BOB GARFIELD: One episode of South Park, the taboo-busting Comedy Central primetime cartoon, used the "S" word more than a hundred times. If you watch The Osbournes in which dissipated Black Sabbath rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his nuclear family split the difference between Ozzie & Harriet and The Addams Family, you will hear the "F" word bleeped out but not obliterated about every 30 seconds. ESPN's docudrama about basketball coach Bobby Knight also aired in primetime, also was liberally seasoned with the "F" word and didn't even bother bleeping the expletive out. Thirty years ago on Laugh-In it took mere suggestive euphemisms such as "sock it to me" to make a nation gasp. But according to the Washington Post's Paul Farhi, hardly anyone's gasping these days. He wrote about verbal vulgarity, and he joins us now to talk about it. Paul, welcome back to OTM.
PAUL FAHRI: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Language and television. What the hell is going on?!
PAUL FAHRI: I think we are in some period of continued downward slide. If I could throw out one theory, I would suggest that it has something to do with the competitive nature of television -- every network seems to be losing viewers, and every network is doing what it can to try and bring viewers back or hold on to the ones that it's got.
BOB GARFIELD:Well at some point doesn't the law of diminishing returns set in here? People are fighting for viewers, but the viewers don't seem to stay impressed for long. The culture gets increasingly coarsened and nobody's even making any money out of it in the long run.
PAUL FAHRI: Well I think you've got to add -- if you isolate bad language in and of itself it's one thing -- but bad language coupled with bad programming is inevitably going to be a failure. In some ways you could call it an irrelevant aspect, as long as there's something else to bring you to it. As Dick Wolf, the guy who made Law & Order said, "Shakespeare seemed to do okay without using many bad words."
BOB GARFIELD: What has happened all of a sudden that it is of the essence that the words are spoken verbatim.
PAUL FAHRI:The Sopranos happened. People see The Sopranos drawing all this praise and acclaim and figure that we should be like that. To a certain extent they're right. I mean do cops really talk like Joe Friday? Do mobsters really talk like the criminals of, of the '50s or the '60s or the '70s on TV? Of course they don't.
BOB GARFIELD:Have you got some examples for me of things that we have heard -- and try to be delicate here, because we at On the Media have standards approximately like the ones you have at the Washington Post.
PAUL FAHRI: Sure. There's a show called The Shield on FX which is owned by Fox. It's a cop show, and he's a rogue cop with his own particular kind of language and the common word for barnyard excrement has been heard fairly recently on 60 Minutes, on Nightline. Moving over to MTV you've got The Osbournes which spares its youthful audience the indignity by bleeping out the words, but the words that it bleeps out probably outnumber the words that it lets through.
BOB GARFIELD:What are we to make of a show like South Park which I, I have to tell you, when I've occasionally encountered it, I've found pretty hilarious, although it's obsessive on this cult of taboo-breaking.
PAUL FAHRI: South Park does delight in its taboo-breaking. Their program last year in which the "S" word was uttered I believe 162 times was if nothing but a, an attempt to throw the taboos right back in the viewer's face and was done rather effectively I thought.
SOUTH PARK CHARACTER: [SHOUTING] Last night the Dang and Bold Show cop drama broke new ground by saying "sh**" (BLEEP) on television, making "sh**" (BLEEP) officially okay to say around the country! A recent poll shows that 24 percent of Americans think the show has pushed the envelope too far, while a whopping 76 percent say they don't really give a "sh**" (BLEEP). In other news....
PAUL FAHRI: But Comedy Central would say we put the show on at 10 o'clock with the express knowledge that we don't think there are many children in the audience at that hour. It is a cartoon for adults. But my kids love it, by the way. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHS] Yeah, my kids love it too. You know, I'm not all that old, but I certainly remember the I Love Lucy reruns and they couldn't even say "pregnant" when Lucy was pregnant.
PAUL FAHRI: The thing that gets me though is which is chicken and which is egg? Was Lucy a reflection of the culture at the time or was television in some way being ultra-conservative so as not to offend? Now the question is: Whose standard really does apply? In other words some people are offended by this, but clearly a lot of people aren't. So I, I, I-- I don't know that you can apply a one-size-fits-all any more. We're a-- extremely diverse society, and where the line is isn't really a fair question cause the line is everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Fahri, thank you very much.
PAUL FAHRI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Fahri covers media and other things for the Style Section of the Washington Post. [MUSIC]