So last week we looked at how shock for the sake of shock has no real purpose out of… well shock, now lets take a small look at how what is shocking has changed as society has and if what we feel is shocking stays proportionate with the growth of said society. For the sake of brevity I am going to stick with “modern” times since if I wanted to turn this into a Ken Burns documentary I would go back to how women showing some ankle was “shocking” in polite society, but lets stick with 1960 and up for this.
Lenny Bruce used to be the epitome of “shocking” to american society, he said the things that made people laugh and THEN made them think… after they got done being “offended” that is. “A lot of people say to me, “Why did you kill Christ?” “I dunno… it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know.” “We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.” Think about what he just said and now put that into the context of the early 60’s… do you see how SHOCKING that statement was? Now, think how rather innocuous that statement is today in the age of the shock comic and you will see just how much what is “shocking” has changed. “Shock Jocks” on the radio are nothing new and are something I frankly find tedious and irritating but without people like Bruce taking all of the lumps for them, they would have to work for a living instead of making fun of retarded people and ogling lesbians as a career. Bruce got arrested for things he said, things that a Disney movie could show today with no groundswell of false rage.
You could say that Lenny Bruce simply carved the path for others to follow but his words also changed the value of their weight due to society around them and how those words themselves changed society. When Bruce made his mark on “polite” society they were not prepared for it, yet now go and watch some of Bruce’s stand up and what he says is rather quaint… he was dulled not by what he said or by his ideals, but by what came after him, what consisted of shocking material changed, in part because of the shocking statements he himself made in the 60’s. Bruce in turn made what was once shocking less so, in essence dulling his own edge and that is the point, as society evolves (or devolves) so do standards as to what outrages people.
Remember when simply having a black person and white person together on TV or in a movie was so shocking it could cause riots? We were once there, so what changed? What changed in society since Kirk and Uhura kissed or since Petula Clark held Harry Belafonte’s arm during a song? Both of those “incidents” were so shocking and racially charged that NBC tried to not air the famous first interracial kiss on television and that Petula Clark special where she dared TOUCH A BLACK MAN ON TELEVISION was actually interrupted mid-airing in some southern states for fear of race riots… WHY? Why did southern PBS stations refuse to air the first week that a black man moved onto Sesame Street*? Why? Because of the times, in that timeframe something as simple as showing a black person living on the same street as good honest white folks (and puppets, lets keep this in perspective) was so shocking that was dangerous, yet without dangerous things like that, how does anything ever evolve? Without Archie Bunker there would be no Andy Sipowicz, no Vic Mackey, no Dr. House, no Peter Griffin, no South Park etc… the racism and sexism that Archie Bunker shocked the world with paved the way for what we consider shocking today. Hell, the shocking of today even loses part of it’s sting when taken out of it’s context, go back and watch the pilot for NYPD Blue, which was one of the most controversial hours in all of television, and see that by the standards of today it’s actually rather subdued now. Context is very important and is too often lost. So in that regard the shock of NYPD Blue has shrunk while works such as All In The Family have only sharpened, I was watching some old All In The Family episodes and I was stunned by how much they were “able to get away with” for the early 70’s. Take this exchange from the pilot episode and tell me that something of this nature would EVER be aired on network television today:ARCHIE: Now wait a minute, Meathead, I never said your black beauties was lazy. You don’t believe me, look it up.
GLORIA: He’s prejudiced, there’s no hope for him at all.
ARCHIE: I ain’t prejudiced, any man deserves my respect and he’s gonna get it regardless of his color.
MIKE: Then why are you calling them black beauties?
ARCHIE: Now that’s where I got you, wise guy, there’s a black guy who works down at the building with me, he’s got a bumper sticker on his car that says ‘Black is Beautiful’ so what’s the matter with black beauties?
EDITH: It’s nicer than when he called them coons.
That aired in 1971 on CBS in primetime… think an exchange like that would be airable on network TV in 2014 at all?
Comedians like Richard Pryor used the word “nigger” to such a degree and with such frequency that it took the power from the word, so when viewing these once shocking routines one now sees it all as simply the norm instead of seeing just how prescient it truly was. With Pryor, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle would never have had a chance to ply their craft, without Archie Bunker television would be a bland wasteland of pop culture references and no substance**.
As a collective society we need something to push the boundaries of what is accepted in order to progress as a society and to do such we need trailblazers who go beyond the accepted place and venture into the darkness of the unknown yet unfortunately that darkness tends to consume those harried men and women who dare to question that status quo, yet when that quo moves they are often left behind and forgotten but their bastard children.
Next time we shall see how literature and music tore through boundaries and set the world aflame…
*This really happened, fear of showing an integrated neighborhood was so strong that down south reruns were aired that first week.
**Okay, that actually happened, but it would be WORSE without Archie Bunker.
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