Steve Allen

Our modern society is the most cliche-ridden in history. The problem with cliches is not that they so quickly become tiresome but they eventually become used as substitutes for thought. A good example of recent vintage is "pushing the envelope." In the context of the present problem the most unfortunate thing about the phrase is that it seems invariably to apply to going beyond the boundaries imposed by simple common sense and even tolerant good taste. The harm is compounded by the fact that in the language of social critics and others who comment upon the culture of the moment, pushing the envelope seems never to involve a clear reference to reprehensible and sometimes truly revolting conduct or language. The total absence of ethical or moral comment represents an instance of dumbth of its own.

On April 7, 1999, Fox aired a program called Banned in America: The World's Sexiest Commercials. The word sexiest, of course, was employed as a commercial come-on. What it really meant was the world's most vulgar commercials. TV Guide described the show in its guidelines section simply as "a saucy collection of foreign ads that push the envelope" (italics added). It quoted the show's producer in the same issue as saying "It's very twisted." An apt description, the program was precisely the sort of fare that is making increasing numbers of television viewers give up watching altogether, on the assumption that the present offenders who are profiting from the avalanche of sleaze are beyond hope of reform.

Awards Shows

Certain means of measurement may be more instructive than others for purposes of demonstrating how far television entertainment has fallen. A particularly disturbing instance is that of the prestigious awards shows such as the Oscars (for motion pictures), the Emmys (for television), and the Tonys (for theater). In addition to the inevitable glamour and celebrity-power of such telecasts the one quality that was most typical of them, during the earlier period, was that indicated by the simple word class. The hosts were generally chosen for their air of authority and dignity and encouraged to officiate the proceedings with an appropriate degree of decorum.

A new low was reached on the 1998 Tony Awards show when many found fault with the work of the mistress of ceremonies, otherwise gifted comedy actress Rosie O'Donnell. As one friend of mine, a radio veteran experienced at comedy, put it, "She emceed the whole show as if she were introducing acts at a schlocky comedy club." The other objectionable area concerned her indulgence in the grossest sort of vulgarity (for example: A tasteless joke about feminine napkins and the brilliant musical Ragtime) that made one long for the days when Angela Lansbury hosted such ceremonies.

I emphasize that this is by no means only my own opinion, but represented the consensus among showbusiness veterans at the time. Veteran Broadway producer Alexander Cohen, who had served as the producer of the program from 1967 to 1986, was quoted by Daily Variety as complaining, "They have robbed the Broadway theater of its heritage and sense of occasion, and substituted it with a crude vulgarity which demeans, embarrasses, and infuriates those professionals who really care."

The 71st Annual Academy Awards in early 1999 were also roundly criticized, in this case for the shameless behavior of host Whoopi Goldberg. While I was one of Ms. Goldberg's first fans in Hollywood, even I was shocked that she would use the occasion of the Oscar ceremony to make crude jokes about female genitalia and masturbation. An executive of the ABC network, which broadcast the ceremony, was quoted as saying "Ms. Goldberg was a complete disaster and she should not be the host of the program ever again ... She was way out of line."

As of September 1999, not only was the tidal wave of schlock assuming ever-larger proportions, there literally seemed to be no getting away from it. On the Emmy awards program an animated character from a Fox TV series actually said, while introducing a cartoon clip reel, "It's tribute time, or as we call it in my house, time to go take a poop." The fact that the words seemed to come from a cartoon character would have made them of even more interest to children, millions of whom must have been watching the program, but of course the line was written by a human being and apparently was considered within the bounds of conventional taste by the program's producers and the executives of the network that carried it.

At a time when we are trying to show the world and our kids the very best that film, television, and the theater have to offer, the presentation ceremonies are tainted by sexual innuendo and vulgarity. What image does that send to the world?

- Steve Allen
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