Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Censorship and A Sense of Humor

We seem quite plainly to be in the midst of a fit of Victorian prudishness, which as a country we tend to engage in on occasion. It all got a nice little push at the Super Bowl by Janet Jackson baring her breast -- or, worse, having it bared -- in a truly tacky halftime show. Congress increased significantly the maximum fine the FCC could levy against broadcasters, and the regulator, lead by Colin's son Michael Powell, has zealously embraced its new power with multi-million dollar fines, including some for small, suggestive bits on shows long cancelled.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine, one of three or four blogs I read with regularity, has been documenting the furor with a nice dose of fury. Particularly entertaining was his blog on how complaining has become a virtual industry, so that the complaints of one or two pissed-off prisses can be magnified by a politically-driven, letter-writing machine. If interested, check his archives for his November 15th entry on his Freedom of Information request regarding a fine against Fox.

Since bloggers -- I guess that's me, huh? -- are supposed to have opinions, I'll shock you with mine: I'm against censorship. I think it's bad.

Then why am I amused by all this? Plenty of contemporary politics really pisses me off, but this I mostly just find silly. Does the FCC really think they can distinguish between artistic smut and non-artistic smut? Their betters have tried before and failed.

Of course, it's not happy funny, but stupid funny, depressing funny, "they're not really doing this, are they?" funny. I thought affiliate stations that decided not to air "Saving Private Ryan" for fear of fines were just doing so to make a point. (They fucking curse in that war movie and contractually, they couldn't edit it.) It turns out the FCC may decide to give them a minimal fine. If they allowed cursing for good movies, they'd have to allow it for bad movies too. (And by the way, let's not forget that Oklahoma just elected Tom Coburn to the Senate; as a Congressman, he railed against the airing of "Schindler's List" as a disgusting display of gratuitious nudity.)

Anyway, I'm sure we'll return to the subject, but I wanted to draw your attention to a timely publication for a bit of context, and perspective, on the issue. It's a book called "Lord Chamberlain regrets..." by the English English Professor Dominic Shellard. It chronicles the sordid history of the chief censor of the British Stage. Read a news story on the book here. My favorite quote from the article deals with one of my favorite plays, and nicely sums up the silliness:

"Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' was labeled 'an interminable verbal labyrinth' by censors who demanded that the Nobel prizewinning playwright replace one 'fart' with a 'belch.'"

I think Michael Powell would be well advised to read this book. I plan to. I also think it might inspire quite a good television movie. Of course, it would have to be on cable.