Fourteen F-bombs in 20 minutes: When Madonna gave the most censored interview on American television

Thirty years ago, the singer ended her provocative era in style. On David Letterman’s show, she used obscene language, showed her underwear, insulted the host and refused to get up when the interview was over

Madonna and David Letterman
Madonna and David Letterman at the MTV Awards in 1994, in what was an official reconciliation after the tense interview they had just months earlier.Kevin.Mazur (WireImage)
Guillermo Alonso

Between 1990 and 1993, Madonna went through the most provocative period in her career. Justify My Love, the book SEX, the album Erotica, as well as that forgettable thriller film Body of Evidence occurred over the course of those three years.

The official version is that, right after this series of productions, Madonna calmed down to save her career, becoming more formal. But that’s not entirely true. In fact, the final blow of that insolent era actually took place on March 29, 1994, in an interview with David Letterman. The 20-minute-long conversation would become the most censored segment in the history of American television.

Madonna had just published a ballad titled I’ll Remember, which put her back on the charts. It softened her hypersexualized image, giving her the role of a melodic and friendly singer (this ladylike Madonna would culminate in the 1996 film Evita). But that night — in what was supposed to be part of the promotion of her song, which ended up not even being mentioned — the singer didn’t want to play nice. Rather, she wanted revenge.

As is tradition on late-night talk shows, Letterman began the episode with a monologue. For years, he had been mentioning Madonna and making jokes at her expense. It wasn’t personal: celebrities were a source of inspiration for these spaces, and, in the 1980s and 1990s, Madonna was the most famous woman in the world.

On the night of March 29, 1994, he did it again. He introduced her like this: “Our first guest tonight is one of the biggest stars in the world. In the past 10 years she has sold over 80 million albums, starred in countless films, and slept with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.”

What happened on set

Two interviews will be discussed in this piece. The first is the one that viewers saw in 1994. The second includes the context behind what was said, as well as what the protagonists of the verbal dispute said afterwards.

Let’s begin with the first one. Madonna starts off strong: when she arrives, she hands Letterman some panties. As soon as the interview begins, he encourages Madonna to approach a man sitting in the audience and kiss him. She asks him: “Why are you so obsessed with my sex life?” Ignoring her, Letterman keeps encouraging her to go up to that man and kiss him. She — firm in her refusal — responds: “You are a sick fuck.” This phrase will return at the end of this article, with another meaning…

Madonna on the night of March 29, 1994, when she was on her way to the 'Late Show with David Letterman' to give the most controversial interview of her life.
Madonna on the night of March 29, 1994, when she was on her way to the 'Late Show with David Letterman' to give the most controversial interview of her life.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

That first “fuck” is one of the 14 “fucks” that Madonna uttered during the interview. There were also a few mentions of “shit.” Along with other words, these were on the list considered obscene by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They’re still on the list today. If someone says one of these words — usually unintentionally — there’s a short delay during live broadcasts, which allows for a “bleep” to be placed over the swear word.

Right after that first “fuck,” Madonna went for another one: “I don’t know why you throw so much shit at me.” Letterman reminds her: “You know this show is airing live, right?”

Madonna doesn’t respond. Instead, she asks Letterman to smell the underwear she brought him, before engaging in sexual games that have to do with the length of a microphone and her relationship with Charles Barkley, an NBA player who she once dated. It was rumored that he was having an affair. “You’re a lovely young woman,” Letterman notes at one point.

The give and take continues for a while. She reproaches him, asking why he’s allowed to talk about her sex life in all of his shows, but when she’s actually on the show, suddenly she’s prohibited from talking about it. At times, Letterman proves to be in full reflex form as a comedian. When she points to his hair and asks if he’s put a rug on his head, he points to her hairstyle (dyed black and pulled tightly into a ponytail) and replies, “what is that, a swim cap?”

After a cut to commercials, Madonna reappears on screen, smoking a huge cigar. She accuses Letterman of having changed. “You used to be really kind of, like, cool. Money’s made you soft… you just kiss up to everybody on your show now.” She then calls the host “irritating” (eight years earlier, another successful singer — Cher — had called him “an asshole” to his face). Letterman responds that the feeling is mutual. Madonna repeats several times — always bleeped out — “you’re always fucking with me on your show.”

“This is American television,” Letterman explains dryly. “People don’t want that in their own homes at 11:30 at night.”

“They don’t?” Madonna asks, feigning incredulity, before Letterman asks for a commercial break.

Afterwards, following another exchange of words made with frozen smiles, Madonna refuses to participate in a prepared part of the program because she feels that the script “isn’t funny.” She throws some of the papers on the floor. Letterman subsequently warns that the end of the interview has arrived and they must move on to another segment. But Madonna doesn’t want to leave. She asks Letterman if he’s going to show the audience the pair of panties that she brought with her. “Well, uh, I think almost everybody has seen your underwear,” he replies. The singer then points out: “They saw me out of my underwear. They haven’t seen me in my underwear.”

Finally, Letterman asks her to say goodbye. “I’m happy you came by here tonight and could ... gross us all out!” he jokes. But she refuses to leave and tries to bring up a new topic of conversation: “Did you know that it’s good if you pee in the shower?” Madonna asks. “It’s like an antiseptic.”

