Modern Family was the most recent TV show to stir up controversy last night when 2-year-old Lily horrified her parents (and the Parents Television Council) by learning her first four-letter word (rhymes with “muck”). With those four letters, Modern Family joined a long tradition of small-screen swearing. In 1972, comedian George Carlin put forth a treatise called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Now, 40 years later, how many of those prohibitions have held up?
Of course, premium networks and reality TV are positively lousy with pottymouths, and let’s rule out the unpredictably of live TV and talk shows (sorry, Madonna, your F-bomb-laced Letterman interview is for naught!), but what about your average prime-time lineup?
These days, words No. 2 (“piss”) and 7 (“tits”) are too plentiful to enumerate. They become like air or water to edgier shows. For Carlin’s money, it’s No. 1 (“s—”) that has the most bang for buck. Mark Harmon broke the seal on a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope. And how else? With a line from a bumper sticker! He said matter of factly, “S— happens,” uttering the forbidden term for “feces” for the first time on network television.
But it was South Park that really turned obscenity into art (which is, basically, the thesis statement for the show). In the show’s 2001 season 5 opener (the aptly titled “It Hits the Fan”), Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and their gang of hooligan second graders unleashed “s—” 162 times.
Britain’s beloved C-word, No. 3, has slowly trickled over to America — most prominently in a 2007 episode of 30 Rock. Despite facing down the greatest insult possible for a woman, Liz Lemon somehow still managed to come out of episode thinking she was in the wrong. Oh, that Lemon.
As for No. 5, it remains on the lips of babes but never actually uttered in earnest. Even Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet took to his Twitter to explain that Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, who plays Lily, didn’t actually say “f—” but instead said “fudge,” just like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Who can condemn the invocation of delicious, delicious chocolate?
As for those other two words, they’re still demonstrably off-limits on mainstream TV (save for a few rowdy actors on those final moments of Inside the Actors Studio). There has to be a Final F-rontier, doesn’t there?
What do you think, PopWatchers? Do you think there’s too much fuss over cursing on TV, or should the censors lighten up? If you’re pro-expletive, what’s been your favorite dirty word on TV?