Infamous TV Firsts


modern family.JPGIn case you haven’t heard, ABC’s hit comedy Modern Family will air an episode next week in which Lily—the 2-year-old adopted daughter of gay couple Cam and Mitchell—will blurt the f-word.

“We thought it was a very natural story since, as parents, we’ve all been through this,” Steve Levitan, the show’s creator, told “ABC will tell you that Modern Family gets away with a lot, because I think it’s all about context. … I’m sure we’ll have some detractors.”

Naturally, viewers at home won’t hear the actual word: A few boundaries still exist on television. You can’t lob an unbleeped, scripted f-bomb during the family hour even now.

But those boundaries are quickly disappearing. As a parent, I find myself scrambling for the remote control during commercial breaks way too often these days. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much of that moral slide has taken place in a relatively short period of time. I’m 47. I don’t think of myself as old. But recently I looked back at some TV tipping points that occurred during my lifetime, and it made me feel absolutely ancient:

•  The first time TV beamed the word “h—” into our homes as an expletive was at the end of the 1967 Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” when Kirk said, “Let’s get the h— out of here.”

•  During the 1972 season, Maude became the first prime-time series to show a principle player choosing to have an abortion. It was actually the title character, portrayed by actress Bea Arthur.

•  Male and female nudity appeared on TV for the first time on separate occasions in 1973. The TV movie Steambath showed a woman taking a shower, while the sitcom M*A*S*H flashed a brief shot of actor Gary Burghoff’s bare backside.

•  In 1974, one year after shocking theatergoers in The Exorcist, actress Linda Blair starred in the controversial TV movie Born Innocent, featuring the first rape ever depicted on the small screen.

•  Also in ’74, a daytime soap opera courted scandal by having a woman call her son a “bastard.” Even if you’ve never heard of the show Love of Life, you’re probably familiar with the actor who played the son: Christopher Reeve.

•  Speaking of soaps, the prime-time comedy serial Soap premiered in 1977, and featured Jodie Dallas, television’s first openly gay main character. Jodie was portrayed by actor/comedian Billy Crystal.

•  For decades, NBC’s Saturday Night Live has made its mark by irreverently crossing lines of decency. But in 1981 there were actually consequences when comedian Charles Rocket got fired after uttering the first televised f-bomb.

Those are just a few classic examples. Perhaps you can remind us of others. Of course, writers and producers continue to look for ways to break taboos today; they’re just having a harder time finding any of them still intact.

Last fall, actress Whitney Cummings (who helped create the surprise hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls) addressed the fact that the word vagina was suddenly getting a lot of play in prime time. She said, “I think our tolerance for what is edgy is changing. We’re getting a little desensitized, so sometimes you have to be more and more shocking because now you have YouTube and the Internet and all the rest that’s available for us to watch.”

She’s absolutely right. With so many entertainment options at our disposal—not to mention competition from the anything-goes world of cable TV—traditional networks are as desperate as ever to get our attention. So they giggle like third-graders eager to shock us with the naughty words they’ve learned on the playground. We turn our heads. We may roll our eyes. But it doesn’t last. And the next show has to up the ante. Indeed, as we’ve witnessed for nearly 50 years, any short-term benefit to the networks is something we’ll be paying for as a society long after that program has been canceled.

Who wrote this?

Senior Editor for PLUGGEDIN.COM. In addition to hosting the weekly "Official Plugged In Podcast," Bob also writes reviews, articles and Movie Nights discussion guides, and manages areas of this website. He has served at Focus on the Family for more than 20 years. Since 1995, Bob has penned "High Voltage," a monthly column that answers children's entertainment questions in Clubhouse magazine. He has co-authored several books, including Chart Watch, Movie Nights, Movie Nights for Teens and, most recently, The One Year Father-Daughter Devotions. Bob is also co-host of "The Official Adventures in Odyssey Podcast."

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Michelle:

Hurray, Kathleen!  A voice of reason...

