When swearing on TV is big and clever

Relentless cursing is ignorant and unfunny, but using profanity judiciously - like Joan Rivers did this week - can be hilarious.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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An old adage goes: ‘Is it big or clever to swear?’ Well, it depends if you are big and clever. If you are professor of astrophysics at Harvard University, weigh 16 stone and are six feet three inches tall, then I guess one can actually genuinely claim to be big and clever, and to be able use bad language at the same time. But if you are a petite 75-year-old Jewish New York comedienne, it seems you can’t be either.

Joan Rivers caused a stir in the UK this week while appearing on ITV1’s lunchtime Loose Women show. On Tuesday, Rivers described the actor Russell Crowe as a piece of ‘fucking shit’. She had pre-empted her outburst by telling the cameramen to ‘get ready to bleep’. Alas, as Loose Women anchorwoman Jackie Brambles embarrassingly had to remind Rivers, the show was going out live (1).

Rivers was subsequently removed from the show at the commercial break. ITV indulged in a predictable ceremony of self-recrimination. A spokesman for the show has said: ‘Guests are always briefed that it is a live daytime show and are reminded not to swear or use inappropriate language. An editorial decision was taken that Joan Rivers should not appear in the final part of the programme. We would like to apologise to Loose Women viewers for the inappropriate language used on today’s show.’ (2) Rivers announced she was ‘thrilled’ to be removed from a TV show for the first time in 40 years.

There have been many subsequent apologies, generally to the effect that mothers watching Loose Women with their children would have been offended. But this misses three obvious points.

First, why would children be watching such a programme at lunchtime on a Tuesday? Shouldn’t they be at school? Secondly, shouldn’t Loose Women, being a current affairs magazine-type show, have a seven-second delay process, like most radio phone-in shows have, in case of swearing? Thirdly, it also ignores the fact that apart from Brambles, the rest of the cast – Lynda Bellingham, Carol McGiffin and Jane McDonald – found Rivers’ outburst transparently hilarious. Which it was. They didn’t find her words offensive, because her words represented everyday parlance.

I have mixed feelings about bad language on television, and in general. There is the conservative part of me that finds swearing belittling, coarse and moronic. It is often a substitute for being able to express oneself coherently. But there is the anarchic, libertarian part of me that thinks bad language can be liberating.

Often the only way to describe arseholes is to describe them exactly as they are: arseholes. My only problem with bad language is that it should be employed precisely, timely and sparingly. Bad language is only effective on an artistic and literary level when it is used cunningly. This is why James Joyce’s Ulysses is a work of genius, or why the Richard E Grant character in the film Withnail & I is so beautifully touching, or why Graham Chapman’s ‘Brian’, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, telling his self-appointed apostles that he is ‘not the Messiah’ and ‘now fuck off!’ is so brilliantly timed.

On the contrary, listening to people in pubs or cabs using swear words in every single sentence is the very opposite of genius. For the same reason, the sweary chef Gordon Ramsay – whose show is even called The F-Word – is an unfunny idiot.

The best examples of swearing in artistic endeavours are those in which only one piece of bad language is used and expertly deployed – like Rivers did. Think of the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, which early twentieth-century audiences used to visit just to be horrified by Eliza Doolittle exclaiming ‘not bloody likely’, or the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, in which Rhett Butler says ‘frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’. Kenneth Tynan saying the word ‘fuck’ on BBC for the first time in 1965 was memorable not merely because he was the first to do so, but he was the first to do so once. The Sex Pistols may have gone over-the-top when they described Bill Grundy as a ‘dirty fucker’ (among other things) live on television in December 1976, but that was still an hilarious piece of television, principally because Grundy had misjudged the Pistols so badly (3).

The outrage about Joan Rivers is misplaced, phoney and bogus. Few people find the expression ‘fucking shit’ offensive today, merely for the simple reason that promiscuity and scatology are no longer taboo. This is for the same reason that ‘bloody’ and ‘damn’ are no longer taboo, because we are no longer a Christian country and we are no longer offended by blasphemy. All swear-words reflect the mores of their cultures. If Joan Rivers had referred to people as ‘coons’ or ‘pakis’ or ‘niggers’, I suppose I would be genuinely offended, and I dare say she would have suffered the same fate as football manager-turned-pundit Ron Atkinson, who lost his job for using such derogatory language on air. That would have been truly daring. This is because the biggest taboo in society today is racism, and why, consequently, racist swearwords are the only genuinely shocking words left. It wouldn’t have been particularly commendable had she used one, but it would at least have been genuinely offensive.

I’m not in the least offended by people using the ‘f-word’ on daytime TV. But I am offended by people who always seek an excuse to be offended.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Joan Rivers swears on Loose Women, YouTube

(2) ITV takes swearing Rivers off air, BBC News, 17 June 2008

(3) Sex Pistols interview with Bill Grundy, YouTube

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Topics Culture


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