Thursday, March 06, 2014

Taboo TV

I just read They'll Never Put That On The Air, a book about prime time comedies the networks put on that pushed the envelope and had trouble with the censors.  It's one of those oral histories--why do so many book about TV lately seem to be oral histories?  Guess it's easier than actually writing something.

After a chapter dealing with various battles in the 50s and 60s when TV (and movies) were very straitlaced, each chapter spotlights a show that was a breakthrough, and faced plenty of resistance from the network.  Aside from the final chapter on Seinfeld, all these shows are late 60s or 70s, when TV (and movies) really opened up in language and subject matter: The Smothers Brothers Comedy HourRowan & Martin's Laugh-InThe Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In The Family, M*A*S*H, Maude and Soap.  Having read whole books on The Smothers Brothers, Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld, there wasn't too much new there, but the rest was generally fresh material.

These shows paved the way for each other, not to mention so many that followed.  Each had its own special problems.  Rowan & Martin moved so fast that they pushed through a lot of drug and sex jokes that the censors couldn't even catch.  Of course, it helped that the show hit #1--throughout the book we see the bigger the hit the more they could get away with.  Laugh-In had more to fear from political censorship (just as The Smothers Brothers had), even if the participation of Richard Nixon helped get him elected.  (They offered Humphrey his moment but he wasn't interested).

So one solution they came up with was to make the joke in the negative--who could complain if they're saying something isn't true?  So the line would be "There's no truth to the rumor that Vice President Agnew is against freedom of speech, he just doesn't want things like that to fall into the wrong hands."

All In The Family had a lot of trouble getting on the air, but before too long it became one of the biggest hits of all time.  People recognized Archie Bunker, who was lovable even as he spouted revolting language.  That's another lesson in the book. You can get away with a lot--more than the network suits think--and still have the character be sympathetic.  Maude, a spin-off of All In The Family, took things one step further and did lots of "issue" shows, most controversially about Maude getting an abortion. (Still, issue shows mixed with people screaming at each other doesn't necessarily hold up that well, and I'm not sure if Maude has stood the test of time.  Even All In The Family has lost some of its luster.)

M*A*S*H fought over how much gore to show--it is a show about surgeons, after all, and if you don't show them operating, it's just a bunch of frat house pranks.  They didn't show the guts, but they were allowed to show blood on the doctor's aprons.  They also fought over the laugh track.  It was a one-camera show, and the creators didn't want fake laughter, especially since, despite the hijinks, the show was about war, a serious subject.  They came to a compromise--in the operating room, no laughs.  This gave them reason to set plenty of scenes there. And as producer-writer Larry Gelbart notes, the DVDs offer a laugh track free experience if you choose, so they won in the long run.

Soap was so controversial it almost didn't get on the air.  Word got out that the pilot allegedly featured a priest getting seduced in a church, so religious groups around the nation condemned the show sight unseen.  It did get on the air--though the scene wasn't what people thought--and featured one of the first regular gay characters on TV, played by Billy Crystal.  But Soap (which I never really watched) was sort of a parody of soap operas, so it was supposed to be outrageous, but not necessarily to be taken seriously.  In later years I hear it featured a plotline with Martians.

Anyway, an interesting book about how no one knows anything in show biz--these shows were often opposed at the highest levels and all achieved great success.  TV has generally been a conservative medium, preferring new shows that look like old shows. But sometimes you need to shake things up to show the way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall the controversy when Soap came on the air. The local catholic newspaper (which got passed out after mass every sunday) had a columnist (an old outraged guy) who regularly reviewed the episodes and ranted about how offensive, unfunny and talentless they were ("I never laughed once!"). I never missed one of these columns- my mom seemed pleasantly surprised that I suddenly had an interest in the catholic newspaper.

Soap in my opinion was not a very good show but its true value lay in all the secondary humor like this that it spawned

4:09 AM, March 06, 2014  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I watched soap for a season or two (up till about the time bert started meeting with aliens). I took it as a parody, and it was good that way. Then it started to take itself too seriously, and try tried to present real character development and social commentary, and it lost its charm.

7:55 AM, March 06, 2014  

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