$#@*! we're talking profanity in pop culture : Pop Culture Happy Hour We've got dirty words on the brain. In this encore episode from 2013, we chat about the use and functions of profanity in entertainment. We cover everything from Anchorman to South Park to Shakespeare.

$#@*! we're talking profanity in pop culture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1114033896/1114328853" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

We've got dirty words on the brain. Today, we're talking about the use and functions of profanity in entertainment and how it may or may not be changing. In this episode from way back in 2013, I chat with our pals Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon and Trey Graham about everything from "Anchorman" to "South Park" to Shakespeare. I'm Linda Holmes. And in this encore episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about profanity in pop culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOLMES: So, Stephen, why don't you talk a little bit about your observation that got us onto the topic of swearing.

STEPHEN THOMPSON: OK. I mentioned last week that I recently became, turns out, one of the last people to see "Anchorman." And I was very struck by something very clever they did, where they spent about, I don't know, the first 45 minutes of the movie never swearing. It sets itself up to be this very naughty movie, but it feels like it's sanitized for television. And there's even a scene where the Christina Applegate character is yelling in anger, and she's saying, that is baloney. That is baloney. And you know they are doing this very deliberately. And the reason they're doing it deliberately is to set up a big climactic moment about halfway through the movie where Ron Burgundy, the titular anchorman, is sitting there and...

HOLMES: Titular - not a dirty word.

THOMPSON: Titular - not a dirty word. And so basically, as a prank on Ron Burgundy - it has been established that he will read anything on the teleprompter. And so they have written on the teleprompter, and which he dutifully says at the end of his broadcast - instead of his signature send-off, he says, go (expletive) yourself, San Diego.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And this becomes - of course, this sends him spiraling down and sets up one of the big central conflicts of the movie that needs to be resolved.

HOLMES: And we should say, before we go any farther, we will be bleeping any profanity that we actually utilize. But if you do not like the bleeps or you do not even like a discussion of profanity, perhaps around your co-listeners, perhaps listen to this one on your own.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And I'm only speaking for myself, but I'm just incredibly Twitter-pated (ph) at the concept of being able to curse like a sailor into an NPR microphone (laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah, that's true. I did this recently for a very interesting piece that Neda Ulaby did about swearing, and she taped an interview with me. And I swore into the NPR microphone so much that Neda and I decided later they were going to have to, like, sanitize it...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...And they were going to have to dip it in something.

THOMPSON: Dip it in hydrogen peroxide.

HOLMES: ...Because I had violated the microphone I had sworn so much. 'Cause we were talking about different swear words and, like, what the absolute worst ones were. So, like, it was very funny.

THOMPSON: Well, I enjoyed the fact - I was tweeting about how much I curse while driving and how much I curse in the office or whatever. And somebody wrote in on Twitter and just said, I just cannot picture Stephen swearing.

TREY GRAHAM: Jeez.

HOLMES: Oh, God.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Oh, boy.

THOMPSON: And somewhere, my kids are like, yeah.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Watch football with the guy.

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.

GRAHAM: Well, what they're doing in "Anchorman" is a classic withholding technique, right?

THOMPSON: Right.

GRAHAM: They're going to build your appetite for something. The classic example of it that I like to refer to, because Bob Mondello pointed it out to me, was in the original production of "Chicago" in 1975. They never let you see Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera on the stage at the same time. Well, they're on the stage at the same time, but they never dance together. They never have a number together until the very final one. And they come out and they do this very basic, simple routine. But the fact that they're on stage together, moving together, finally, at the end of the show, apparently just drove the audience berserk. And that's...

THOMPSON: Trey, what the f*** does this have to do with swearing?

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: You know me. I like a f***ing digression.

GLEN WELDON: Uh-huh.

HOLMES: Yeah, uh-huh.

THOMPSON: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

WELDON: Well, OK, so this sort of ties in - it doesn't at all.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: But - so let's pretend it does. George Carlin's classic comedy bit, "The Seven Words They'll Never Say On Television" (ph) - he did it many times over the years, and he kept changing the list. I mean, one of his follow-ups was how the list keeps changing and certain words kind of fall off and on. But the seven core that he started out with - of those seven, all seven have been on cable by now.

THOMPSON: Right.

GRAHAM: I assure you.

HOLMES: That's sort of what Neda's piece was about.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: Neda's piece was about - specifically, about the difference between, as we would call them, the F-word and the S-word and how - even a cable network, like AMC - you can basically have as many S-words as you want, but - according to the story - but they count the F-words.

THOMPSON: I think that's true of...

HOLMES: And then they start bleeping them after a very small number. Not bleeping them - dropout.

