This appeared in the June 17, 2002, issue of National Review.
Toward the end of the Clinton administration, pundits got themselves into a tizzy over the fact that the U.S. government was giving what amounted to tax write-offs to television networks for incorporating anti-drug messages into their programming. The policy died at the hands of the hypocritical media establishment, which has no problem with the government forcing tobacco companies to fund multimillion-dollar ad campaigns against their own legal products, but sees, in the words of the New York Times, “the possibility of censorship and state-sponsored propaganda” in an anti-drug scene in a drama about an emergency room.
Such absurdity only highlights the bizarre state of the drug war. Whether you are for or against drug legalization, it’s impossible to dispute that the public debate is deadlocked. On one side, zero-tolerance drug warriors like drug czar John P. Walters insist that even marijuana is a “pernicious” drug closely associated with violence, addiction, and death. On the other side is a fractious coalition including drug boosters, libertarians, conservatives, and people who have simply had enough of the drug war’s excesses. It’s difficult to see how this impasse can be broken.
One man may have shown us the way: Ozzy Osbourne.
The Osbournes, the reality-TV show about the 53-year-old former lead singer of the metal band Black Sabbath and his dysfunctional family, is an unprecedented hit. It receives the highest ratings in MTV’s history. More people watch it than Meet the Press or The Sopranos.
If the policy of tax write-offs for anti-drug messages were still in effect, MTV would be in the black for the year thanks to The Osbournes. Never in history has television delivered such a relentlessly compelling anti-drug message week after week. Ozzy, who spent much of his life on drugs and alcohol, is a complete and total mess. Without changing a single thing about himself, he could ease into the crowds of homeless wastoids on any Skid Row in America and ask passersby for a quarter. He can barely speak. Virtually every sentence comes out of him as if he’d been shot up with Novocaine. Indeed, he’s so unintelligible that various reviews of the show quote the same lines of Osbourne’s dialogue differently; not even journalists with a videotape can quite make out what the hell he’s saying.
The Osbourne house, a stunningly beautiful manse in Beverly Hills, is a train wreck. With six dogs, a few cats, and a steady traffic of his kids’ ne’er-do-well friends, Ozzy’s life is near-total chaos. An entire episode of The Osbournes was dedicated to the family’s collective inability to housetrain its dogs: The house is drenched in dog urine, and the Persian rugs are minefields of canine droppings.
Ozzy and his wife Sharon are only moderately more successful in housetraining the plump, self-absorbed kids, who, like Dad, can’t go a sentence without cussing (and thus getting bleeped, by MTV). Only two of the three Osbourne kids, Kelly and Jack, appear on camera. The oldest daughter is reportedly mortified and is living in the guesthouse for the duration of the series.
It’s not hard to see why. All teenagers are embarrassed about their parents at some point, but The Osbournes takes it to the limit: When Kelly sees her mom urinating in a bottle to send a message about drinking in the house, she screams: “She’s pissing in the bottle . . . just like she s**t in Dad’s bag of weed in Hawaii.”
To be sure, part of the appeal of the show is how much it exaggerates the run-of-the-mill conflicts in normal families. Dad tries to lay down the law and the world ignores him. “I feel like I’m invisible here,” he complains over breakfast, to which his wife replies, “Oh, shut up!” Osbourne loves his kids un conditionally but finds them incomprehensible. “I love you all,” he tells his son. “I love you more than life itself, but you’re all [bleeping] mad.” Ozzy can’t even figure out the remote control. “What the [bleep] am I doing? Can’t get this [bleeping] television to work! I’m [bleeping] stuck on the Weather Channel!” Panicked, he yells, “I press this one button and the [bleeping] shower starts. Where the [bleep] am I? It’s a [bleeping] nightmare! Nightmare in Beverly Hills!”
Ultimately, the man who famously bit the head off a live bat and urinated on the Alamo just wants a normal, peaceful life, but he’s at a loss about how to get one. When the neighbors make too much noise, his wife chucks a rotten ham into their yard and Ozzy follows suit with a log. Afterwards, Mr. and Mrs. Osbourne wax nostalgic about their former (and favorite) neighbor, Pat Boone. “He was just the best person ever to live next door to,” says the Missus. “He was such a lovely man.”
But the reason the show has such a cartoonish hilarity to it (more than a few commentators have called it a real-world Simpsons) is that Osbourne is such a physical and psychological mess. During a recent interview for the British magazine Loaded, Osbourne was asked about reports that he’d broken his leg recently but didn’t notice. “The truth of the matter is,” Osbourne replied, “I’m f***ing crazy. Seriously. I’m mentally unbalanced. I’ve done so many drugs that I’ve f***ed up my brain somewhere.” Asked if he feels lucky to be alive, Osbourne replied, “Lucky? Well, I ain’t f***ing clever, that’s for sure. Everybody says: ‘Ozzy, you’re a legend.’ But behind the façade is a sad, lonely, wet fart of a person.”
This comes through in every episode: His debauchery makes him pathetic, though endearingly so. “I don’t think his fans have any illusions,” Doc Coyle, lead guitarist of the metal band God Forbid, explained to the New York Times. “Everybody knows his brain is fried.” In a sense, MTV is paying some small penance for the damage it has done to the culture. For years the network glorified the rocker lifestyle without paying much heed to its consequences. For example, Madonna’s sluttiness was celebrated as if there were no downside to it. While the lady has the financial resources to compensate for her lifestyle (she brags, for instance, that she’s never changed her children’s diapers), no amount of money can unscramble your brain. Ozzy may be a sympathetic figure, but even a would-be rock star would hesitate to be in his shoes.
But while Ozzy is a useful cautionary tale against drug abuse, the success of The Osbournes should also teach a thing or two to the drug warriors. Drugs, like it or not, are part of the culture; law enforcement alone is inadequate to either their regulation or their eradication. Yes, cigarette smoking is on the wane, in part because of some draconian measures taken by an overzealous government. But smoking’s real defeat has come at the hands of a cultural transformation. Similarly, laughing at, and hence ridiculing, drug use is far more useful than one more Eliot Ness lecture about, say, the connection of pot to the war on terrorism.
The same lesson was on view in last summer’s surprise hit song, “Because I Got High,” by a fellow named Afroman. The whole song was a hilarious send-up of pot-heads: “I was gonna go to court before I got high, I was gonna pay my child support but then I got high, they took my whole paycheck and I know why — ‘cause I got high, ‘cause I got high, ‘cause I got high. . . . I messed up my entire life because I got high, I lost my kids and wife because I got high, now I’m sleeping on the sidewalk and I know why — ‘cause I got high, ‘cause I got high.”
Unfortunately, some folks who think drugs are never a laughing matter didn’t think the song was so funny. When MTV initially refused to show the song’s video, because it depicted people smoking marijuana, The Weekly Standard — a zealous supporter of John Walters — noted in an earnest finger-wag: “It’s a pity that the most humorous pop song in recent years is about getting high, but [we are] pleased to find MTV for once on the right side of the culture war.”
Actually, it was great news that the most humorous pop song in recent memory was about how stupid it is to get high, or at least too high. Similarly, it’s even better news that the most popular show in MTV history makes fun of drug use and, finally, puts MTV on the right side of the culture war.