I recently flipped by an episode of Two Broke Girls. In the scene I happened upon, the two broke girls were being verbally assaulted by two Hassidic (Orthodox Jewish) thirteen year-old boys, complete with the traditional earlocks and the all-black attire, including the hats.
Their “acting out” included a lot of “smack” – if that term is still in service – and transparently coded sex talk. When the mother came in, the boys immediately reverted to their expected personas – obedient, well-mannered and respectful of women.
You can see the “funny” they were going for. Yeshiva bochers (Hebrew School kids) “presenting” as inner-city smut merchants, then making the “quick switch” when a grownup shows up. Nothing new there. The “switch” from mouthy to respectful is as old as Eddie Haskall and “the Beaver.” Probably older.
The difference here was the content. Though I had difficulty deciphering the patios, I got the sense that rather graphic sexual innuendo predominated, and that subtlety was of minimal concern.
Setting aside the “Hassidic” element, which was the original “twist” in the proceedings, what we were offered here was two young boys talking dirty to two women who had heard it all before, but, ostensibly, not from children.
Good taste? Bad taste? Does any of that matter?
The show’s studio audience was howling; they clearly thought this was hilarious. Does that mean they didn’t find the scene is bad taste? Or they did, and that’s what was funny about it. In which case, the taste issue was a big joke to them.
And now, a little background.
Writers hate to be criticized about anything. What writers like to hear is, “It’s perfect!” from a person they can believe actually means it. (Understanding that a writer’s capacity for self-delusion is alarmingly limitless.)
Given writerly sensitivity, it is not at all surprising that, in my day, writers bristled at executive interference, retaining particular venom for the “Standards and Practices” representatives, assigned by the networks to adjudicate “appropriateness” issues in the scripts.
“Where do they get off criticizing my taste!” the diatribe would go. “I make content decisions all the time – what goes in the script, and what does not. In doing so, I necessarily apply my own taste and judgment. Who else is more qualified? A controversy-averse lackey with an arbitrary set of rules?”
Because the heat was on the networks. And that heat could be hellish.
In my day, when they measured viewership in terms of total volume rather than demographic cohorts, the network mandate was for their shows to appeal to the widest possible audience. It was therefore “bad for business” to offend anybody, the dreaded concern being,
“We’ll get letters.”
It was amazing how very few letters it took to send the network racing for the exits. A handful of letters, and series, including series that had not even aired yet, were in serious danger of cancellation.
I never liked being criticized for taste issues – which, in my case, involved “off-center” commentary more than curse words or sexual situations – because I felt they were tying one hand behind my back, keeping me from doing my best work, and making the final product – which had my name on it – seem out of touch, simplistic and dumb.
This reality was neonly demonstrated when HBO and other cable stations arrived, offering considerably more true-to-life comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. This contrast made the heavily constrained network sitcoms appear to have emanated from another era. Not quite “double beds for married couples”, but that’s what it looked like.
The networks bounced back to an extent, though considerably less artfully, as a result of two factors. One, cable competition required them to “push the envelope” as Tom Wolfe once said and now nobody can say anything else.
And two, abandoning their mandate to attract the widest possible audience, the networks honed in on the younger viewers, whose concerns about taste were considerably more relaxed.
The result: Two Broke Girls and the potty mouthed Jewboys.
What we have here is this. Though no one can define precisely what it is – the closest approximation of a guideline was a Supreme Court justice who said, re pornography, “I know it when I see it” – the “Taste Police” were on the case in television of yore to insure that no viewer in the vastest audience they were trying to attract saw anything that might possibly ruffle their feathers. In the process – I am not speaking literally here but – a “universal” taste standard was instituted: “One Size Fits All.”
Some people might find the resulting programming pablumish. But at least there would be no letters. (Or advertisers dropping their sponsorship of shows due to letters sent to them.)
Taste today is no longer universal, but cultural – which includes religious – regional, and, as I alluded to earlier, generational, personal offense increasing as you get closer to death.
(This is the kind of line I would, in earlier times, get in trouble for.)
More precisely, it is not age that triggers taste concerns, it is more the age you grew up in. Older people came to maturity in tamer times. Current comedy legitimately offends their sensibilities.
Speaking of older people, let us now move on to me, and the termination of my career.
As much as I railed against the restrictions I worked under, I was also protected by them. What do I mean by that? I mean that today’s relaxed standards not only provide the permission, they create the necessity of having to write things that I would not personally feel comfortable committing to paper.
For taste reasons.
Not only would I feel uncomfortable writing such things, most of them would probably never come to mind.
In a way, censorship prolonged my career.
And relaxed censorship ended it.
Do I want the tighter censorship back?
No, thank you.
But now that more taste decisions are in the hands of the writers, I would ask those writers to show a little taste.