GRAHAM: Yeah.

HOLMES: They have audio dropout.

THOMPSON: I think that somewhat the same is true of "South Park" - that depending on the time of day that Comedy Central is showing "South Park," they will - anyway, and I know at one point they were able to show the "South Park" movie...

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Actually uncut...

GRAHAM: Wow.

THOMPSON: ...Which - that movie is filthy.

GRAHAM: Filthy.

HOLMES: And it's not the FCC. I mean, on cable, it's not the FCC. And after 10 o'clock at night, it's not the FCC.

GRAHAM: Right.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: It's - you just don't. It's the same reason that, even though we are not on the radio - we are a podcast - we're not going to unload it on you...

GRAHAM: It's 'cause we're not a**holes.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: It was "South Park" that had the episode about where they just say the word s***.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH PARK")

MATT STONE: (As Kyle Broflovski) They're going to say (expletive) on television?

TREY PARKER: (As Stan Marsh) They can't say (expletive) on television.

PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) It was just on the news. People are freaking out, dude.

PARKER: (As Stan Marsh) Holy (expletives).

STONE: (As Kenny McCormick, inaudible).

PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Yeah. I'm going to have people over to my house to see it.

STONE: (As Kyle Broflovski) But I've got these tickets to see "Lion King" on stage.

PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Maybe you didn't hear me, Kyle. I said (expletive) on television.

STONE: (As Kyle Broflovski) It's just a marketing ploy by the network, like that time they had the first male-to-male kiss with Terrance and Phillip.

PARKER: (As Stan Marsh) Oh, come on, dude. This is history.

STONE: (As Kyle Broflovski) It's stupid.

WELDON: And that kind of establishes very clearly that it gets deadening. It loses its power...

HOLMES: Right.

WELDON: ...After, like, maybe 30.

HOLMES: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: Do you remember what the episode title was?

WELDON: I don't.

GRAHAM: It's called "It Hits the Fan."

WELDON: There we go.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Nice.

HOLMES: Well, and I think the big debate about profanity is always whether or not it's in some way necessary or useful, or does it have an impact, or is it mostly lazy?

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: And I've definitely seen movies where - particularly if it's very nasty and directed at other people all the time and set in anger and kind of like a...

THOMPSON: It can be deadening, absolutely.

HOLMES: It's very deadening, and it does get boring. And I do get kind of tired of listening to it.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: But there are also movies where - the one that came to mind for me was "Die Hard," which has several really, to me, indispensable uses of profanity. There is a moment where John McClane is trying to call for help to the emergency number, and he calls on the emergency channel 'cause, of course, he's a police officer, and he knows which one is the emergency channel. And he calls. And the operator, who does not know he's a police officer, is hearing this apparently senseless claim that there are terrorists taking over this office building, and she thinks it's a prank. And so she says, sir, this is for emergency calls only. And he says, no (expletives) lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And I consider it one of the absolute greatest uses of profanity in the history of film, because it's totally...

THOMPSON: It's a realistic use of...

HOLMES: Well, it's also totally necessary. There's no other way to say that line that would feel as good...

GRAHAM: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...As that one does. And it's the same a couple minutes later. She says, you know, if you don't get off this line, I'm going to report you to the such-and-such. And he says, fine, report me. Come the (expletive) down here and arrest me.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: It's one of my favorite lines in the movie. And it doesn't work if he says, come the heck down here and - like, it's not as funny.

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: It's funnier, and it's more believable, and it's more intense with that language in it, so there I believe it.

THOMPSON: Which does make me want to ask our producer, Lauren Migaki, to play me a little clip...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...That I brought in. I've talked on the show before about how much I love "Mr. Show," and they - a sketch comedy show on HBO - and they have a priceless sketch where they're parodying "Goodfellas," but it's edited for television, and so it's called "Pallies."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. SHOW")

JAY JOHNSTON: (As Jimmy "The Businessman" Adiglio) That...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Loopy nerd.

JOHNSTON: (As Jimmy "The Businessman" Adiglio) ...We buried is probably stinking up the whole...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Parking.

JOHNSTON: (As Jimmy "The Businessman" Adiglio) ...Forest by now.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Tommy Wommy O'Mira) Hey, watch your...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mother father.

ODENKIRK: (As Tommy Wommy O'Mira) ...Mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSTON: (As Jimmy "The Businessman" Adiglio) Don't you tell me what to do, you little piece of...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Shoe.

(LAUGHTER)

ODENKIRK: (As Tommy Wommy O'Mira) Hey, kiss my...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ant.

ODENKIRK: (As Tommy Wommy O'Mira) ...You...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mother father.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And after the second mother father, he holds out his fist, and they just crudely cut out where his...

