October 5, 2011

In Praise of Profanity

My thoughts on profanity, and the use of “dirty” words, are neatly summarized by this observation from Henry Drummond (aka Spencer Tracy) in Inherit the Wind:
I don’t swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We’ve got to use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands.
There’s a time and a place for everything, of course. I try not to drop F-bombs around my niece and nephews. Nor would I respond to a question from a judge like, say, “are you suggesting that this statute is unconstitutional?”, with “fuck yes!” There's a time and a place for everything. But, generally, I think that people who get overly up tight about that kind of stuff need to lighten up a bit.

Which is a long winded way of introducing some wisdom from George Carlin, passed on via Ed at Dispatches (and Paul Provenza’s book Sataristas), from an interview he gave just before he died. He's addressing the oft-repeated argument that people who are profane are compensating for a lack of intellect:
Yeah, that ‘You don’t need to; you’re a funny man, you don’t need that stuff’ thing. Well, my argument is that you don’t need paprika or oregano or a few other things to make a stew, technically, either — but you make a better stew. If you’re inclined to make a stew of that type, ‘seasoning’ helps.

* * *

Why should I deprive myself of a small but important part of language that my fellow humans have developed? Why not use all of what we’ve developed to communicate with?

* * *

I think the folks who choose to deny that part of our language have limited themselves. And that’s fine; that’s good. Good choice over there…but I’m just fine over here.
That being said, simply being filthy isn’t a sure fire way of being funny. Carlin cites Bill Cosby as a guy who never worked ‘blue” but was (at one point) really funny. I've got another example.

There's a classic Monty Python sketch where John Cleese plays a hungry reader who leaves the local library to buy some cheese. Cheese shop owner Michael Palin stymies him at every turn due to his lack of inventory (the shop is “certainly uncontaminated by cheese,” Cleese quips). Finally, after rolling through dozens of different varieties, they come to one Palin actually has:
Wenslydale: Ah! We have Camenbert, yessir.

Customer: (surprised) You do! Excellent.

Wenslydale: Yessir. It's..ah,.....it's a bit runny...

Customer: Oh, I like it runny.

Wenslydale: Well,.. It's very runny, actually, sir.

Customer: No matter. Fetch hither the fromage de la Belle France! Mmmwah!

Wenslydale: I...think it's a bit runnier than you'll like it, sir.
Now, in the version that aired on British TV (a curse-free zone), the next line was, “I don’t care how excrementally runny it is. Hand it over with all speed.” The way Cleese lands on each syllable of “excrementally,” combined with the barely contained anger that’s been building, is brilliantly funny.

By contrast, other versions in free-fire zones (Live at the Hollywood Bowl, for instance), the line is “I don’t care how fucking runny it is.” Maybe it’s because I heard the TV version first, but I just don’t think that’s as funny. There’s something about needing a creative way to work around the censor that can be very inspirational.

Which is not to say that censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, is the way to go. As Carlin points out, if you don’t want to work “blue,” then don’t. The rest of us will continue to use every color Crayon in the box. Put away the profanity?  Fuck that shit.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. Somehow I get the feeling you are talking about me. LOL. You know I. Do not appreciate many of the four letter words. A sprinkling of "hell" or "damn" is ok. But never the "c" word and almost never the "f" word. ;)