Dan Levy came on The Late Show this week to promote Schitt’s Creek, which posed a problem for CBS censors. Schitt’s Creek has been created and distributed away from issues of American network censorship. You can say “fuck” on Canadian television and Netflix until the cows come home, but to even talk about Schitt’s Creek on CBS, the censors insisted on a chyron, declaiming that DON’T WORRY EVERYTHING’S FINE, THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT A SHOW NOT POOP.
Even with the chyron caveat, Stephen Colbert was disinclined to say Schitt’s Creek. He said “the show” or “your show” and let Levy invoke the chyron. It got me thinking about cursing. Namely, why the fuck can’t people swear on late night? There were multiple acts of self-censorship by late-night hosts this week. Jimmy Fallon tried to scribble out some swears on a Ryan Reynolds Instagram post, but NBC still blurred out the scribble. Why? It’s past watershed, and most people watch it the next day on YouTube anyway. Lord knows you can say any fucking thing on there. Samantha Bee is bleeped on TBS, but the Full Frontal YouTube channel leaves in every “feckless cunt.”
Bee has been promoting her upcoming Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on YouTube with swear-laced roasts of former presidents. If the presidents were as thick-skinned as the friars, this is what the WHCD would look like. The clips juxtapose Bee in full period dress with her foul mouth. Women did not speak like that in the ’70s. Not professionally, at least. The swearing is strategic. Psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker posits that there are five kinds of swearing:
• Abusive (Fuck you, bitch!)
• Cathartic (Fuck, that hurts!)
• Dysphemistic (That’s fucking nasty.)
• Emphatic (Fucking pay attention!)
• Idiomatic (We’re fucking bros, dude.)
For example, in the clip above, when Bee says she fucked Kissinger, it’s idiomatic because it puts them on the level of peers. Peers who have copulated. But when she says sex with Kissinger was gross because he’s a “fucking troll,” that’s dysphemistic. On her show, Bee deploys a lot of emphatic swearing. It’s become a convention of politics, and thus political comedy shows. The first episode of Showtime’s Desus & Mero explored the flack Rashida Tlaib got for saying “impeach the motherfucker.” According to Tlaib, that’s just how people in Detroit refer to any man. It’s partially a class issue. Fancy motherfuckers don’t swear, but the good people of Detroit do.
Any impression of John Oliver should start with something like “That’s fucking unbelievable!” then compare an issue of federal policy with the shitty behavior of a roommate or perhaps Snooki. HBO lets Oliver swear (and TBS lets Bee swear on YouTube) because it’s emphatic. We’re talking about serious shit, so the cursing lends fucking gravitas. Adults are freaking the fuck out, and so should your dumb ass.
But there are some lines even Oliver cannot cross. Apparently, you can’t use footage of Parliament on a comedy show in Britain. Wild. You can hear the C-word on the BBC at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, but don’t you dare make fun of that place where people shout over each other until government happens. Oliver explains that when this episode of Last Week Tonight airs in England, the footage of Parliament will be replaced with a Chippendales workout video. It would appear that boy titty is acceptable on the Beeb.
Boy titty is acceptable on CBS, too, in ways the words Schitt’s Creek are not. In the first ten minutes of Wednesday’s The Late Late Show With James Corden, I counted at least eight AMAB nipples. Stephen Merchant, Shawn Mendes, Noah Centineo, and A$AP Rocky all got ‘em out on national TV. We’ve moved beyond profanity and into obscenity now. The borders of what is and is not acceptable on TV tell you a lot about a culture. In America, even on the parts of the internet that are the Wild West when it comes to swears, lady boobs are unacceptable. Too arousing. But on The Late Late Show, we got comedic boy titty and erotic boy titty. I don’t think anyone’s supposed to look at an underwear-clad Noah Centineo and lol. So the shunning of women’s nips as ticking time bombs of eroticism is arbitrary at best.
And that’s what’s at the heart of this swearing issue: Words are basically meaningless. We live in a consensus-based reality, and the consensus is breaking down. Right before the Schitt’s Creek censorship compromise, former acting FBI director Andrew Gates and Colbert discussed whether or not Rod Rosenstein’s brief discussion of the 25th Amendment was “coup-y” or not. Like a swear, the made-up word was deployed emphatically to highlight the stupidity of the argument. If a procedure is outlined in the Constitution, it’s by definition not a coup. I say this emphatically and dysphemistically: That argument is fucking stupid. And earlier in the week, late-night hosts dissected Trump’s “national emergency,” a phrase even Trump can’t pretend to believe. Every word is a relationship between the person saying it and the person hearing it. Everyone has to agree on what that word means, or the whole endeavor breaks down. No one can agree on anything at the moment: what is or is not obscene, what is or is not a coup, what is or is not an emergency. As a person who chooses words professionally, it doesn’t feel great to see the very notion of meaning become a partisan issue.