Writer and humorist David Sedaris has become Ira Glass’ poster boy for what’s wrong with the newly (over)zealous Federal Communications Commission. Glass, producer of public radio’s “This American Life,” cast Sedaris in that role, along with shock jock Howard Stern, a couple of years ago after the FCC fined Clear Channel Communications $500,000 for on-air comments by Stern that were deemed indecent. Clear Channel dropped Stern, who then took his repartee about sex, bodily functions and other such topics to satellite radio, for a whole lot more money.
The FCC, meanwhile, has shown it is deadly serious about its role as moral guardian and protector of children. Last month, it levied $4 million in fines on TV stations across the country for airing programs with indecent language before 10 p.m. That came after the FCC received complaints from about 300,000 people — about 0.1 percent of the U.S population. (For a complete list of the programs, go to www.fcc.gov.)
Where does Sedaris fit in?
You see, some of his work contains language that may be considered dirty. Since the FCC has stepped up its vigilance, without providing stations a clear list of what is and isn’t allowed, Glass said he must think very carefully when a Sedaris piece is set to run on “This American Life.”
He laid out his case against the FCC during a visit to Louisville in January. Dramatically clutching an iPod, Glass played a piece that Sedaris wrote and voiced for a 1997 installment of “This American Life.” In it, Sedaris describes his efforts to flush an outsized “turd” that’s been left in the toilet at a friend’s house, and his fear that leaving it may cause someone to think it is his.
Throughout the story, the Brown Theatre audience roared with laughter. But what Glass said afterward wasn’t funny. He reasoned that the word “turd” could fall under Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, which prohibits using “any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication.” That includes speech that depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs.
If “This American Life” were to air the same piece in a post-Janet-Jackson-Super-Bowl-nipple-peek-halftime-show world, Glass said, it could lead to some $250 million in FCC fines. He arrived at that figure with simple math: roughly 500 public radio stations air the show. At $500,000 per incident (the figure Stern was fined), it adds up to a cool $250 million. Obviously, $500,000 is enough to wreck any station. (“This American Life,” which airs on WFPL-FM in Louisville, no longer includes the Sedaris/turd piece when it replays that program.)
You can’t say that on TV
The FCC consists of five commissioners appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms. It has occasionally assumed a role in preventing children from hearing dirty words for the past several decades, but the agency really took up arms in the early 1970s. One afternoon in 1973, John Douglas was riding in his car in New York with his son. The radio was tuned to WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation station, which was broadcasting George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue as part of a show discussing society’s views on language. In it, Carlin revisited an earlier routine about the seven words you can’t say on television. (For the record, those words were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits, and like Lenny Bruce before him, Carlin was trying to point out that words, whether profanity or racial slurs, only assume meaning if people give them meaning — akin to the argument that guns don’t kill people, people do.)
Douglas complained, at a time when Congress was pressuring the agency to protect children from excessive violence and obscenity. In the end, the FCC ruled against Pacifica, prompting the Radio-Television News Directors Association to complain that the decision would have “a deleterious impact on accurate and insightful” news reporting.
Such debates waxed and waned in the ensuing 30 years. From 1978-1987, the FCC found no violations of the indecency standard. That changed in April 1987, when the FCC decided to ban not only the dirty words but anything “patently offensive.” The revision was part of the culture wars of the 1980s, coming just after then-Attorney General Edwin Meese initiated a commission to investigate pornography, emboldening conservative groups such as Morality in Media and the National Decency Forum to launch letter-writing campaigns to Congress and the FCC.
The debate died down during the 1990s as the country’s focus shifted to new technologies like the Internet and the V-chip, which allowed parents to block violent or sexual programs from television sets.
The culture wars have flared anew in recent years. The FCC received 200 complaints, most from the Parents Television Council, after U2 singer Bono said “this is really, really, fucking brilliant” during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards. The FCC rejected those complaints — reasoning that “fuck” had been used as an adjective in the phrase, making it neither indecent nor obscene. But the activist group gained more of a foothold after the Janet Jackson incident during the halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl. In the ensuing months, the FCC became more active in responding to these and other complaints, including those about Stern.
Previously, broadcast outlets mostly had to worry about letters in their files, which the FCC might consider when licenses came up for renewal. In the current climate, however, the FCC has begun imposing the hefty fines.
But it has not been clear about what exactly will prompt fines, and an inspection of recent programs that triggered complaints and fines doesn’t provide much insight. At the top of the list, 111 CBS affiliates that aired the Dec. 31, 2004 episode of “Without a Trace” were collectively fined $3.6 million. The show included a 56-second scene with teenagers romping in their underwear to illustrate an after-school orgy.
On the other hand, an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” in which a male character attempts to seduce a female doctor while she is checking him for a hernia (and, off-screen, presumably, she has his scrotum in her hand), elicited no fines for the CBS stations that aired it. That’s because the FCC found that “no nudity or touching, however, is actually depicted, and the examination is not eroticized,” and that the scene was “not patently offensive under contemporary standards for the broadcast medium.”
