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making the sausage

Polone: Why TV Shouldn’t Be So Afraid of the Word Fuck

On September 19, the premiere of Two and a Half Men featured a joke where New Man Ashton Kutcher enters, naked with his junk blurred, and announces that last night he had sex with two women; Jon Cryer then laments that last night he masturbated and cried himself to sleep. Right before this, on the pilot of 2 Broke Girls, an unseen waitress has loud sex in the kitchen of a diner; when one of the impatient patrons asks Kat Dennings's character, “Do you know where our waitress is?” she replies, “She’s coming.” (I don’t know if I spelled that last word correctly, but you get the meaning. As did the studio audience, who roared uproariously — or, I should say, the laugh track did.) These scenes surprised me in that: (1) I laughed twice while watching broadcast sitcoms; and (2) CBS Standards & Practices let such risqué jokes through. I've had many interactions with the network executives who guard public decency by noting the hell out of every script and edit of a show, demanding the removal of anything that might be objectionable to the few audience members who might be unoccupied enough to threaten a boycott of advertisers.

Rather than being offended by the joke (though I never like to see anything on-screen that might suggest to women that they should expect an orgasm during sex), I was heartened to see a network giving producers a looser rein. But then the next morning I watched "The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger", a profanity-filled comedic remix of a nature video — "What a crazy fuck, look. Ew, it's eating larva!" — on YouTube a couple of times (exciting life I lead), then left the house for the gym and heard Rage Against the Machine’s "Killing in the Name" on Sirius's Lithium channel. As always, I cranked it up, in time to here Zach de la Rocha scream “FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME,” about 30 times. After the final line of the song — “Muthafucka!” — I began to think about just how stupid it is that I had heard a bunch of words on the net and satellite radio that have been banned on all non-premium cable and broadcast channels. After all, Radio Disney is a couple of button pushes away from Lithium on Sirius and my beloved Honey Badger is accessible to all on the same website as Fred Figgelhorn and millions of clips of cats being cats.

Whom are we protecting by not allowing fuck on broadcast and basic cable TV? I love the word fuck. Words with hard consonants are so much superior to other words. And what doesfuck mean, anyway? Sometimes it is a synonym for darn; sometimes it is used in a phrase like “fuck you” (and I don’t really even know what that means, I just know it's aggressive and useful when driving in Los Angeles); and sometimes it's used as a verb to mean copulating. But even in that last context, it is far less evocative of a visual image than what I had heard on 2 Broke Girls or the nation’s favorite comedy, Two and a Half Men.

The FCC has certain rules about profanity and indecency on broadcast (meaning free) TV and radio during the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Live broadcasts like the Golden Globes and sporting events have been threatened with fines when an impromptu fuck has been uttered by an uncouth participant, though the implementation of those fines has been stopped in the courts. Howard Stern was repeatedly fined when on traditional radio, but once he went onto satellite he could say what he pleased because the FCC doesn't regulate its content; the government has decided, after rulings offered by the Supreme Court, that subscription services are immune from anti-obscenity rules. So if you can pay for Sirius, you can hear fuck in songs and on "Stern," then turn on Radio Disney for your kids. I guess the theory is that poor people must be protected from words but rich people are competent to make their own decisions?

The “Safe Harbor” rule says "indecent" material is okay from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., and that is particularly ridiculous. Young people are increasingly time-shifting their TV viewing. For this generation, even DVRs are old-school; most people under 20 that I know download almost all of what they watch. Technology has allowed people to watch what they want, when they want, therefore a 10 p.m. delineation is meaningless.

While the resistance to using fuck is, in part, a reaction to FCC intimidation, some of the networks' hesitance to allow the word in shows comes from economic concerns. Basic cable networks don’t have to worry about the FCC, because, like satellite radio, they are a paid service, yet they hold to certain standards for fear of alienating sponsors. I have worked at FX before and know that they’ll let you say shit and ass but not fuck. They have even allowed cocksucker, which is far more graphic and less common in the vernacular than fuck. Why they, TBS, TNT, and other cable networks continue to hold this line makes no sense; I doubt one fewer box of Tide will be sold because someone on Sons of Anarchy says a meaningless expletive that the character would say in the real world. I recently saw a funny and obvious exchange on FX's Louie about anal sex, and FX didn’t lose sponsors as a result. How can talking about anal sex not be more obscene than a biker telling another biker to “fuck off”?

So I say to the networks and the FCC, let’s give up the ban on fuck. It makes no sense, and having rules that are obviously silly, hypocritical, and classist undermines the validity of the imposed standards and the body that imposes them. And as long as we're going down this road, why can't they allow some limited frontal nudity, as they do on TV in Europe? Growing up in the late seventies, I saw plenty of nudity in films and really doubt that is the source of my psychological issues. Use the TV-Mature ratings on broadcast and basic cable like they have on HBO, so poor and rich people alike can decide whether they want to see a show with certain themes and words, and let fly. It will only mean for better, more realistic TV, and what could be wrong with that? Better TV will probably get more people to migrate back to television from the Internet, which is the true repository of obscenity.

And don’t get me started on cunt.