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08/19/2006: Trying Out the Spicy Talk
So, if I understand this internet thing, I can just swear, right? Right now, I could just cut loose with a barrage of inventive and obscene language blue enough to change the color scheme of my site? I'm tasting the freedom!
This is not the case on network television. There are rules. Now, you might think that as a writer of spec scripts, these don't apply to you, but it's a good idea to adhere to them anyway, just to demonstrate that you've got some professional savvy. Besides, joke writing is a lot easier with dirty words, and you want to prove that you can be funny without them.
Of course, if you're spec-ing an HBO show, please, swear with abandon.
Now, you know the obvious rules. You've watched television. So I'm just going to talk about the ones that I find surprising. These, believe it or not, are generally considered unacceptable: Chrissakes, goddamn, non-reverential uses of Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ.
Maybe you're not startled by those, but I forget them all the time. I find myself typing "goddamn" into scripts, thinking of it as a fairly mild curse, as these things go. But no. "God" is fine. "Damn" is fine. "Goddamn" – go wash out your keyboard with soap! And "Jesus" as an exclamation – a fine earthy outburst that conveys a certain type of character? – nope. So watch out for these.
And here are a few delightful distinctions. On the list I have, "eat me" is listed as never acceptable, while "bite me" is fine. Interesting. And "jerk-off" is acceptable as an insult but not as a reference to masturbation – but isn't that at the heart of the insult?
When I started out as a writer, "Oh my God" was sometimes flagged for removal, at least on TGIF shows. Some writing staffs made a practice of spelling it "omigod" -- I can't imagine it made a difference, but they seemed to think it did. Now it seems to be universally accepted.
When I wrote my first Buffy, I had Buffy's mom say "screw you!" to Buffy. I was certain it would be removed. But, no! "Screw" is hunky-dory! Go for it! Also, "bitch" and, surprisingly, "son of a bitch" are generally allowed, although I'd be careful about these during kid-friendly, early-evening shows. And "pissed" is usually fine, meaning angry. Or drunk, if a British character is saying it.
Which brings us to exotic swearing. As long as it's not in common US usage, you can get away with all kinds of stuff. "Berk," "Merde," "Scheiss" -- all perfectly acceptable, although presumably sometimes bleeped when the episodes are eventually exported.
Be more conservative if you're spec-ing an 8PM show than if you're doing a 10PM show, since the rules do loosen up throughout the night. And study your sample scripts for examples of where your show draws the line. But, there you are. Reverential Jesus! That was fun!
Lunch: Chinese Avocado Salad from "Nature's Pantry." Healthy and good!