*%&#!

I grew up in a family that swears. When I was four years old, my grandmother (not much of a swearer, herself) asked me not to say “fuck” around my 18-year-old cousin, because he might be offended by it. I suspect that she would likely have been more embarrassed than he would have been offended, but this illustrates my upbringing.

As such, most of the danger of such words had been siphoned off from them by the time I was in elementary school. Without a taboo around it, swearing wasn’t as funny to me as it was to many people. It was a part of everyday family life, so hearing it in comedy routines or movies wasn’t really funny in itself.

George Carlin died last week, and in the wake of all the public mourning, I’ve been thinking a little bit about how taboos about profanity have changed over the course of my lifetime. I remember hearing Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine (first performed and recorded in 1972) when I was a kid and laughing and laughing. The source of the humor for me, though, wasn’t in the forbidden words, and that’s the point of the routine, too. The humor lies in Carlin’s dissection of and rhapsodies on linguistics and philosophy.

Here’s the best available free video of it, which was linked to by many obituaries that didn’t themselves contain any of the words in question. This isn’t the original bit, but a follow-up and extension, from a few years later.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_Nrp7cj_tM&NR=1[/youtube]

Can you imagine a comic getting arrested today for doing a stage routine using these words? That’s what happened to Carlin, though, on July 21, 1972 in Milwaukee. Later, a similar routine from his next record that aired on the radio was part of a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. That’s how volatile those seven words were then. While some of the words are still unacceptable on broadcast television and radio (due to that Supreme Court case), you can hear all of them on YouTube, and many of them you can read in newspapers any day of the week.

I do remember very distinctly the first time I heard one of these words in a movie, and if I remember correctly, there was a great deal of hullabaloo about it at the time.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=SIZzubsOaWE[/youtube]

(Forgive the cheesy bumper from the video provider; it’s the best quality clip to be found on YouTube.)

Did you catch it? Right at the end? “Shiiiiiiiiii(t)!” The “t” is hardly even there. Isn’t it weird how 40 years later movies are so incredibly different when it comes to swearing? (Also, yes, Redford + Newman = dreamy good looks.)

All of five years old when I saw it in the theater, I remember thinking that it was a funny bit, primarily because people may have been offended by the use of an everyday word in an everyday manner. If you were jumping from such a height into a rocky stream, wouldn’t you say “Shit!”?

Just five years after Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, swearing was getting more airtime in the movies and less ink in the papers. So much more was made of the notorious farting scene in Blazing Saddles than of this bit.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=rrzmbSX1pmo[/youtube]

And if you remember this movie at all, you remember that it was perfectly okay for the characters (albeit the “bad guys”) to say the “n” word about a jillion times, but there are only a couple instances of “shit”. No “fucks” of any sort.

These days, we’ve got a Supreme Court Justice who has grinningly flicked his hand under his chin for a reporter’s camera, in the traditional “Sicilian fuck you” at citizens who would criticize his public expressions of his religion and its influence on his decisions. We’ve got a President who called a reporter a “major league asshole” within range of an open mic. We’ve got a Vice President who told a ranking opposition Senator to “fuck himself” on the Senate floor.

And . . . and . . . and we have newspapers, TV shows, blogs and much, much more that will report them all. Surely these weren’t the first instances of public figures using these words and gestures, but now we have a press that is much more liberal with, if not even obsessed by, finding and reporting public instances of “bad words”. Yes, there are some journalistic institutions, such as the Gray Lady herself, that still refuse to print “fuck” and “shit,” but many do. I find it hilarious that in the washingtonpost.com article linked to above, they included “fuck” but not “asshole”. Is that an instance of standards, or delicacy?

Television and radio are rife with the bleeping out of certain words, but in some ways I think this serves simply to highlight the profanity, like putting a patch over a perceived blemish that stands out even more. Nothing is really hidden from the audience at all, but we’re treated like children or easily offended idiots. No listener thinks, “Gee, I wonder what he said?”, because it’s just so clear. I’m more offended by leaving the utterances in and covering them up like this than I’m sure many people would be if they actually heard a guest on Letterman say “asshole”.

Occasionally, some instance will sneak through the ever-watchful eyes of the FCC, but more often we see them happen overseas. Check out, for instance, what Joan Rivers said recently on a British chat show, not knowing that there is no delay employed by the BBC to catch and bleep such words.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=eOpquHD4HJQ[/youtube]

If it were perfectly legal for Rivers to say these words on the air in the US, I’m not sure how inspired she’d be to use them as much as she does. They’d lose their power; people wouldn’t be nearly as interested.

And this is where I start to turn a little bit and think about how censorship (of the self-imposed variety) might be a good thing. Rivers, clearly, simply speaks a few words that she uses all the time (as do I, dear reader). However, if she had just thought for a moment and forced herself to come up with something else — “petulant cretin,” for instance, or “vicious egotist” — perhaps she would have been able to express herself more clearly and precisely without relying on what amounts to a linguistic crutch.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing and wonderful to hear one of the hostesses of this show reply, “What particular variety of piece of fucking shit is he, Joan? Clarify it for us, please.” Of course, had Rivers resisted and used different terms, she wouldn’t have been so highly placed in the news cycle for about 24 hours.

