In a recent episode of ABC’s “Modern Family,” pear-shaped actor Eric Stonestreet, who plays histrionic gay dad Cameron Tucker, paces casually around the living room in form-revealing bike shorts. His groin is pixelated. It is bulging, we deduce, in revealing ways. At one point Stonestreet poses in front of family-member Claire Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen, indecisive about where to do his cycling, and says, “I’m leaning toward the park.” With her gaze fixed on his genitals, Dunphy dryly replies, “I can see that.”
That may seem like a crude joke, especially for a family-oriented show, but network television has increasingly been leaning toward just this sort of humor. In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission received more than 1.4 million indecency complaints pertaining to 314 programs. The next year, the number of complaints dropped to under 250,000. Whether this is due to a shift in taste or a learned helplessness is difficult to gauge, but either case, most TV watchers will likely agree, network television seems to be getting much naughtier. Dirty jokes are a force of nature, a celebration of life in all its fullness and squalor, as universal as comedy gets. They are the first line of attack in the battle for free speech — but the rise of dirty TV isn’t just a sign that we’re overwhelming would-be censors, it’s a sign that television is growing up.
This past July, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan laughed an FCC guideline out of existence. The so-called fleeting obscenity policy had taken effect in 2004 — after Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction and the usage of “fuck” by the congenitally oblivious Bono during a live broadcast of the 2003 Golden Globes. The court found, however, that the FCC’s policy was problematically vague, and had “the effect of promoting wide self-censorship.”
Indeed the history of television’s propriety standards is one in which the bureaucracy is perpetually ceding more ground, if only because it cannot keep pace with the evolution of language, or the medium itself: “Leave It to Beaver” was unique in its day for Beaver’s use of parent-annoying slang like “flip” and “sweat” and its casual depiction (oh, the horror!) of bathrooms. When the pilot script called for Beaver to keep a baby alligator in a toilet tank, censors protected the nation by ensuring that only the tank part of the offending apparatus was visible. Not a decade later, CBS was leading into episodes of “All in the Family” with a gentle warning and the gleeful sound of, you guessed it, Archie Bunker’s toilet flushing.
In the ’80s and ’90s, a school of conservative thought held, not incorrectly, that hot-button issues and risqué humor were inextricably linked. Pat Buchanan, in announcing his run for president in a 1995 speech, vowed “to defend American traditions and the values of faith, family, and country, from any and all directions” and “chase the purveyors of sex and violence back beneath the rocks whence they came.” By “purveyors of sex and violence,” of course, he meant those who would speak candidly or realistically about either, which describes most comedians and indeed many artists. Invoking a counterfeit flawless America not even glimpsed in “Leave It to Beaver,” where June and Ward made parental mistakes aplenty, culture warriors sought to crush anything that drew attention to cracks in the country’s exceptionalist facade — again, a task happily undertaken by comedians.
I myself can recall a puritanical substitute teacher who took me to task in the second grade because I expressed a kinship with Bart Simpson; she called his cartoon universe “disgusting.” It had of course not occurred to me that Bart held a niche in the pantheon of the so-called culture wars due to his rude rebellion against adult authority, and that “The Simpsons” was using animation to push the boundaries of taste in order to get an unvarnished, nuanced look at the middle class.
Eventually the explosion of cable channels like HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and FX meant that writers and producers could create TV shows with few of the constraints on sex and language that had afflicted the networks. But cable’s edginess also increasingly became the norm, something to be surpassed. Concurrently, reality shows like “Survivor,” “Fear Factor” and “Big Brother” forced us to confront actual swearing, screwing, defecating human beings, and the uncontrolled vastness of the Internet began allowing us to access anything we wanted, at any time, no matter how gross.
These days, the result of that shift is being felt on two of the biggest comedies on TV, “The Office” and “30 Rock,” both of which temper their idiosyncratic voices with frequent dashes of the profane. Michael Scott appends a “That’s what she said” to any ambiguous sentence to render it sexual harassment. In one episode, Dwight crossed a line with the human resources director by asking exactly where a woman’s clitoris is. In two noteworthy episodes of “30 Rock,” Jenna’s drag queen boyfriend mentioned that the two of them had adopted a dog in order to make it watch them have sex and Jenna agreed to fake a public relationship with James Franco so the latter can conceal his sexual affinity for an anime body pillow. The use of the word “MILF” in another episode — in reference to a reality show featuring “25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth grade boys, no rules” — garnered coverage in the New York Times.
“Flanahan’s Hole is closed,” said one character in a recent episode of ABC’s “Community,” during a discussion about a recently shuttered bar, adding: “I’m not trying to be clever. I mean it’s out of business.” The response cleverly splices both possible meanings: “Well, that’s what they get for trying to please everyone.” Over on “Mike and Molly,” which must have broken a record for classlessness by tackling mail-order Russian brides, taser-related testicular injury and prostitution in the pilot episode alone, Mike’s fellow policeman laments that it costs “$38 to get lipstick out of suede pants.” In September, an episode of “Glee” paying tribute to Britney Spears showed, among other things, a character masturbating in a library and a Mr. Schuester, a teacher, faux-humping a student — all this in the family-friendly prime-time 8 p.m. slot, no less! These may not be especially frank depictions of sexual behavior, but one can’t imagine anything so brazen in the euphemistically sexual worlds of “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” whose canonical episode “The Contest” referred to self-gratification mainly by way of arched eyebrows.
While some people would argue that this change suggests a tragic coarsening of our culture, it’s actually a return toward honesty. Not a day goes by that we do not encounter the impolite. We speak crassly to convey anger, lust, frustration, bewilderment, joviality, surprise and adoration alike. Which is why, even when crudeness doesn’t translate into laughter — here I’m thinking of a bit in “Two and a Half Men” where Charlie and Alan decide to call two women “A” and “B” for “anorexia” and “bulimia” to avoid confusion about which suffers from which, only to finally disclose that they do not understand the difference between the two eating disorders — it feels like a bare-knuckle depiction of American ignorance and inanity. Just because a scene is offensive or brutally unfunny doesn’t mean it hasn’t unfolded in a real, four-walled kitchen somewhere. And a skewed imitation of reality, or probing analysis of humor’s limits, is what most comedies attempt to be. “All in the Family,” the famous disclaimer read, “seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.”
To omit the occasional wry nod to the human form is to gloss over that rare subject we all find familiar and humbling. And it’s worth pointing out that there’s a tremendous amount of artfulness to these new, crude exchanges, largely because they need to be written to evoke a sexual playfulness without breaching the network’s standards and practices. The scripts have to dance around mentions of various orifices rather than spell them out — wordplay gives us access to forbidden nouns, rewarding close attention with discreetly sleazy punch lines.
If television’s arc bends inexorably toward the the taboo, it’s because that is also a crucial part of its role. Television — and popular culture — should explore the boundaries of what we can and can’t say, what we should and shouldn’t do. If it stopped shocking us, and pushing the margins of acceptability, it would mean the end of television as a relevant medium. Indecency laws aren’t going away any time soon, but they’ve already begun to seem laughably impotent in this digitized century, where the question of what to watch has virtually infinite answers. Letting some faceless arbiter decide what you can or can’t handle? Fuck that.