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That Amazing “SNL” Dolphin Sketch Is Based On A True Story

That Amazing “SNL” Dolphin Sketch Is Based On A True Story

What: A very, uh, stimulating sketch about dolphin scientists.

Who: Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and host Tiffany Haddish.

Why we care: One of the weirdest sketches on last weekend’s SNL–although not quite as weird as the one with the Last Black Unicorn–is actually not as farfetched as viewers might think. In “The Dolphin Who Learned to Speak,” McKinnon and Bryant play scientists from the fictional Mammal Cognition Lab who are determined to communicate with a dolphin. Once the dolphin the pair is studying reaches sexual maturity, they begin to manually masturbate him, a clinical measure designed to defuse a distraction. Of course, the dolphin ends up enjoying this treatment way too much.

Although the SNL writers add their own embellishments, the premise of this sketch comes from scientific fact. In the 1960s, volunteer naturalist Margaret Howe began living with a bottlenose dolphin in a study for NASA. Eventually, Peter the dolphin’s natural horniness moved Howe to manually masturbate him in order to get rid of an impediment to their work together.

“I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough,” Howe told The Guardian. “It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch–just get rid of it; scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. It wasn’t private. People could observe it.”

Eventually, the most seedy interpretation of Howe’s work with the dolphin overshadowed the experiment altogether. It has since become the stuff of legend, inspiring a memorable episode of the podcast Radiolab, among other documents. Perhaps the SNL sketch will drive a whole new audience to learn about this fascinating chapter of American scientific history.JB