|By the mid-1950s, TV’s
standards and practices people decided Dad’s
gimmick was an unacceptable deception. There would be no further censoring of
I thought about all this when CBS started broadcasting a show this season
titled “$#*! My Dad Says,” which the network insists with a wink
should be pronounced “Bleep My Dad Says.” There is, of course, no
mystery whatsoever about what the $-word stands for, because the show is based
on a highly popular Twitter feed, using the real word, in which a clever guy
named Justin Halpern quotes the humorous, often foul utterances of his father,
Bleeping is broadcasting’s biggest deal. Even on basic cable, the new
generation of “reality” shows like “Jersey Shore” bleep
like crazy, as do infotainment series like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” where
scripted curses take on an anti-establishment edge when bleeped in a contrived
bit of post-production. This season there is even a cable series about relationships
titled “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” — in which “bleep” isn’t
subbing for any word in particular. The comedian Drew Carey is developing a series
that CBS has decided to call “WTF!” Still winking, the network says
this one stands for “Wow That’s Funny!”
Although mainstream broadcasters won a battle against censorship over the
summer when a federal appeals court struck down some elements of the Federal
Communications Commission’s restrictions on objectionable language, they’ve
always been more driven by self-censorship than by the government-mandated kind.
Eager to help are advertisers and watchdog groups, each appearing to take a tough
stand on language while actually reveling in the double entendre.
For example, my father and I didn’t run across many dirty words when
recording everyday conversation, but we did find that people use the terms “God” and “Jesus” frequently — often
in a gentle context, like “Oh, my God” — and this, it turned
out, worried broadcasting executives even more than swearing. If someone said “Jesus” in
a “Candid Camera” scene, CBS made us bleep it, leaving viewers to
assume that a truly foul word had been spoken. And that seemed fine with CBS,
because what mainstream TV likes best is the perception of naughtiness.
TV’s often-hypocritical approach to censorship was given its grandest
showcase back in 1972, when the comedian George Carlin first took note of “Seven
Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The bit was recreated on stage
at the Kennedy Center a few years ago in a posthumous tribute to Carlin, but
all the words were bleeped — not only for the PBS audience but for the
theatergoers as well.
Many who saw the show believed the bleeped version played funnier. After all,
when Bill Maher and his guests unleash a stream of nasty words on HBO, it’s
little more than barroom banter. But when Jon Stewart says the same words, knowing
they’ll be bleeped, it revs up the crowd while also seeming to challenge
In its July ruling, the appeals court concluded, “By prohibiting all ‘patently
offensive’ references to sex ... without giving adequate guidance as to
what ‘patently offensive’ means, the F.C.C. effectively chills speech,
because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the F.C.C. will find offensive.” That’s
quite reasonable — and totally beside the point. Most producers understand
that when it comes to language, the sizzle has far more appeal than the steak.
Broadcasters keep jousting with the F.C.C. begging not to be thrown in the briar
patch of censorship, because that’s really where they most want to be.
Jimmy Kimmel has come up with a segment for his late-night ABC program called “This
Week in Unnecessary Censorship.” He bleeps ordinary words in clips to make
them seem obscene. How bleepin’ dare he!
Censorship, it seems, remains one of the most entertaining things on television.
(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The New York Times.