GRAHAM: Middle finger would be...

THOMPSON: ...Middle finger would be and replace it with a thumbs-up.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yeah.

GRAHAM: Well, that has produced - that whole dubbing for television has produced some classics - like, for example, Yippie-aye-ki-yay (ph) Mr. Falcon...

HOLMES: Yeah (laughter).

GRAHAM: ...From "Die Hard"; I'm tired of these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane...

HOLMES: Yeah.

GRAHAM: And perhaps my favorite, from "The Exorcist" - your mother knits socks that smell.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, and I think there were a couple that were just classics that, for a while, everybody kept seeing on television. And there is a heavily edited version of "The Breakfast Club"...

WELDON: Oh, yeah, with...

THOMPSON: Oh (laughter).

HOLMES: ...That floated around for a long time, where they kept saying, flip you.

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: No, Dad. Flip you. And it's like - for some reason, the combination - and they capture it in that "Mr. Show" thing - the combination of the fake language and the obvious dubbing always really makes me laugh. I'm not going to say there I don't.

WELDON: Of course, in the right...

GRAHAM: What?

WELDON: ...In the right hands and with the right mouth, cussing can be musical and really propel. It...

HOLMES: Yes.

GRAHAM: Oh, I...

WELDON: ...These cuss words are Anglo-Saxon. They're short. They're guttural. They end in a hard sound. They are like the pistons that drive language. They are the percussion instruments.

THOMPSON: Yes.

HOLMES: Yeah.

GRAHAM: Right.

THOMPSON: Yes.

WELDON: So this is why, when you hear nothing but drumming...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: ...It's kind of a dull - but somebody like the character of Malcolm Tucker on "The Thick of It," played by Peter Capaldi.

GRAHAM: Yes.

WELDON: He uses...

HOLMES: Sure.

WELDON: I was going to bring in a clip. It would just be one (imitating censor sound).

HOLMES: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: There's no purpose.

THOMPSON: It would be like Lil Wayne at the Grammys.

GRAHAM: Right.

WELDON: Exactly.

GRAHAM: I - my note was in the loop, but...

WELDON: Yes. But also "Glengarry Glen Ross" - all those Mamet monologues with - I was thinking of the Al Pacino version with - playing Ricky Roma. It's - again, it's nothing but long strings of this incredibly Byzantine language punctuated by these little pops that wake you up.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I think it's because I value it having those pops, and I value it having some heft so that it's still funny and so that it still startles that I don't like thinking of it as something that's like - you know, somehow that word is bad...

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: ...Or this word is good or bad. But - it's hard to make the case for it, but what I really like is I do like to see some of those words limited.

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: Not only because they are awfully coarse when they come out of the mouth of, like, an 11-year-old...

GRAHAM: Right.

HOLMES: But because, that way, if you keep them and you don't use them too much, then they make me laugh more...

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: When they come up, as opposed to, you know, if I have been listening to something where that kind of stuff is just used constantly. Then, if somebody says, you know, the same line, and it's full of swearing, then it doesn't hit me the same way.

THOMPSON: Well, if, in "Anchorman," there had been a bunch of F-bombs dropped, him saying, go (expletive) yourself, San Diego, would be so much less impactful, and it would not be nearly as effective if that movie...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Just were full of profanity all the way through.

HOLMES: Yeah.

GRAHAM: When you're creating alternate realities, sometimes some creators like to insert fake cursing. "Battlestar Galactica" - the original series back in the '70s - used the term, that's a bunch of felgercarb, which is, like, work. It's too hard to work. The people who made it recently in the last decade had a different option.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Admiral William Adama) What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Nothing, sir. Just another leak in that frakking window.

KATEE SACKHOFF: (As Kara "Starbuck" Thrace) Frak me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, frak.

SACKHOFF: (As Kara "Starbuck" Thrace) Frak.

(As Kara "Starbuck" Thrace) Three frakking aborts, Chief?

(As Kara "Starbuck" Thrace) Oh, frak me. (As Kara "Starbuck" Thrace) He's got to get that frakking gimbal locked or I'll have his ass.

WELDON: Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

THOMPSON: I would certainly hope that somebody compiled a loop, and that's not all one scene.

WELDON: That is not all one scene. That is all the fraks from "Battlestar Galactica."

HOLMES: See, and I do find that more distracting...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

WELDON: That's exactly my point.

HOLMES: ...Than if they would just have said [expletive] the whole - like, I don't know.

WELDON: I can buy that in space, we all write on octagons. I can buy it. Sure. Fine. Doesn't make any sense, but let's do it. But that always kicked me out. And the people who, in the real world, use that expression, even though there are perfectly acceptable other curse words - that bugs me. That mystifies me.

