In 1972, George Carlin performed a classic bit called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Many of these words are still taboo: fuck, cunt, cocksucker, and motherfucker, in addition to the more contemporary acceptable shit, piss, and tits. When Carlin performed this routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, he was arrested for disturbing the peace.
Carlin, a social gadfly if there ever was one, spurred a revision of the U.S.’s decency standards in broadcasting. His tireless advocacy for the First Amendment and relentless skewering of cultural hypocrisy opened up the airwaves. His work reflected Marlon Brando’s dismayed comment in "Apocalypse Now": “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it's obscene.”
We now live in a far more permissive televised culture. And that’s a good thing. The airwaves, because of relentless pushing by the likes of Carlin, "South Park," and cable, are now liberated. The peevish legislating of speech has fallen out of favor. Aside from the harshest of the harsh language, or a premium cable package, we can now, almost, hear it all. Thanks to cable networks like FX and Comedy Central, the once-reviled "shit" is now part of the small screen’s vocabulary.
As someone who uses and enjoys and laughs at profanity on a daily basis, this should be a golden era. Yet I feel in the sudden rush to blindfold and deafen Standards & Practices, something has been lost. For all of the orgiastic advances in what can be shown and spoken, I miss the age-old "bleep."
The allure of the taboo is that it is both permissive in what it allows but restrictive in its use. The word "fuck," the epitome of profanity, is so broadly applicable--to injury, to comedy, to everyday usage. To say "fuck" in casual conversation with friends is one thing, but to deploy it at work, among more puritanical family members, or around children is another. "Fuck" works not only due to its caustic sound, the hard phoneme that’s almost spit by the speaker at the end, but by how carefully one must use it.
Of course, everyone swears, even grandma. However, taboos only remain so due to the restrictions surrounding them. Being a woman unaccompanied by a man in public, or a girl on a date without a chaperone, or having sex outside of wedlock, or using birth control: these taboos have been abolished and we are all better for it. But profanity occupies a strange place, especially in a mediated world. On the one hand, profanity is language, something slippery and every changing, highly dependent on context and the intended audience. On the other hand, profanity, on the airwaves, is regulated and controlled. This is where the stopgap measure of the censored "bleep" comes in. We all know the word behind that 1000 HZ tone. Even if you’re not offended, let’s mask it so someone else isn’t.
The decreasing importance of the "bleep," of this aural wall to keep profanity taboo, means something for television. As mainstream films become blander, surrendering to the don’t-rock-the-boat mentality of commodities in a global marketplace, television, particularly cable television, is now the guiding light of mediated American culture. This is a “Golden Age” of television, after all. As magnificent as shows like "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad," "True Detective," "Veep," "Mad Men," and "Game of Thrones" are, there’s an increasing tendency to rush toward a dead end: giving audiences everything that used to be off limits.
There are two shows particularly awash in profanity. Though they come from different times, and aired on different networks, they represent opposite poles. "Veep," airing on HBO, is the brainchild of Armando Iannucci, a man renowned for his abilities to string together obscenities, such as:
“I’m the vice president of the United States, you little fuckers!”
“He’s just a varicose dick vein.”
“What are you laughing about, Jolly Green-Jizz-Face?”
“That’s like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo. It doesn’t do the job and makes a fucking mess!”
All of these lines, in their context, are hilarious and delivered impeccably by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The creativity and shock of their deployment is part of what makes "Veep" so impressive. And this is due in large part to HBO’s permissiveness. Everything is permitted, porn included. But shock value wears off. "Fuck" can be the joke, but not forever.
A show on the opposite side of the spectrum is "Arrested Development." Airing on network TV--FOX--"Arrested Development" reveled in profanity. Characters would unleash avalanches of invective towards each other. Each instance, however, would be drowned out by the atonal "bleep." Most of the time this was done creatively, with some sort of intention, and for some sort of effect. Mitchell Hurwitz, the show’s creator, knew the network’s limitations. Profanity was a means to an end, not simply an end in itself. While we knew the words, or could infer them, the actual swear, and the lips pronouncing them, would be hidden, a verbal tease. And the "bleeps" themselves became the joke--the ridiculously thin veneer of decorum they provided.
The "bleep" is a kind of comic striptease, all about withholding. It reveals as well as obscures, giving just the fleeting impression of nastiness. It lets our imagination fill in the blanks. And as TV becomes more permissive, it is also losing some of its edge. Being forced to operate within constraints, within a box, one knows the boundaries. "The Exorcist" shocked audience not just for the pea soup vomit, but because a young girl said "fuck" to a priest. That transgressive moment is minted in gold. But, for modern audiences, re-watching that film hardly does today what it did in 1973.
It’s been awhile since I’ve felt truly scandalized by what I’ve seen on television. Even "Game of Thrones"’s Red Wedding seemed like a predictable development in cable's long march to maximum outrageousness. So in our era of TV designed to shock, we could use more of the coyness of the "bleep."