The host emphasizes again: “We have to say goodbye, we have other guests.” She uses the forbidden word again: “Don’t fuck with me, Dave.” He keeps trying to finish the interview. “Have you ever smoked endo (a type of marijuana)?” she asks him. Music begins to play that — like at awards shows when someone goes on and on with their speech — aims to convince Madonna that she should leave. “Don’t tell me you’ve never peed in the shower,” she insists. In the audience, they shout: “Get off!”

Letterman tries again: “Thank you again from the bottom of my heart, it was nice of you to stop by tonight.” The audience applauds. But Madonna still doesn’t get up. Instead, she looks at the camera. “When you come back, I’ll still be here. Fuck it!”

After the commercial break, Madonna is gone, but it’s too late for the next guest to appear (the grocery bagging champion of 1994). There’s only time for a live performance of Round Here, a song by the Counting Crows. Letterman signs off with: “I’m sorry. Good night all!”

A rookie’s nightmare

A few days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Madonna’s interview had given David Letterman’s show one of the 10 best ratings in its history. But the general opinion was that Madonna had crossed the line (again). The New York Post reported: “Unfortunately, this is what we expect from Madonna. She’s built a career around blasphemy and obscenity. A pathetic milestone by a woman lacking talent and ingenuity. She has nothing to sell except scandal. Since she cannot fly like eagles, she searches for food like mice.”

One of the show’s producers — Robert Morton — told the Los Angeles Times: “If she’s going to repeat last Thursday’s show, I don’t think we’ll invite her again. But if she wants to come sing a song, I’m willing to listen to it.” One of Morton’s employees on the show was a young man in his 20s, David Kellison, who would go on to produce late-night shows such as Jimmy Kimmel’s. In a biographical piece published in Grantland, Kellison gave details about that interview, which he himself managed. He noted that those who said that everything was planned were right… but at the same time, they were wrong.

That night in 1994 wasn’t the first time that Madonna was interviewed by David Letterman: in 1988, she sat down on the show with her friend, Sandra Bernhard.
That night in 1994 wasn’t the first time that Madonna was interviewed by David Letterman: in 1988, she sat down on the show with her friend, Sandra Bernhard.� (©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Kellison says that Madonna agreed to go on the show with a clear idea: to state three of the worst phrases that Letterman had said about her in his monologues and ask him for explanations about them. But when Kellison went to greet her in the dressing room to explain what the program would be like, she said that the instructions were too long to remember. She also told him something that those who’ve seen the program might already suspect: that before arriving, she had been smoking marijuana.

At the controls, the situation was tense. When the singer refused to leave the interview, Morton yelled at Kellison: “You created this problem! Get rid of her!” The young Kellison entered the set during the commercial break and asked Madonna (who was still in her chair) to greet the audience.

“As she waved, I took her hand, as if I was helping her up — and I did, in fact, lightly pull her up. And over the band, I said loudly, ‘say goodbye…’ Confused, she waved. Still holding her hand, I led her offstage.”

However, Madonna gave a somewhat different version of events in a long interview for Spin in 1996. “Do you regret that interview?” asked journalist Bob Guccione Jr. “I regretted it at the time, but over time, I’m glad [that I did it].” Regarding her repeated use of the forbidden word (“fuck”) she said: “One word, one word, it’s just one word!” And she added: “David Letterman knew I was going to do it. I talked to the producers of the show and everyone agreed that it would be funny if I said ‘fuck’ a few times and got bleeped. Well, when I went out and did it, David started to get nervous. The way they introduced me was offensive, so I thought: ‘if that’s how you want to do it, I know how to do it even better.’”

In his recreation of the events in the Grantland article, Kellison implies otherwise: “If you think Letterman was happy about all the subsequent attention and newspaper coverage the interview brought, you’d have guessed wrong.”

Like many other episodes from the past that are re-examined with today’s sensibilities, Madonna’s interview with Letterman hasn’t only gained interest over the years as an example of spontaneous television. A 2023 article by UNILAD reflects on how various resurfacings of the video of the interview on Twitter have highlighted the specific moment of the program in which Letterman pressures Madonna to kiss a man in the audience. She refuses (several times) but he keeps bothering her: “Someone else would give in to pressure and kiss him.” To which she responds: “I never give in to pressure.” “That’s why we love you, Madonna,” he replies. And that’s when she blurts out her first curse of the night: “Incidentally, you are a sick fuck.”

The interview, when seen today, seems ahead of its time… and, simultaneously, it’s a perfect snapshot of the cultural moment. Madonna was playing at being sassy and rude, but was also asserting herself and teaching some lessons about how to respond to certain crude male behaviors. Letterman was engaging in sexist games and attitudes of the time that wouldn’t be accepted today, but he also proved himself to be quick-witted and funny while trying to manage a difficult guest.

In 20 minutes, Letterman and Madonna anticipated the free-wheeling, corrosive and rapid-pace interviews that triumph today in capsule-form on social media (think of Graham Norton or Amelia Dimoldenberg). If this interview that took place exactly 30 years ago occurred today, it would already be chopped up into dozens of memes. And, on social media, you can say “fuck.”

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