I was working on a television episode recently that included two sequences that caused us big trouble.
The first sequence involved a character in a hospital gown—the kind that drapes across the front and is loosely tied across the back—in which the character’s rear end hung out indecorously.
We’re not fools, of course. We were aware that the executives at the broadcast network on which our show aired would have concerns. So when we shot the sequence, we made sure the actor’s bottom was covered by a flesh-colored pair of tight underpants.
And then, in a belt-and-suspenders move, when we edited the shot, we pixilated the entire area. This process distorted the video enough so that instead of being confronted by an actual human tuchus, the viewer was treated to a chessboard-looking matrix of mixed-up squares.
The network wasn’t having it. Under no circumstances, we were told, could we depict “rear nudity” on television.
But we weren’t depicting nudity, we said. The actor isn’t naked. He’s wearing tiny little underpants.
But he looks naked, they replied. It didn’t matter whether the actor was wearing tiny underpants or no underpants at all. What mattered was that viewers might think he was nude onstage—with children present in the scene—and that might open an entire noisy controversy that might escalate into something serious that might be a whole big thing, so why not just cut the bit entirely?
The rule is, in other words, you cannot pixelate even non-nudity because someone might think there’s actual nudity underneath.
That wasn’t the only problem we encountered with the episode. One sequence involved a character who was spending time at a Civil War reenactment. He was especially excited because he had finally been promoted, after years of portraying a corpse, to the position of General Stonewall Jackson, one of the titans of the Confederate army.
The executives were deeply unsettled. Is there any way, they asked, that we could sort of downplay that whole angle? Maybe just lift the parts that seemed too Stonewall Jackson-y?
“But the character isn’t actually on the side of the Confederate army,” I said. “You guys get that, right? He’s pretending to be a Confederate because for a Civil War reenactment to make any sense at all, you need someone to play the Confederates.”
Yes, they said, we get it. But what mattered was that some viewers might see the uniforms and the regalia and misunderstand the whole thing. And that might open an entire noisy controversy that might escalate into something serious that might be a whole big thing, so why not cut the bit entirely?
The rule is, in other words, you cannot pixelate even non-racism because someone might think there’s actual racism underneath.
I have been a comedy writer and producer for more than 30 years, and my usual response to idiotic network diktats like these is to cave instantly and find another joke.
So I dragged the actors back into a recording studio and made them re-record some crucial dialogue, turning “General Stonewall Jackson” into the unspecific “the General” and “It’s been my dream,” into something more like, “Someone has to do it.”
The bare-backside joke, on the other hand, I fought for. And it was one of the very few instances in which the network censors changed their minds. The scene played exactly as we wrote it, with hilariously pixilated non-nudity intact. What won the network over was when I reminded them that this kind of joke wouldn’t cause their competitors in the cable and streaming services a moment’s hesitation.
I couldn’t say the same for the Civil War sequence, of course. Nudity and foul language are perfectly at home on cable channels and streaming services, but issues that touch—even glancingly—on race, ethnicity, and sexuality are not. In those arenas, the much-admired “bold” programming on cable channels and streaming services is just as tame as that of their broadcast cousins. Some combination of “wokeness” and “fear of angry wokeness” works to smother the really fun stuff, the stuff that comedy has been about since the first caveman showed his bare bottom around the campfire. Sexuality, race, ethnicity—you’re not even allowed to pixelate them, on broadcast, cable, or streaming.
And that makes comedy pretty hard to do.
You couldn’t do that today is a refrain that echoes throughout the entertainment business. We all know that the frank language of the comedies of the 1970s—All in the Family on television, Blazing Saddles in the movie theater, for instance—would be unthinkable today. The stand-up comedy of Richard Pryor and George Carlin would be stopped at the studio gates for racism, sexism, and a lot of isms and phobias yet to be defined. And the list of what’s unacceptable for comedy now gets refreshed with every passing month.
It wasn’t too long ago that a Saturday Night Live sketch made fun of the inability of Starbucks employees to get anyone’s name correctly spelled on their coffee order. The sketch is hilarious, but it includes some very, um, ethnic dialect in its voice-over dialogue. It is unquestionably, by the “woke” standards of 2022, deeply racist. (And it was kinda-sorta over the line when it was aired a few years ago.)
The comedy that now prevails on television—all forms of it: cable, broadcast, and streaming—is either the safest kind of quirky and diverse, like Emily in Paris or The Good Place, or it’s a foul-mouthed cynical ensemble, like Succession or Veep. These are funny shows, of course, but you never watch them, or anything on TV these days, and think, Wow! I can’t believe they got away with that!
Comedy, though, is at its best when it’s getting away with something. Comedy is a hard thing to contain. Eventually, some of the really good stuff leaks out.
Right now, one place to see I can’t believe they did that comedy is on the mostly unregulated free-for-all called TikTok. It’s there that (mostly) young people are telling funny stories, making hilariously unacceptable jokes about race and sexuality, and doing the kind of material you won’t see on the television channels you pay for.
There are black performers doing comedy routines and impersonations without a thought to the prevailing rules about acceptable, liberal racial discourse. There are young gay comedians doing the kind of frank and mortifying material that could come only from the generation that came after Will & Grace and Obergefell. There’s a young Chinese comic doing a ferocious impression of two Chinese dads, each competing to see whose son is more accomplished. There is even a young man with cerebral palsy who delivers some of the funniest material on any screen, fit for a new generation of Mel Brooks–style movies.
And all of it comes unfiltered and unpixelated to your “For You Page” on the TikTok app.
That’s probably the secret to TikTok’s thriving and unrestrained comedy content. There is no center of TikTok, no home page to go to. There is no one—yet—to say You can’t do that. The mysterious algorithm just serves up short videos and takes note of what the user seems to like in a continuous process of refinement. You never really know what other people are watching—it’s an individual experience, not a collective one. And that makes it more private, so you can really let loose with the belly laughs at material that you otherwise might find offensive. Or, to be more precise, that you otherwise might feel obligated to find offensive.
The one thing that connects all these performers is their youth. Perhaps—and I’m being optimistic here—we’re seeing the green shoots of a Post Woke generation. Comedy, some young comedians have discovered, is supposed to be a little bit messy. Not yet part of the official entertainment industry economy, these performers have created a black market of comedy. There is a place where comedy lives and thrives. You just have to know where to look.
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