Not-So-Family Feud

A certain person in my family listens to Family Feud at ear-rattling volume for about three hours a day. What is it that bothers me the most about this? It could be the sound pressure that would make Metallica jealous, but it’s really the incredibly tacky–and not terribly clever–questions and answers that make up the show. My theory is that for any given category, someone will answer “Your butt!”

Steve Harvey: “Name something you wouldn’t want to leave on an airplane.”
Player: “Your butt!”
Rest of Family: “Good answer! Good answer!”
Audience: Howls of laughter.

If there’s an obvious sexual reference to make, then you make it. The more crude and middle-school-worthy, the better. And I’m not the only one to notice this. It wasn’t that long ago, 1960 to be precise, that Jack Paar got into a huge kettle of hot water over a truly clever bathroom joke that he delivered as host of The Tonight Show. That jokewhich played on a linguistic misunderstanding as to what the “WC” might be, “water closet” (restroom) or “wayside chapel,” wouldn’t even budge the taste meter among today’s comics.

Over the course of sixty years, we’ve gone from finding the W.C. joke to be unacceptably suggestive to seeing the steady diet of crass stuff on Family Feud as perfectly okay–or even desirable. Steve Harvey is apparently pulling in $12 million a year for that gig!

And before you start suggesting that I’m overreacting, let’s remember that Paar’s Tonight Show, like Jimmy Fallon’s, aired well after primetime and when the kids had presumably gone to bed. Family Feud runs in the daytime or for hours during the evening on whatever cable channel that is blasting loud enough for the neighbors to hear from my family member’s house.

We’ve seen a coarsening of taste and standards over those sixty years. Of course, you could point out that Shakespeare had some–or a lot of–suggestive jokes. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes had a whole play based on fairly lurid stuff. So what’s the difference? I’d point to a couple of differences. First, for all their naughty humor, both Shakespeare and Aristophanes mostly supported healthy sexual mores. Second, those writers were actually somewhat funny.

The stuff that masquerades as humor on that game show or coming from any number of mediocre comics is the verbal equivalent of fake vomit. Fake vomit isn’t really funny, but it can be shocking. To continue to draw laughter, it has to grow ever more shocking. And then we get to a place where a steady torrent of crudeness seems normal.

People don’t lose their sense of decency in one step. They don’t slide from Leave it to Beaver to Bob’s Burgers in a single move. Instead, they allow stuff, little by little, to come into their home and seem normal. And pretty soon, they’re wallowing in a cultural cesspool.

Where exactly should we draw the line? Is Leave it to Beaver edgy? I’m not going to try to establish a line, but I do believe that we need to take seriously the stuff we allow past our eyes and ears.

Steve Harvey: Finish this statement: When you’re mentally lazy, you sit on _______.
Player: Your butt.