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Bob:

Personally, I question how this is funny at all. Some guy dropping the f-word isn't the same as a litttle girl doing it. But the real lesson here is that it isn't right for a 3 year old or a 33 year old to curse.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

Having watched the episode in question, the 'controversy' was utterly overblown. First, the little actress playing Lily didn't actually say the f-word. As far as I know, she said 'fudge'. Also, her lips were pixelated on air. Plus, the reaction of the other characters was not to encourage her, but to explain to her why she shouldn't say bad words.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Bob_Smithouser:

If we watched dramas and sitcoms (which we don't), I would agree with you, Rick.  But why can't a family enjoy Jeopardy! or a football game on Sunday afternoon without being assaulted by racy network promos?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lisbeth:

Not that I agree with what "Modern Family" is doing in this episode but I think what the show's creator is referring to is that dreaded moment in every parent's life when your child learns their first swear word.  And, these days, it's often before the desired age of when they would want their child to know the existence of swear words.  I was 13 when I learned about the existence of swear words and, by 14, I knew most of them (but never used them, of course) because of my classmates.  My parents were hoping that I would make it to high school before I knew the existence of swear words.  Instead, it happened one year early, in eighth grade.  I don't watch "Modern Family" but I am curious as to how they will shoot that specific scene, where Lily drops the f-bomb.  There are ways you can shoot that scene without the child actress learning the actual f-word.  I would hope they would go through with the scene without corrupting the child actress' innocence. 

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Donna:

That's exactly what I was thinking.  She's a small child!  I disagree with the show's creator in that "we've all been through this".  You can't possibly believe that every household uses the "f" word in front of children.  What does that say about society??

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kari:

Not that it makes a big difference, but the child actor for Lily has changed to a four-year-old playing the 3-year-old toddler now. Again, doesn't make a difference in this case, but since the article was wrong in pointing out that it was a 2 year old, I thought I'd point it out. The photo is incorrect as well.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lori:

I'm wondering how they explained to a two-yr-old little actress what she was saying. And that her parents would allow her to utter the word? wow.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

I find it curious that we are more sensitive to language/nudity than say...violence. Many of today's TV shows are quite gruesome/gory especially shows like Law & Order, Bones, Criminal Minds. It's like the writers sit around brainstorming 'creative' ways to kill people, because we're no longer moved by the run-of-the-mill murder.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Tom:

Let me put it this way: people killing others for their politics is close to a universal constant through history. People deciding that getting naked in front of an audience is not an activity that should be kept to seedy back-alley establishments or private parties of a particular sort but is completely acceptable to put in front of as many people as possible is not. Also, generally, it's a bad sign for the continuing health and vitality of a society.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kathleen:

Am I supposed to be offended by the fact that there are gay characters on TV, like there are gay people in real life?  Some "taboos" are simply forms of misprepresentation and prejudice, like the "taboo" against interracial couples and GLBT Americans.  Good riddance to those taboos.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Rick A:

"As a parent, I find myself scrambling for the remote control during commercial breaks way too often these days."

There's a problem with our culture alright and one of the ways it expresses its degradation is TV. But Bob, it sounds like you are part of the problem. You wouldn't have to scramble for the remote, if the TV wasn't turned on with you and your kids sitting in front of it. Maybe, it's time for you to find another way to be with them.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Stephanie B:

I'm only 20, but I still find the entertainment of the 90s much milder than what's on now.  I mean, stuff like sob, etc. are now given air time WITHOUT censors while back when I was a kid, those words were smattered and far apart in tv.  I remember my dad always bleeping a certain episode of M*A*S*H b/c Hawkeye yelled "Son of a b****".  Hearing words like that in every day life just helps to de-sensitize me to the language in movies/tv, but I don't think I can ever be comfortable hearing crass sexual references OR the f word.  I especially flinch when I hear the f word, even if it's in a movie I've seen before.  I cannot stand it, and don't understand why Hollywood has the mindset that crass language is the only way to "be original."  It's not original; it's disgusting.  Don't even get me started on how I feel about shows like Modern Family.  Just one more blow against the family structure in this country.

[As a Trekkie, I didn't know Kirk was the first character to cuss on tv.  That was an interesting tidbit.]

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Tim:

You make some great points, Bob, nicely done. On a related note, I remember watching the news when I was younger and they were talking about the anniversary of George Wallace getting shot on camera when he was runnign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Then they showed it happen. I was stunned by seeing it happen on the screen in front of me, and wondered why they did not give a warning that the film was going to roll. Thinking about this also makes me wonder if being concerned about bare skin on TV should be as important to me as being concerned about people getting shot just because they want to get elected.


Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Jim :

We must not forget that the people making those programs are real people who need our prayers. The actor or actress who was in one of those scenes was in our church choir when I was small. Success seems to have seduced the person. Yet there are people in the entertainment/media industry who take a stand. I noticed that when one particularly raunchy program was added to one channel's lineup, that channel's usual announcer disappeared from the announcements of what would be on. Once that raunchy program was canceled, the usual voice was back again.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Hithwenur:

Hm. Maybe it says somethign about those changing standards that the fact that Kirk had cussed in that episode didn't even stay in my brain after watching it.