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GUEST BLOG #91: Noel Holston Ponders TV's Fondness for Douches Wild
May 12, 2010  | By Noel Holston  | 10 comments

[Bianculli here: TV WORTH WATCHING is very proud to welcome yet another new columnist to our fraternity. Noel Holston is a veteran TV critic, most recently for New York Newsday, whose perspective is both scholarly and playful. His introductory column, for example, tackles an oft-neglected TV topic: "douche" as an acceptable prime-time punchline...]


We've Come a Long Way from Dingbats and Dirtbags

By Noel Holston

Is it just me, or has mainstream, prime-time TV undergone a little douche coup? Seems like everywhere I turn lately, there's some character insulting some other character by tossing out the d-word. As in, "What a douche." As in, "You're such a douche."

noel-himym.jpgI've heard the insult mostly on sex-joke dependent sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Accidentally on Purpose and Cougar Town. But I even heard it in one of the last episodes of Ugly Betty, a show I'd always given credit for more wit than that. Invoking this feminine hygiene procedure/product for purposes of disparagement is threatening to become as commonplace in prime time as shots of pole-dancing strippers in cop shows.

Why douche, all of a sudden, has become the insult du jour, I can only guess. Maybe some influential Hollywood writer's estranged wife sent him a case of Eve as a parting gift. It's conceivable. There's a legendary showbiz story, after all, about an actor who sent an unkind critic a case of toilet tissue with a note that read: "These foolish things remind me of you."

The thing that annoys me about this trend is not that I find the word douche -- or Charmin, for that matter -- offensive. It's just not terribly clever or memorable.

noel-maude.jpgWe've come a long way from the restrictive, prudish days when Rob and Laura Petrie had to have twin beds in their New Rochelle bedroom on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the writers of Maude had to get special permission from CBS for their heroine to call her husband, affectionately, a son of a bitch. And, generally speaking, that's a great thing.

But let's not forget that the ever-cautious souls in the networks' Standards and Practices departments for years forced TV writers to find euphemisms -- more colorful speech -- that caught the public fancy and were repeated endlessly.

Think of Archie Bunker on All in the Family saying, "Edith, you dingbat."

Think of Mick Belker on Hill Street Blues growling like a rabid dachshund and addressing lowlifes as "dirtbags."

detectivemickbelker.jpgThink of Flo, the mouthy waitress on Alice, saying, "Mel... kiss my grits."

Now imagine Archie or Belker invoking the phrase "douche bag" instead. Or Arch calling son-in-law Mike Stivic a "douche" instead of a "meathead." Or Flo telling her boss at the diner to kiss a body part that any, uh, dingbat on the street could come up with.

Sure, it might sound more authentic, more real, more everyday. But somehow I don't think we'd be getting any national catchphrases in the bargain.



Noel Holston wrote about TV, radio and popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newsday before semi-retiring to grow wine bottles near Athens, Georgia.



Tom said:
Noel--As an Orlando resident who hasn't enjoyed a Holston column since you left here for the frozen plains, it's great to read a vintage Noel piece again. Better than ever. Thanks!

Next thought: Having recently finished landlord Bianculli's latest book (I am a very slow reader), I kept thinking of how much people like Chuck Lorre owe to the Smothers Brothers. Lorre (who pushes limits cleverly and humorously) as well as those whose Beavis and Butthead perspective ignore originality or invention and just overuse street-slop dialogue, wouldn't have gotten this freedom had Tom Smothers not fought so hard and won so frustratingly.

The hope is that columns such as yours will hold the feet of the unimaginative (and their network hosts) to the fire so limits aren't pushed just for the sake of just attracting more of the "We'll watch anything stupid" crowd.

Not MUCH hope that comments such as yours will shame the oafs into aiming higher. But you have called them on it, and that matters.

Comment posted on May 12, 2010 12:09 PM

Eileen said:

We just keep on devolving as a civilization.

I'm not a prude, but I find this totally offensive. It just goes hand-in-hand with what Hollywood is throwing at us these days. The highest grossing (literally & figuratively) movies seem to be those that rely solely on toilet humor aimed at teenage boys.

When you look back on the masters, ala Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, et al, it was all clean and so very, very funny. Can you imagine Ralph Kramden calling Alice a "douche", or Ricky calling Lucy the same?

It's just not funny, and not clever. Look at Broadway -- limitless retreads and very little creativity. Hollywood is awash in prequels, sequels, etc., as well. Where have all the creative people gone?

In the words of the immortal Ricky Ricardo, "There's some 'splaining to do...."