Then there’s perhaps the most surprising fine on the FCC’s list — $15,000 for an educational station, KCSM in San Mateo, Calif., for airing the documentary “The Blues: Godfathers and Sons.” The program, which aired on March 11, 2004, includes interviews where musicians and record producers say “shit” and “fuck.” The FCC report notes that the station, in its defense, said “he intent of the program is to provide a window into with their own words, all of which becomes an educational experience for the viewer.”
That didn’t fly with three of the four FCC commissioners. (The board is currently not at full capacity.) The decision on the documentary alarmed Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the FCC. In his dissenting opinion, he wrote, “It is certain to strike fear into the hearts of news and documentary makers, and broadcasters that air them, which could chill the future expression of constitutionally protected speech.”
These cases illustrate the Catch-22 that irritates Glass.
“We all have to keep guessing about when we’ve crossed the line,” he wrote in an e-mail message, echoing comments he made in Louisville in January. For example, he said, producers of the public radio program “Fresh Air” recently cut a “that sucks” comment from an interview with singer Nellie McKay after their lawyers told them that leaving it in might draw a fine. Glass said he talks to his show’s lawyers every month or two about material his staff is considering for “This American Life.”
On the whole, however, it seems most Americans don’t worry about the FCC crackdown. Glass said that’s because many people assume the rulings only affect “low-lifes and shock jocks on stations they never listen to,” a situation he compared to police busts in a part of town they don’t frequent. He thinks those assumptions are a mistake. “I think it’s important that understand it’s affecting the shows they hear every day on public radio,” he said.
The solution, he said, lies in fighting indecency on the radio not with fines but with decency. He argued that broadcasters should work to air quality material and “let the market decide.”
Merry and bright
Paradoxically, decency can exist in work that contains language the FCC would label indecent or obscene. That certainly applies to Sedaris’ work — even one of his stories that, he told LEO in an interview last year, is “just filthy.”
Sedaris said the piece, which ran in GQ magazine last August, contains “three different layers of filth,” and he described how it emerged from conversations with several strangers and his sister, Amy, over the course of an “extraordinary” day.
First, he encounters a couple on an airplane. They look like landed gentry but have potty mouths, saying things like, “I’m fucking freezing. How about you?” and describing their meal as “a box of absolute fucking shit.” Later he’s trapped in a cab with a driver who keeps talking about “pussy” (a word, incidentally, that Sedaris says “makes the hairs on my arms stand up”). Then he arrives at his sister’s place, where she presents him with her latest purchase — a 1974 magazine called New Animal Orgy.
Sedaris makes no apologies for the piece. “I love reading it. Just absolutely love it,” he said, adding that overall it has a “merry” tone.
That tone is a hallmark of his work, albeit blended with wicked humor and insights into the idiosyncrasies of the characters in his stories — from his late mother (who was known to like more than a few drinks) to his younger brother (whom Sedaris calls The Rooster and who cusses almost continuously and has his own gentle qualities). Through it all, Sedaris’ writing exhibits an appreciation for compassion and scorn for cruelty.
Those ingredients were evident in “The Santaland Diaries,” his memoirs about working as a holiday elf at a Macy’s department store. The piece, which aired on National Public Radio in December 1992 and led Sedaris to fame and a book deal, is peppered with prose like this: “I often see people on the streets dressed as objects and handing out leaflets. I tend to avoid leaflets but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed as a taco.”
His story about the filthy language shows the same sort of empathy. He recounts how an immigrant taxi driver pesters him about sex, using phrases like “fucky fuck,” which prompts a diatribe. But he then reflects on his outburst: “The driver’s familiarity had been madding, but what I’d said had been cruel and uncalled for. Mocking him, bringing up his air freshener: I felt as though I had just kicked a kitten — a filthy one, to be sure — but still something small and powerless. Sex is what you boast about when you have no exterior signs of wealth. It’s a way of saying, ‘I might not own a fancy sport coat or an apartment in Manhattan, but I do have two women and all the intercourse I can handle.’ And what would it hurt me to acknowledge his success?”
Sedaris didn’t read that story at Carmichael’s Bookstore last summer when he was on tour to promote the paperback release of his book “Dress Your Family in Denim and Corduroy.” But he did read it days earlier at Coliseum Books in mid-town Manhattan. Carmichael’s co-owner Carol Besse was in New York for a booksellers’ convention, and she caught that reading.
“It was hilarious,” she said, “but we were a little daunted by it, I guess, the graphic nature of it and the fact that we were going to be broadcasting into the street .”
She doesn’t find the language offensive, however, and thinks anyone who knows Sedaris’ work and outlook won’t, either. “Most people know what they’re getting into when they go to a David Sedaris reading,” she said.
And while paying to hear literary or dramatic work in a live setting differs from watching programs on network TV or listening to the radio, Besse criticizes the FCC’s recent crackdown. “It seems like they could find better things to do,” she said.
Like, say, taking on the evils of the growing concentration of media ownership? Nah. Some things are too obscene to even mention.
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