Laughing on the margins

Beyond FCC's reach, cablers serve up forbidden fruit

Cries from the critics bemoaning the demise of traditional situation comedies now that “Friends” and “Frasier” have finished their long network runs seem somewhat beside the point. These days the freshest and most innovative comedies can be found beyond the Big Six, which could signal a paradigm shift for Emmy voters tired of rewarding the same ol’ same ol’.

Although the reasons for cable’s relative licentiousness are varied, it boils down to this: the networks broadcast, while cable is more niche-oriented. This lets cablers fine tune programming to specific audiences who know what they’re in for.

Many devotees of today’s more edgy cable fare hail from the MTV generation, weaned on in-your-face cartoons such as “Beavis and Butt-head” and “Ren and Stimpy” and now conveniently ensconced in the category most coveted by advertisers: 18- to 34-year-old males.

Cable is also far less regulated, so it gets away with more. The cutting-edge fare of HBO and Comedy Central flies below the radar of the FCC.

What’s broadcast over the airwaves and what’s transmitted through wires or satellite is subject to quite different standards, even though most households use cable to receive their network signals.

The Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communication Commission to regulate the “free” public airwaves and specifically gave it power to place “restrictions on indecent programming.” Cable — and satellite transmissions — are subject to much lighter regulation, on the theory that they are not free, because people pay a monthly fee. Premium cable like HBO and Showtime gets the most leeway because consumers pay for subscription, in effect inviting them and their content into their homes.

Thus, far more subject to government censorship, the networks find themselves mired in a PG-13 ghetto in an increasingly R-rated media realm.

That doesn’t mean network sitcoms can’t still try to push the envelope. But the results can sound awkward, as when Matt Perry’s character Chandler says “vagina” on the final episode of “Friends” after the twins are born.

By contrast, certain cable shows have become increasingly emboldened by their relative freedom. For example:

  • HBO’s idiosyncratic “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where last season Larry David picked up a hooker because he needed a passenger to access the diamond lane on the freeway to get to a Dodger’s baseball game.

  • A recent episode on “South Park” — a potty-mouthed half-hour cartoon in its eighth year on Comedy Central that boasts some of the most sophisticated satire in any medium — portrayed a mysterious “Mr. Jefferson” who comes to town and invites kids to play with his many toys and romp in his bed. Only a few hours before the episode aired, pop star Michael Jackson, its obvious inspiration, was officially charged with child molestation by California prosecutors.

  • The taboo-busting, hip-hop humor of “Chappelle’s Show,” in its second season on Comedy Central, has made it into one of the highest rated shows on cable. Chappelle, who uses the “N” word with impunity, scores in skits like the Black Gallagher, busting a watermelon with a sledge-hammer, or singer Prince, who with his group, “the blouses,” stuns street-smart opponents in a pick-up game of basketball.

“We decided early on to go where the networks couldn’t and wouldn’t go,” says Comedy Central topper Doug Herzog. “At the same time, the network brand of comedy got increasingly bland and watered down and old fashioned.”Given its mission, it’s expected Comedy Central would be a mainstay of humor on cable. But it’s far from alone. The BBC channel has a hit with “The Office,” starting Ricky Gervais as a petty office manager; the Cartoon Network has anchored a latenight stretch called Adult Swim with the “Family Guy,” which outdraws anything in its time slot in the key young male demographic, including Letterman and Leno. Spike TV, the men’s network, airs the sexy “Striperella” cartoon, and earlier this year put on “This Just In,” an animated topical show about a conservative newspaper columnist, which ultimately failed, but proved the point of just how far niche cablers are willing to go.

Herzog, who thinks we’ve entered “a new golden age of comedy,” recently returned to Comedy Central after a two-year stint at Fox and USA Networks. When he was president the first time around in the late 1990s, he was instrumental in launching not just “South Park” but the acclaimed “The Daily Show,” with Jon Stewart as anchorman. The show does a mordant take on the events of the day with a deft team of correspondent parodists who are one step from the real thing. The show, which made it big covering the political conventions in 2000, plans to cover this summer’s shindigs from gavel to gavel.

No subject seems off limits on “The Daily Show,” including the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Clips were shown of an exasperated Donald Rumsfeld complaining to Congress about “60 Minutes” showing photos of prisoner abuse before they got to him. Stewart said the scandal was about “Weapons of Mass Deception.”

An increasing number of individuals say they mainly get their news from “The Daily Show.” And the National Assn. of Television Critics nominated “The Daily Show” for best news show on television. This after Stewart last year won the Emmy for individual performance in a variety or music program.

Comic Dennis Miller, who now has a one-hour news satire and commentary show that airs four days a week on CNBC, says he’s a big fan of “The Daily Show,” though it’s “somewhat more liberal than I am these days.” The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, who became decidedly conservative politically after 9/11, has mixed views about the uproar over indecency.

He sympathizes with the public’s outrage over Janet Jackson. “We live in a very overt, out-there culture and people are bombarded on a daily basis with images that you never would have thought you’d see 20 years ago,” he says. “Most Americans say that’s all fine and good. We’ll keep our dialogue. We’ll try to change the channel. But we would like a couple of things during the year in which we could sit down with the kids and not worry about seeing a naked breast.

Still, Miller says the FCC should stay away from Howard Stern. “He’s doing what he’s done for years,” Miller says, adding, “Not everybody on TV should start saying ‘fuck.’ I’ve said it before on cable many times, but is was on pay cable (HBO); it was part of the job description. Now I’m on an hour delay and they bleep it out.”

Frank Rich, who writes about the nexus between arts, politics and religion for the New York Times, thinks the brouhaha over indecency is less about four-letter words than about society’s ongoing culture clash. “There are people who always push to the edge, because that’s the nature of creativity. There is always some group complaining about what’s at the edge.”

Rich compares the present period to the Jazz Age of the 1920s. “There was fear of change after World War I,” he says, “a fear of a new urban culture that people found licentious. During a period of major cultural change there are always conservative groups that don’t like what’s new and try to romanticize the past as being better. They want us to believe that Bob Hope was funnier than Dave Chappelle is. I think not, but history will decide that.”

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