Magazine | August 30, 2010, Issue

Shat and Scat

TV reflects our standards; TV changes our standards. If you want to know where standards are heading when it comes to salty lingo on the tube, consider the name of a new show: “$#*! My Dad Says.” As we all know from reading comics, the shift-key/number-key string stands for a naughty word. Or, if you like, a perfectly ordinary word used by millions of people, universally known even by those who never employ it, a word with an equivalent in every tongue, and possibly the first word ever spoken by a humanoid after he stood erect, looked around, and saw a tiger in the bush about to pounce. The word is less fully bleeped in the book title from which the show derives, and not bleeped at all in the Twitter account — yes, this is a TV show based on a Twitter account — that preceded the book. If there’s a movie, you can expect the title will be “$#*!,” with the possible addition of “3D.”

The star is William Shatner, a.k.a. James T. Kirk, a man who had a second career as T. J. Hooker, and a third career as William Shatner. Asked about the controversial title, he said he wished they’d use the word.

“The word [$#*!] is around us,” he said at a meeting with TV journalists. “It isn’t a terrible term, it’s a natural function. Why are we pussyfooting around?”

And now, the obligatory parental objection: What about the children? You teach your kids to keep their language on an elevated plane, you refrain from using the word at home — many a dad has shouted OH GOSH! when banging his head into the corner of a cupboard door, then gone in the basement and shouted something worse into an empty coffee can — but then one day you might drive past a billboard with THAT WORD. Fine, some say; it’s part of language; you can’t shield them forever. They’ll pick it up on YouTube when they Google Winnie the Pooh and find someone’s remixed a cartoon with a rap video.

Still, you’d like to think you could set some standards for your kids — but that’s a term that gives hives. Standards are The Man’s way of stifling authenticity! Standards are manifestations of a bourgeois mentality that confuses repression for civilization! Slavery was a “standard”! And so on.

Heaven forbid you want some sort of limit on naughty words on TV while using them yourself. That is hypocrisy and hypocrisy makes Holden Caulfield cry, ya phony. But there is a public realm and a private realm, and since we all inhabit the former, there doesn’t seem to be a significant loss if we discourage the verbal equivalent of scratching your nether parts with great vigor. But maybe that’s just how I was brought up. My dad never said $#*!.

#page#Foul language has its uses. A well-timed curse can be like a dash of Tabasco. The ornate and baroque profanity of Al Swearengen in the HBO series Deadwood was probably anachronistic, but it was also mesmerizing and vastly entertaining, if you enjoy the pleasures of a masterful blue streak. Sometimes not cursing can seem strange; Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was noted for its use of “fug,” which everyone knew meant something else. You could do a mental search-and-replace as you read, if you pleased.

“Fug” has its children, who soldier on in their father’s stead. In Battlestar Galactica, the humans said “frak,” which became actual slang for the online crowd. You can even find a contribution in the gangster parody film Johnny Dangerously, where the crazed Italian mobster moiders the language so he can curse but keep the rating family-friendly: “You farging ice hole,” he mutters. They’re all meaningless words — but they have emanations of penumbras, if you like. They put the other word in your head without even saying it. That’s what the sitcom title does — but only if you know what word is being bleeped.

Critics aren’t satisfied with the typographic euphemism. The Parents Television Council has sent warning letters to 300 advertisers, suggesting that they might want to rethink putting their products on the show “unless they wish to associate their hard earned brands with excrement.” Said PTC president Tim Winter: “The premise of the show offers potential for good entertainment. The question is why CBS feels the need to shove harsh profanity into the faces of Americans through the program’s title. Their reliance on symbols as a veil is feeble at best.”

Makes you wonder why they didn’t use $#*! for the name of the lead actor. What’s the first syllable of his last name, again? So it’s okay if it’s past-tense?

This isn’t a battle the pro-standards crowd will win. A recent Supreme Court ruling requires the FCC to wink at occasional Grade A cuss words, if dropped by mistake. Satellite and Internet radio will change the rules, inasmuch as they don’t have any. The Big Bad Effenheimer will be on a billboard some day, and our shoulders will slump: Great; thanks, George Carlin. “Obscenity” will be in the eye of the beholder — wherever he looks.

You can object, of course, but someone might well ask, “Who are you to judge?” As it happens, that question was put to Captain Kirk in an episode of Star Trek, and Shatner’s character snapped back: “Who do I have to be?”

It’s a good retort. Certainly beats “%*&@ off!”

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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