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Saying the unsayable

$#*&@! [Bleep!] On TV, it’s a heyday for thinly veiled profanity

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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With the premiere of CBS’s “$#*! My Dad Says’’ on Thursday, a certain word is having a moment.

No, not that word, the naughty word CBS is withholding from the title of William Shatner’s new sitcom, the word that’s more entertaining for being withheld, the word that will not be spelled out in this family newspaper context.

The word is “grawlix,’’ and it was invented by cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of the comic “Beetle Bailey.’’ In 1964, and more prominently in his wry 1980 book “The Lexicon of Comicana,’’ Walker coined the term to refer to the symbols that represent nonspecific swear words in comics. The keyboard version looks like this: #%&!. In the title “$#*! My Dad Says,’’ of course, the opening S-shaped dollar sign tells all.

Grawlixes, along with bleeps, acronyms such as “WTF,’’ and minced oaths such as “frigging,’’ “frak,’’ and “fugly,’’ are at an all-time high on TV these days. One of the funniest lines in “Modern Family’’ last season depended on our familiarity with text-based abbreviations when Dad explained that WTF stood for “Why the Face?’’ Over the past decade, while the FCC has cracked down on live TV slip-ups and wardrobe malfunctions — or perhaps partly because of those efforts — the network deployment of FCC-proof, gestured-at obscenity has flourished. These linguistic fig leaves — as transparent as Katy Perry’s dress at last week’s MTV Video Music Awards — cover but really don’t cover the offending parts. They make us look closer, not look away.

Placing a barely veiled woman such as Perry on a red carpet is de rigueur in pop culture. It’s what pop culture is — the risqué, the polarizing, the boundary-testing. But placing a barely veiled expletive in a CBS sitcom title is bold for a network whose titles don’t generally veer far beyond “Yes, Dear.’’ Not surprisingly, CBS is currently under attack by the Parents Television Council for choosing to go with “$#*! My Dad Says.’’ The organiza tion is urging advertisers to boycott the series.

Why didn’t CBS simply change the title to “Stuff My Dad Says’’? Obviously, controversy and the attendant press can’t hurt a show’s chances, especially a show as lacking in wit and originality as this one. But CBS is also doing what many networks are doing right now — straining to stay relevant amid the Internet and pay-cable language free-for-all. For example, while ABC News had to call the F-word on Lindsay Lohan’s fingernail in court a “profane message’’ and nothing more specific, websites didn’t have to cope with unmentionables; they simply showed the defiant proclamation that was followed by “U.’’

All the networks are now madly working the expletive loopholes, hoping to be edgy without getting fined or offending advertisers. And basic cable channels, too, are mastering the work-around; although they are beyond the reach of the FCC, which regulates only broadcast TV, they don’t want to alienate advertisers. They know they’re unlikely to truly offend a significant number of viewers: A Rasmussen Reports poll in July found that while 57 percent of adults feel there’s too much inappropriate content on TV and radio, sex and violence are the main concerns. Only 9 percent think bad language is the biggest problem area. Veiled expletives are the safest taboo.

Changing “$#*!’’ to “Stuff’’ would undermine exactly what was enticing to CBS about the show in the first place — that it’s based on a successful Twitter feed (by Justin Halpern), and that it’s a nod to the Twitter demo who live and breathe textpletives and uncensored swears. Just adding the “bleep’’ to the title of Investigation Discovery’s new “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?’’ immediately redirects the appeal of the show, which is just another docu-series about spouses with secret lives, toward a younger and more ad-friendly audience.

The CW’s 2008 advertising campaign for “Gossip Girl’’ was also a not-quite-obscene grab for Generation Text. By prominently featuring the letters OMFG as the tag, the network was competing for the interest of the youth market without breaking any rules. Another youth-demo channel, G4, currently features a jaunty series about geeky experiments called “It’s Effin’ Science.’’ By adding a grammatical embellishment to the letter F, harkening back to the days before Howard Stern went satellite, G4 has turned an almost PBS-like premise into something that seems cool.

Bleeping, too, is having its own heyday. Just watch an episode of reality shows such as “Jersey Shore’’ and “Hell’s Kitchen’’ or this year’s MTV Movie Awards, if you need evidence. More interestingly, scripted series are also leaning on the bleep button. In dramas, the idea is to evoke grittiness, to create an R-rated impression without actually being R-rated. These scripted shows don’t even need to include expletives in the first place, of course, but they do it anyway to seem raw. On “Southland,’’ for example, and on the forthcoming “Detroit 1-8-7,’’ the actors use curses that are later bleeped out in post-production.

Scripted comedies bleep for irreverence more than realism. “South Park’’ and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,’’ for example, do it to appear brazen for breaking rules in flagrante. Bleeping gives both shows a more iconoclastic vibe — we’re saying it, despite the protestations of The Man (and the advertisers). Jimmy Kimmel understands the power of the bleep to add innuendo and edge; in his regular segment “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship,’’ Kimmel bleeps ordinary words in clips to make them seem obscene. When we see Kate from “Lost’’ saying “I’m going back, to [bleep] your daughter,’’ Kate’s wholesome plea to save someone suddenly sounds shocking. Stewart could legally use the words that get bleeped out on “The Daily Show,’’ but the bleeping only feeds the show’s renegade atmosphere.

It’s a little amusing to think of CBS cultivating any kind of renegade anything, since the highly rated network is still considered the home of the old folks and the old formulas, compared with the youth pandering of the CW, Fox, and NBC. But with “$#*! My Dad Says’’ this week, CBS is going there, stepping into the fray, armed with a dollar sign and an exclamation point.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.