February 1, 2004
** Warning: This column contains graphic language **
When Jack Paar, television's late-night talk show pioneer, died last week at 85, every obituary mentioned the time he walked off his NBC show in a huff, angry that the network's censors had cut a joke he'd recorded the day before. The joke turned on a misunderstanding of the letters "WC" -- the initials of "water closet," an Anglicism for toilet. By today's standards, it was an almost completely innocuous story -- a somewhat labored yarn about an English tourist writing to ask whether a Swiss hotel room came with a "WC" and receiving an answer that described the charms of a wayside chapel.
But standards were different in February 1960. Bathroom humor -- even bathroom humor that didn't actually include any vulgar language -- was impermissible in public. Paar himself eventually thought better of his outburst. He returned to the show in March, and said his behavior had been "childish and perhaps emotional."
Those were the days.
Forty-four years later, vulgarity is well on its way to becoming a television mainstay. The crudeness is most intense on cable, where programs like "Sex and the City" and "Queer as Folk" revel in their smutty plotlines and pornographic dialogue. But network TV isn't far behind. (Warning: offensive language ahead.)
In 1987, it was still startling to see a character on NBC's "St. Elsewhere" pull down his pants, moon another character, and bark, "You can kiss my ass, pal." Who is shocked to encounter such stuff during prime time now? By the late 1990s, viewers of "Chicago Hope" were hearing characters deliver such lines as "You couldn't organize a urinating party in a brewery," "Have you ever licked a mole on an Italian woman's ass before?" "I don't watch TV; I masturbate," and, (in)famously, "Shit happens."
It's hard to think of anything that a network censor would automatically blue-pencil today. Even the F-word is no longer off-limits. When U2 won a Golden Globe award last year, millions of NBC viewers heard Bono's exultant reaction: "This is really, really, f---ing brilliant!" Some people objected, but the Federal Communications Commission dismissed their complaints. Bono's language was not "patently offensive," the FCC ruled in October, since he "used the word 'f---ing' as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation."
Got that? The F-word is okay as long as you use it correctly. The way Nicole Richie did: During Fox's live broadcast of the Billboard music awards last month, the co-star of "The Simple Life" uncorked this witticism:
"The simple life? Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It's not so f---ing simple!"
(FCC Chairman Michael Powell has urged the other commissioners to overturn their October ruling. A decision is expected soon.)
This verbal sewage would be bad enough if it were limited to television. Unfortunately, it isn't limited at all.
Go into a card shop these days, and you can peruse a vast array of rude, obscene, or otherwise nasty -- sometimes unbelievably nasty -- messages. No insult is too extreme, no four-letter word too offensive, no bodily function too taboo, to be featured on a greeting card. Or on several.
The potty-mouthing of American culture is on display almost everywhere. Spend $100 on a ticket to "The Producers," Mel Brooks's smash musical, and early in the first act you get to hear the main character bellow: "Who do you have to f--- to get a break in this town?" Drive to work and you can sample the boorishness that too many ad agencies confuse with "edginess." Currently on display around Boston are large ads proclaiming: "Live to be an old fart." Billboards last year for Columbia Sportswear read, "They say hoods are the rage in Paris, but who gives a crap?"
Candidates for public office, however blue their language in private, used to take pains not to be heard uttering obscenities in public. Now some of them take pains to make sure they are heard uttering them. John Kerry to Rolling Stone: "Did I expect George Bush to f--- it up as badly as he did?' Wesley Clark on C-SPAN: "I'll beat the shit out of them." And (in 1999) George W. Bush to Talk magazine: "They think it's like a high school election. . . . They've lost their f---ing minds."
The vulgarity that has become so ubiquitous is both a cause and an effect of the coarsening of American society. We spend vast amounts of money and mental energy protesting air pollution and second-hand smoke, but the culture pollution and second-hand profanity that now occupy our public spaces get, at most, only the occasional rebuke. We tell ourselves that "mere words" can't do any harm -- we don't want to be thought rubes and prudes, after all -- and thus grow ever more hardened to the ever cruder language surrounding us.
The slope that leads from "WC" jokes on late-night TV to the feculence of modern life is a slippery one. It isn't easy to know just when to stop sliding. But somewhere on that slope is the line that separates the decent from the indecent. We passed it long ago.