In 1939 the movie Gone with the Wind astonished viewers by dropping what is largely considered the first swear word in cinema history. In 1965 in the United States, Doris Packer dropped the first curse word in a prime time sitcom in an ad-lib line. This was just the beginning. Between 2005 and 2010, studies show that profanity on broadcast television increased by 70%. Then, in 2014 The Wolf of Wallstreet broke records as the most profane Hollywood feature film ever produced with 569 uses of the f-bomb alone. That’s 3.16 f-bombs a minute in case you were wondering.
Furthermore, profanity in comedy is generally utilized to produce laughter based on a shock factor. At least it used to, but with the frequency of movies like 22 Jump Street, Superbad, Deadpool, and Sweet Sixteen (a movie most frequently identified as a teen comedy but still containing 313 f-bombs), profanity has become increasingly common, resulting in the majority of profanity losing its shock factor on viewers. This has resulted in what the Bible calls a "seared conscience," meaning a person's moral awareness has been reduced. Thus, we find ourselves where we are today - hearing what’s considered “the most taboo curse word” and the “final curse word” that has any ability to provide “shock factor” on TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”.
As a society, we have permitted the searing of our moral consciences to such a degree that the foulest language conceivable is being used by a comedian because it’s the final frontier of shock value. We have given ground again and again. Back in college, I heard this strategy called “The Salami Principle” where we give up a little slice at a time, one after the other, until our resistance has been sliced down to nothing. We didn’t just wake up one day with the worst obscene language imaginable being used on our televisions. No, we acquiesced a slice of our conscience when Rhett Butler said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a [blank]!” We acquiesced when “BS” was used in Bullitt in 1968, the first major Hollywood film to do so. We gave up another slice in 2001 when South Park used the s-word more than 150 times in a single episode. And again, in 2014 the United States spent $116.9 million dollars at the box office to slice away yet another sliver of our conscience with The Wolf of Wallstreet. Over and over again, we have sliced away at our conscience, ultimately taking the red, hot knife of vulgarity and laying it against the tender flesh of our consciences until we have nothing left but a sliver of hard, blackened meat.
A well-planned punchline creates shock factor which produces spontaneous laughter. An expertly crafted story line builds to a climax that produces surprise. When we are good at what we do, whether performing a comedy routine or telling a story, written or on the screen, a profuse use of profanity is not necessary. I think the Dowager Duchess character in Downton Abbey had it right, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” We must regain our expertise in crafting our art, comedy or otherwise, rather than falling back on vulgarity as a substitute for creative excellence. Sadly, unless we experience a spiritual awakening, we’ve no doubt sliced too far now.