Brow Beat

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Pushed Boundaries, But Did Censorship Make It a Better Show?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rachel Bloom in a flowing red dress.
“Period Sex” was the rare song Crazy Ex-Girlfriend couldn’t make safe for the CW.
screenshot from the video

In Season 3 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the law firm’s employees, Tim, sings an entire Les Mis-inspired dramatic musical number about how his wife has been faking her orgasms—and somehow, that’s not the most radical moment in the episode. Just a few minutes before that, Tim and his coworkers are sitting in the office breakroom discussing the orgasm gap when Maya drops a bombshell. “70 to 80 percent of women only achieve orgasm from direct stimulation of the clitoris,” she explains. “It’s the anatomical source of basically all female pleasure.”

It wasn’t the first time clitoris was ever said on network television, but the word and its context were triumphs for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s writers, who went to battle to get it on the air. “I had to have many conversations with legal about why it wasn’t graphic or lewd,” Rachel Bloom recalled on The Late Late Show. Though Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s pilot was originally created for Showtime, it ultimately found a home on the CW, which meant working within the FCC restrictions about “obscene, indecent and profane content” that wouldn’t have applied on cable TV. Those restrictions are somewhat subjective (as Justice Potter Stewart famously said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it”), so networks have Standards and Practices departments to keep their shows compliant. Monitoring Crazy Ex-Girlfriend alone sounds like a full-time job.

With the exception of shows that are actually set in a television studio, like 30 Rock or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the inner workings of the Standards and Practices department are typically kept behind the scenes. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t do neanything the typical way. True to its meta-theatricality, the show’s lawyers have been shouted out in songs like “Don’t Be a Lawyer,” in which a man in a suit comes out to deliver a disclaimer. “The preceding song in no way reflects the views of CBS and the CW network,” he announces, then throws himself out a window. The chorus of “Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal” explains why all the medications listed are generic and offers a glimpse into the songwriting process: “Fluoxetine, fluoxetine/ Paroxetine, paroxetine/ Our lawyers won’t let us say brand names.”

The relationship between showrunners and Standards and Practices can be adversarial, especially for a show as edgy as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosch McKenna have repeatedly spoken of the CW’s Patricia Dennis with affection—so much so that during a Variety panel, You’re the Worst showrunner Stephen Falk asked McKenna disbelievingly, “You call your standards person honey?” Bloom, too, has pointed out that Dennis is “just doing her job,” which is to avoid the network getting slapped with FCC fines.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has gotten away with a lot within those limits and, as with the clitoris scene, has even pushed some of them. This is never more apparent than when it comes to the music; over its four seasons, there have been songs about the perils of having large breasts, urinary tract infections, and overzealous sperm, among other outrageous topics. The writers have occasionally been reined in, as they were in an episode that portrays Rebecca’s yeast infection through a parody of Cats. Bloom noted that “we couldn’t say pussy at all. And then we had to dial back the amount of fishy lines about Rebecca’s vagina.” But the show has often been better off for having to find creative ways to get past the censors.

In some cases, this has meant finding an extra layer of meaning to go from overt sexuality to double entendre. In “The Math of Love Triangles,” the line, “Are you erect?” was only approved if Rebecca nudged a backup dancer about his posture as she sang it, while the “Strip Away My Conscience” lyric had to be changed from “dude, I’m so wet” to the infinitely more clever “let me choke on your cocksureness.” Even eliminating profanity entirely has sometimes improved songs; “sunburn shtetl” in “JAP Battle” is more evocative than its dirtier counterpart, “fucking shtetl.” Same goes for “your rhymes are facile,” which replaced “you’re an asshole” in the broadcast. With the exceptions of “I’m a Good Person” and “I Give Good Parent,” both of which rely on shock value, or “It Was a Shit Show,” which is annoyingly bleeped, the clean versions of the songs are often slyer and smarter.

Sometimes, waiting for the dirty bit that never comes is a subversion on its own. “Period Sex,” which was deemed “too dirty to air” on the CW and only later released online, was even funnier as a running joke than it is as an actual song, with characters repeatedly interrupted every time they tried to sing it. I don’t know what the Showtime version of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would have looked like, but I’m grateful for the raunchy (but not too raunchy) version we did get.