A South Park episode from a few years ago famously had 162 instances of characters’ saying “shit” on the air, with a counter tallying them up in the corner for the viewers at home (and presumably the FCC). Here’s a condensed version.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=WpVDmcQz5Ms[/youtube]

Hearing it so many times over the course of a couple of minutes, one realizes that broken taboos eventually lose their power. As Randy, Stan’s dad says at the end of the show, “That word is getting kind of old. It’s not funny anymore.” To a degree, “shit” has lost its power because it’s so prevalent.

One of my favorite TV moments of the last decade has got to be this sketch from Mad TV, a hypothetical censored version of The Sopranos. The expunged words and actions become all the more funny and powerful for their absence, illustrating how much the original show relies on shock value.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=xp4QVYNAFcQ[/youtube]

I guess I’m just not entirely sure how positive a development the general loosening of restrictions on unacceptable language has been. On the one hand, it’s great that comedians don’t get thrown in jail for swearing (if even for a night; Carlin was released and never formally charged). On the other, it does seem to me that the general overuse of “profanity” has deteriorated many people’s ability to speak and think clearly. Moreover, bleeping words out on TV and radio is the worst kind of disingenuousness, a desire to have it both ways, a hedging of bets: “We get to say the words and capitalize on their power, but you don’t have to hear them and be offended.” Feh. A hearty “Fuck that,” I say.

And in the end, don’t we have much more important things to worry about than one entertainment industry person calling another a “piece of fucking shit”? How does this constitute news?

All that said, I think this is really funny.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=_3mw49mk_x0[/youtube]

15 responses to “*%&#!”

  1. Scotty says:

    I was also saddened by the passing of Harvey Korman.

    But Carlin…

    And speaking of the Sopranos, that conversation you had with your grandmother sounds a lot like one that might’ve occured between Livia (Tony’s mom) and AJ (Anthony Jr.).

  2. Gale says:

    Fucking great post.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    That’s the best post I’ve read in a long time!

    I’ve said many times that as a kid, my grandpa would cuss, and make it sound like poetry. I blame him for my mouth, and have tried to emulate him. But I always find myself wondering if I cuss because I have a small vocabulary…

  4. Jeremy says:

    Scotty, I love how you just compared Wager to AJ. I’ll never be able to think of Tim in the same way now. And I loved the post, AJ/T-Wag (and that last clip–wow, is that funny)… but what’re you doing posting on a Fucking Tuesday?!

  5. Tim says:

    Filling in for a vacationing Parrish.

  6. Jenomnibus says:

    I, too, grew up in a family that cussed freely. My best childhood friend, however, was strictly forbidden to use any swear words, even going so far as having to use a long descriptor in place of the word “balls” when telling her mother where she saw fleas on the dog. Any slip of the tongue and her parents would beat the crap out of her. I learned to bite my tongue at their house (no, they never beat the crap outta me) but always thought this was way too extreme.

    Speaking of “crap”, when did that word become acceptable for use on tv? I always thought of it as one of the more heinous swear words, right up there with “shit” and “fuck”.

  7. Jeremy says:

    my mom used to get really angry if i used the word “dang.” but it was OK for me to say “darn.” so arbitrary.

  8. ruben says:

    i’m looking for parenting tips here: so did being around swearing at an early age act positively to demystify it or did it desensitize the potential to shock to the point where you were calling your kindergarten teacher a c-sucker?

    so much of the appeal in childhood swearing seemed to be in the capacity to shock, it’s transgressive charge, and if grandma was dropping f-bombs then i might have gone in a different direction to establish my contrarian cred, you know what i mean? i worry about music the same way, i want to be able to share music that i consider good with the kids but assume anything i offer will be dismissed as toothless dad rock no matter how edgy it once was (still is?).

    more evidence of a troubled upbringing-my mom took me to see george carlin when i was a kid. we had heard the albums and the words were no shock (of course, i was not allowed to swear at all myself) but the response of the adults in our party was what i remember. i felt bad for them having to pretend that they didn’t enjoy the more raunchy material just because i was around. typically uncomfortable 70’s single parent fun all around but props (i think) to mom for taking me in the first place.

    lastly, from my favorite movie decade-try bob towne’s the last detail for some impassioned and creative swearing.

  9. Demosthenes says:

    I said fuck in front of Marleyfan for the first time the other day (Note, this isn’t the first time I said fuck, but just in front of him). I think he was cool with it……hopefully.

  10. Demosthenes says:

    Fuck….I just remembered, my Grandma reads this blog

  11. Tim says:

    Demosthenes, word on the street is that your Grandma knows her way around a four-letter word, when the appropriate opportunity presents itself.

  12. swells says:

    The bad word in my house was “guts.” seriously.

  13. Jeremy Zitter says:

    guts? guts?

  14. LP says:

    My mom still hates it when I use the word “crap,” which is to me a completely innocuous word, like “poop.” Actually, I think it’s nicer.

    We weren’t allowed to say “shut up” when I was growing up, although once when my mom was watching a football game on TV, she yelled “Oh, just shut up!” at Howard Cosell. Then the rule became, you can say “shut up” if you’re talking to the TV. So my brother and I would tell each other to shut up all the time in the living room, when my parents weren’t right there, then call out sweetly, “I was talking to the TV” if they complained.

  15. “Poop” used as an interjection is funnier than any of the synonyms used as an interjection. Well except maybe “Ca-ca”.