Reflections on the F-Word
Posted by BE on October 5th, 2009
Warning! This post contains frequent and explicit use of the F-word. If you are offended by seeing this word in print, either by itself or in combination with other words, you would be best not to read on. Otherwise:
I very rarely say ‘fuck’. It’s not that I’m particularly prudish. ‘Fuck’ is a wonderfully explosive swear word, but only if it’s sparingly used. If I say ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’, my friends and family know that I’m either extremely passionate about something or extremely angry. So in a sense my objection to people who pepper their writing or conversation with this and other ‘four-letter words’ is that they debase the currency.
This is nowhere more evident than in stand-up comedy. If you are offended by the frequent use of ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ or ‘motherfucker’, you won’t get many laughs watching Ben Elton, Billy Connelly, Mike King or almost any of the current crop of stand-up comedians. Four-letter words have become part of the lingua franca, the lingo of stand-up.
In a Top of the Morning interview with Ben Elton many years ago, I asked why he and so many other stand-up comics needed to swear so much. Surely, if the routine was really funny, it would stand on its own feet without the pervasive prop of ‘bad language’.
Elton said his mother would agree with me. She was constantly telling him off for his ‘disgusting’ on-stage language. But it was now almost impossible to connect with a stand-up audience without including ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ or ‘motherfucker’ in almost every sentence. The punters expected it. I had a similar response in an interview with Mike King.
I have considerable respect for the intellect, integrity and comedic talents of both men, but it is hard to resist the thought that stand-up comedians are finding obscenity a convenient substitute for wit.
Over the last week, I’ve heard ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ and ‘motherfucker’ used on two New Zealand television shows – Seven Days and Outrageous Fortune. Seven Days is a highlight of my viewing week. At its best it’s side-splittingly funny. And it achieves this effect solely through the quick-wittedness and social irreverence of the talent. So why does it need the f-words? It would be interesting to calculate whether the incidence of obscene language increases as funniness and audience response decrease. ‘Whoops, losing them, better throw in a few “motherfuckers”!’ This may have been what was happening on last week’s uncharacteristically lacklustre episode of Seven Days. But as a comedy parachute it failed to open.
Outrageous Fortune is a different cup of tea. This, the scriptwriters would no doubt have us believe, is how lawless, dysfunctional, Westie families talk. The justification for this sort of language, if justification is needed, is social accuracy. I’m inclined to think that ratings may be the real justification. Outrageous Fortune has to be… well… outrageous. And it is. More nudity, sex, drug-use, crime and undeleted expletives than you can shake a stick at. I love it. But after a while I tire of the undeleted expletives. They grate.
It suddenly occurred to me that I was actually annoyed not with the producers or scriptwriters, but with the characters themselves. I wanted to give them a telling off. ‘Now listen, Cheryl, Van, Loretta, Jethro, Pascalle, Munter…. Don’t you realise that all this ‘fucking’ just shows what an impoverished vocabulary you have. You’re not all entirely stupid. It’s just a really bad habit you’ve got into. And it’s all so… unnecessary.’ Which, when you think about it, is a real tribute to the producers, directors, scriptwriters and actors on Outrageous Fortune who have drawn me so fully into their world.
But the question remains – are four-letter words essential to successful, high-rating television comedy or drama? I would have thought not. A decade or two ago you would not have heard the word ‘fuck’ anywhere on radio or television in this country. Its total absence was perhaps out of tune with the realities of how many Kiwis talk when they’re passionate or angry. But neither ‘fuck’ nor any other word considered offensive by the average citizen ever appeared in The Billy T James Show or in Gloss, our highest rating comedy and drama series.
Maybe we’ve just got into a rather bad habit.
And for the record:
Radio New Zealand’s programme rules state: ‘In general, senior managers will never approve the word “motherfucker”, and the word “fuck” will only be approved in rare circumstances where context justifies its use.’
The Radio Network has an even stricter policy. ’Fuck’ may not be used by its programme hosts or talk-back callers. Like all talk-back stations, the ZB network operates a 7-second delay, allowing hosts to delete unacceptable material before it is broadcast. Obscene language will occasionally slip through, but is unlikely to be grounds for a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
TV3 will allow limited use of obscene language after 8pm but takes a much more relaxed approach after 9.30. (Outrageous Fortune and Seven Days are both TV3 programmes broadcast after 9.30.)
TVNZ takes a similar position. Though it will on occasion broadcast the f-word after 8.30pm, it prefers to restrict its use of the word until after 9.30. If the word is used more than twice, the programme will be preceded by a viewer warning.
Most New Zealand newspapers will not print the word ‘fuck’ in full, preferring to use asterisks as in ‘f**k’. This always struck me as rather silly, since there are very few New Zealanders who would not be able to fill in the missing letters.
Broadcasting Standards, Outrageous Fortune, Seven Days, Social Mores, The F-Word