Comment posted on May 12, 2010 1:42 PM

Amy said:

There were Lord and Lady Douchebag on SNL in 1975. Not saying there's not an overabundance now, just saying it's not brand new.

Comment posted on May 12, 2010 10:12 PM

Mac said:

The SNL skit that Amy mentioned(part of SNL's Golden era and possibly their last skit together in 1980)was what came to mind. Granted,that was not ready for prime time viewing for television,but pre-Fox and cable,there wasn't much to look at,so this may be the first national televised mention of a douche,since Summer's Eve never mentioned the product name on air. That is,outside of Walter Cronkite calling ranting during Richard Nixon's Presidential resignation in 1974...just kidding. Or how about Barney Rubble's pet pterodactyl Douchy during the last season of the Flintstones...this is too much fun. Point being,this word is overused because it is one of the few "naughty" word that has escaped from censors clasp and,since there aren't too many of these,becomes trite. 

As for Hollywood's overuse of foul language in movies-like the "liberal bias",it just ain't so. In fact,there seems to be a fracturing of genres,not unlike cable slicing and dicing what we perceive as TV. One the one side,there are indeed popular raunchy comedies that seemed to start around "There's Something About Mary" and "American Pie" and had a longer shelf life after the unedited video versions went into the home. These films use relatively few special effects and bring in big bucks for dollar investment,so Hollywood likes them just fine. But,as we get into the summer blockbuster season,what Hollywood really craves are the effect ladened blow 'em ups that stand multiple viewings in the theatre and big bucks in DVD sales. And almost all of these blockbusters end at the PG-13 line,where just a few salty words are allowed to sprinkle effect. But a mainstream Hollywood movie expected to rake in the money loaded with cussing that needs to be there-it ain't going to happen.

My favorite example- 1977's late to the party Bicentennial celebration of all things American-"Slap Shot". George Roy Hill and Paul Newman,coming off of one of the '70s iconoclastic films loved by critics and audiences,"The Sting",created a Hallmark card to the true American Art of Lying and peppered it with real locker room trash talk in a real locker room and put mooning on a pedestle,or at least made it sit in the back of the bus. Oh,and how about that male stripper in the finale? It could never be made today with the most popular people on today's screen. Nope,no $200 million dollar remake of "Slap Shot" by James Cameron starring Robert Downey Jr. will ever happen. Hollywood is too smart and too calculated today.

Comment posted on May 15, 2010 7:29 AM

Angela said:

This reminds me of a interview aired on NPR about the director Juan Jose Campanella. It's a bit off topic perhaps, and I didn't get to hear the whole interview, but.... He said that the money needed to make a movie in America depends on the availability of *huge* loans from banks before the "idea" for a movie gets past being just an idea. In other words they are fronting the money so Hollywood wants low risk, and sure bets.

Who goes to the movies these days? Mostly teenagers. What sells to teens? Lot's of action that costs big bucks. That's about it. Or as Mac said, raunchy comedies, that don't cost much at all. Where does that leave people 40 and over who want to see something great?

When Jose Campenella said a couple of his favorite movies that convinced him he wanted to be a film writer were the Deer Hunter and Dog Day Afternoon, I knew I would like anything he did.

Jose Campenella says when he wants to make a good movie (by my standards), he goes to Argentina. He said that movies like the Hurt Locker, just won't be possible to make in America in the near future.

I find this very sad. I have noticed that more and more new movies are all about action, and special effects, with little story-line. Avatar anyone? I saw it, and didn't find it worth my time.

My neighbor just walked by and asked what I was doing out here on my porch. When I said I was writing about movies, and why I don't like them, they said tell them they didn't like Avatar. Point made.

When I watched the preview/trailer for the new Sherlock Holmes movie I was ready for a nap. I didn't go see it.
Enough said.

Comment posted on May 15, 2010 7:22 PM

Alexander Furnas said:

I really think everyone here is missing the point. The prevalence of douche you note is not a case of inapt Hollywood word-choice, nor is it a case of television writers or producers trying (but failing) to be witty or edgy. Douche, used in the manner described above, is actually that common in contemporary parlance among teens, and twenty somethings. It has come to replace the more antiquated "jock" label, it seems, in acknowledgement that the overconfidence, arrogance, and misogyny which that connoted in many 1970s or 80s favorites is not unique to the athletic community. The bizzare relationship with that modern usage and its etymological roots notwithstanging, that is what it has come to mean for the demographic these shows target, and is what it has meant for the better part of a decade. Writers use it because it would be impossible to accurately or authentically portray dialoge of (even intelligent) sub-30 somethings without it. With all due respect and deference, I think your puzzlement at its popularity is a generational issue.

Comment posted on August 25, 2010 2:57 AM
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