim the sort of infamy that this Madonna interview carries. It’s a relic from the age of talk-show dominance, and, silliness aside, a crowning moment for Madonna’s lingering media image, when her every move was ripe for examination. Twenty years later, it’s still a moment in popular culture that’s worth remembering.
To cap it off, here’s every F-bomb uttered during the appearance:
From the first part:
1:54 “Incidentally, you are a sick f–k.”
8:52 “You are always f–king with me on the show.”
8:58 “You are always f–king with me on the show.”
9:02 “You are always f–king with me on the show.”
11:09 “Don’t f–k with me, Dave.”
11:22 “Somebody f–ked up.”
11:58 “Is it because I’ve been saying f–k too much?”
12:32 “Wait a minute. People don’t want to hear the word f–k?”
From the second part:
1:41 “F–k it, now we’re going to have to deal with each other.”
1:48 “Why can’t we just talk to each other? Why do we have to have all this contrived bulls–t? You know, f–k the tape. F–k the list, everything. You know what I’m saying?”
5:50 “Don’t f–k with me, Dave.”
7:36 “When you come back, I’ll still be here. F–k it!”