Keyboardist Paul Shaffer has a dubious place in Saturday Night Live history, having been the first person to say “fuck” live on the air.

The musician joined SNL’s house band in 1975 and balanced his involvement in the show while also working on various music projects. It was 1980 when he accidentally cursed on air, and he recalled the experience during a recent appearance on the Kenny Aronoff Sessions podcast.

“It was an absolute mistake because it was a little improv,” Shaffer explained, adding that he was “not proud” of his profanity.

Shaffer occasionally appeared in sketches, and in this case he was acting alongside Bill Murray and John Belushi (making a guest appearance) in a skit based on the English rock band the Troggs. In a bootlegged recording, the group was heard comically arguing over how to record their sophomore album. Saturday Night Live’s writers thought it’d be funny to reimagine the conversation, but “make it a medieval band rehearsing for the king about to do a concert for the king."

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The original Troggs tape had been filled with profanity, so naturally it was rewritten for SNL. For example, Shaffer would saying things like “you had the flogging beat” instead of “you had the fucking beat.” At least, that was the plan.

How Did Paul Shaffer Slip Up?

“I was getting big laughs and [Al] Franken in the middle between dress and air said, ‘You're doing so well with those floggings. If you want to add a few more, be my guest,’” Shaffer recalled. “Well, he shouldn't have said that because I got loose. I was saying the flogging this and the flogging that. And then I slipped, and I said, ‘the fucking beat.’”

Shaffer realized his mistake the moment it happened.

“My face went white. I've seen the tape. Just, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?” he confessed. “I thought, my career's over.”

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Shaffer expected to be disciplined – or worse, fired – for his slip up. However, the SNL team was supportive.

“Laraine Newman said... 'Well, you just made broadcasting history,'” the musician noted. “And when Lorne Michaels came over, he said, ‘Well, you just broke down the last barrier.' They knew I didn't do it on purpose.”

Shaffer departed Saturday Night Live at the end of season five. He went on to enjoy a long run as David Letterman’s bandleader and sidekick.

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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin