TV Finds a (Bleeping) Funny Way Around Profanity

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TV shows have been bleeping profanity for years when people speak extemporaneously. In recent years, however, scripted shows have been writing profanity in. The actors say the forbidden words and then the words are bleeped out for comedic effect.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A warning to our listeners: In the next item, we're going to hear about (bleep) and (bleep) and even (bleep). So many people are saying words like (bleep) and (bleep) on television, the Bush administration has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on broadcast indecency.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that the bleep, you know, the (bleep), has given rise to a new comic technique.

NEDA ULABY: The nighttime talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live occasionally features something it calls unnecessary censorship - TV clips with perfectly innocuous words bleeped out.

(Soundbite of bleep)

ULABY: It makes everything, from the evening news to Mr. Rogers, sound dirty.

(Soundbite of song "I Like to be Told")

Mr. FRED ROGERS (Actor): (Singing) If it's going to be hard, if it's not going to hurt, I like to be (bleep).

ULABY: It's horrible, and it's hard not to laugh. Comic bleeping has become standard on scripted shows like the animated Fox sitcom "Family Guy."

(Soundbite of TV program "Family Guy")

Mr. SETH McFARLANE (Actor): (As Peter Griffin) Oh, we can't say (bleep) my own (bleep) house? (bleep) great, Lois. Just (bleep) great. You know, you're lucky you're good at (bleep) my (bleep) or I'd never put up with you. You know what I'm talking about with (bleep) a little (bleep) toothpaste in my (bleep) and my (bleep) cherry (bleep).

ULABY: It was another show from Fox that really took the bleep to dizzying comic heights.

Mr. MITCH HURWITZ (Creator, "Arrested Development") It's "Arrested Development."

ULABY: The show, created by Mitch Hurwitz, was inspired by reality TV. Hurwitz said he never wanted it to feel fake like regular sitcoms.

Mr. HURWITZ: The rhythms felt fake, and the sets looked fake. And this was an experiment in as much reality as we could get away with. And it really needed that language.

ULABY: That language seemed true to "Arrested Development's" main characters -a vulgar, dysfunctional wealthy family. Early in the first season, the adult siblings all sit around and make fun of their mother.

(Soundbite of TV program "Arrested Development")

Mr. WILL ARNETT (Actor): (George Bluth II) Dragging on the old lady.

Mr. TONY HALE (Actor): (Byron Bluth) Can I have an upsized (bleep) buster (bleep) you old, horny slut.

Mr. HURWITZ: That was the point at which we realized, you know, it's more fun to not know exactly what it is that we're saying.

ULABY: "Arrested Development" creator Mitch Hurwitz says bleeping is funny because it's interactive.

Mr. HURWITZ: It becomes kind of a puzzle for people. And I think it's about, you know, letting your imagination do the work.

ULABY: "Arrested Development" had complaints filed against it at the Federal Communication's Commission, although the main problem was its use of the world cornholing, not bleeps. Back at Fox, the division of standards and practices worried about deaf viewers and their ability to read bleeped lips. That, says Hurwitz, is known in the industry as lip flap.

Mr. HURWITZ: And actually, I kind of thought lip flap should be bleeped because that sounded worst than anything we could think of.

ULABY: Lip flap actually became a fake swear word that actors use when they knew they would be bleeped. It's used under a bleep in this scene when employees at the family business get a lecture about sexual harassment.

(Soundbite of TV program Arrested Development")

Mr. ARNETT: (George Bluth II) And please refrain from discussing or engaging in any sort of interoffice (bleep) or (bleep) or finger (bleep) or (bleep) or (bleep) or even (bleep) even though so many people in this office are begging for it.

Mr. HURWITZ: That was funny. Yes. I guess that was our metacomment, wasn't it?

(Soundbite of TV program "Arthur")

Unidentified Man#1: (Singing) Every day, when you're walking down the street

ULABY: Bleeping has become so much a part of television vocabulary, it was the subject of a beloved, famously earnest kid show.

(Soundbite of TV program "Arthur")

Unidentified Man#2 (Actor): (As character) Arthur, I have to ask you something. What does (bleep) mean?

ULABY: Even the writers for "Arthur" on PBS Kids could not resist the bleep's comic power, says head writer Peter Hirsch. He recently re-watched the bleep episode.

Mr. PETER HIRSCH (Head writer, "Arthur"): Basically, all he kids are cursing a blue streak. They're cursing like sailors.

(Soundbite of TV program "Arthur")

Unidentified Man#3 (Actor): (As character) You're a (bleep).

Unidentified Man#4 (Actor): (As character) No, you are. You look like a (bleep).

Unidentified Man#3: (As character) You're a (bleep).

Mr. HIRSCH: I did, in retrospect, think, oh, oh, dear. That was an awful lot of bleeps."

ULABY: Still, Hirsch says he hopes his age-appropriate show gently helped kids think through cursing's confusing double standard.

Mr. HIRSCH: They understand that there are things they're not supposed to hear, and everyone is saying them all the time.

ULABY: An important message for kids and TV writers, says "Arrested Development's" Mitch Hurwitz, whose show was cancelled after three seasons on Fox.

Mr. HURWITZ: You know, you can hurt people with words and you can make people laugh at words and, you know, you can get thrown off of Fox with words. Those are all three very important things for children to know.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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