Sex On The Tube: Sitcoms Test Boundaries

In TV comedy lore, taboos are legendary. On I Love Lucy, they couldn't say the word "pregnant." Married couples slept in separate beds.

Those days are long gone.

"People are saying things on TV that they never used to say before," says Allan Neuwirth, a longtime TV writer and author of the book They'll Never Put That On The Air. "They want the viewers. They're losing viewers to cable, and anything they can do to grab people ..."

Of all the shows airing during prime time, sitcoms have the most sex talk, according to the Kaiser Foundation. But the networks do still have people — working in Standards and Practices — who review scripts for indecency or anything else that might cause them trouble with the Federal Communications Commission.

"We have a lovely S&P woman, Suzie," says Carter Bays, co-creator of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. "Every week, we have the same conversation. We'll try to slip something by her. They'll be some dirty-sounding term. She'll look it up on urbandictionary.com, and she'll bust us on it. It won't fly."

Suzie must be pretty lenient. How I Met Your Mother is about a group of friends in their early 30s. You can always count on the character Barney for a steady stream of sex jokes.

"Sitcoms have always been riddled with innuendo and double entendres," says David Crane, one of the co-creators of Friends. "But these days, it seems like writers have obliterated the boundaries, in every time slot."

Crane says it's like a badge of honor to come up with clever sex jokes.

"The rules change," he says. "During the 10 years we did Friends, the boundaries shifted and then shifted back."

A good sitcom writer, Bays says, should play with the rules and language.

"The stuff that comes out of the writers' room is far worse than anything that you see on the shows," he says.

To check himself, Bays thinks about what his mother, an ordained minister, would think. He says she doesn't hesitate to give him feedback about the show.

"She'll never call me on something being too dirty or too explicit," he says. "She'll call me on something not being funny. That's much more embarrassing."

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