THOMPSON: Oh, like - you mean like [expletive]?

WELDON: Well, yes, exactly, for example. For example, use that.

THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah, I think that's a better one.

WELDON: "Firefly," another science fiction show, had a much more, I think, interesting take on it. What they would do - it posits that, in the future, Western and Eastern culture will have melded together. So that - it filled the show up with a lot of curses in Mandarin - not actual curses in Mandarin because what the writers would do would come up with some kind of silly curse, then turn to somebody and ask them to translate into Mandarin, literally - so it often didn't make sense - and then teach the actors phonetically how to say it. So for example, Holy Mother of God and all her wacky nephews - that's one - the explosive diarrhea of an elephant, and, my favorite, holy testicle Tuesday. All of these are Mandarin curses on the show "Firefly."

HOLMES: Nice.

THOMPSON: Wow.

GRAHAM: I came across a really wonderful essay by Ann Powers - NPR's own Ann Powers - from December 2011. It's called "The Year In Pop And Profanity." It talks about how these things go in cycles, with each generation giggling and discovering this thing that their parents probably didn't have access to - but, of course, they did. She talks about blues singers back in the day, the - especially the lady blues singers who would just sing these filthy songs. And it namechecks everyone from Rihanna to Angela Davis. It's a fine piece of reading I would recommend highly.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it's a good piece.

WELDON: And there's this piece from 1946 that still holds up, that still has power.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAVING CREAM")

BENNY BELL: (Singing) I have a sad story to tell you. It may hurt your feelings a bit. Last night when I walked into my bathroom, I stepped in a big pile of shaving cream.

WELDON: There we go. See what we did there? Little misdirection. That is Benny Bell - a little assist, we think, by Paul Wynn - 1946. That was a staple of the "Dr. Demento Show," of course. Makes sense.

THOMPSON: Yep.

WELDON: He's performed it a lot with "Weird Al" Yankovic lately. And in 1975, because the "Dr. Demento Show," they rereleased it - that same cut - and it got to No. 30 on the Billboard charts. So it has a certain power when you're 6 years old. And apparently, it's retained some of that power.

HOLMES: Oh, yeah. One of those - I - boys didn't do this. One of those things girls did with clapping and, like, the down, down, baby, down by the roller coaster kind of stuff. There was one that was all centered around lines that ended with...

THOMPSON: Oh, what should be profanity.

HOLMES: It was the Miss Lucy had a steamboat. The steamboat had a bell. Miss...

GRAHAM: Yeah. Miss Lucy went to heaven. The steamboat went to...

HOLMES: The steamboat went to hello operator.

THOMPSON: To hello operator. Give me number - yeah.

HOLMES: And so - and it's basically the same idea, that you're swearing but not.

WELDON: It's all about trying to get away with something.

THOMPSON: Well, look at the "Arrested Development" bit where Tobias and Lindsay are fighting. And he yells, you selfish country music-loving lady.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: Right. Yes, yes, absolutely.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, and the funny thing is is that I used to work - when I was recapping television, prior to when I came to NPR, I worked incredibly blue a lot of the time. I mean, I knew somebody once who told me that he was very disappointed in the writing I was doing 'cause I was swearing so much, and it's the mark of a lazy mind and all that stuff. And I remember kind of thinking, I don't necessarily believe that. It's the mark of a lazy mind if you can't not do it...

WELDON: Right.

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: ...Which I guess is the reason why I've been happy to also have a job where I don't do it. And I feel like I now could do either, you know? But, yeah, I mean, if you freed me up, I'd go back to swearing all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I like it a lot.

GRAHAM: As would Shakespeare, who liked a nasty double entendre as much as the next guy.

THOMPSON: But there's a difference between double entendre and...

HOLMES: Right.

THOMPSON: ...And using simple profanity.

HOLMES: Right.

GRAHAM: Sure. But I mean, a lot of...

HOLMES: Both have their place.

THOMPSON: Right.

GRAHAM: Yeah, and a lot of what he was doing was sort of pioneering simple profanities. I mean, there are terms that would have been unspeakably vulgar in his day that he uses in the plays, you know? That joke about country matters...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

GRAHAM: ...You know?

WELDON: Trey Graham, read that right there. Would you mind?

THOMPSON: Oh (laughter).

WELDON: Read that right there.

GRAHAM: Blah, blah, Shakespeare, blah, blah, country matters, blah.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: Trey Graham.

WELDON: Yep.

HOLMES: OK. Well, we want to know what your favorite moments of profanity in pop culture are. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. This episode was produced by Lauren Migaki, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.