The Age of the Outraged is killing all my best gags

It’s difficult enough to pen a joke that ‘lands’, but getting it past the censors is even worse

For the next few paragraphs to make sense, or, as we say in the comedy business, for them to ‘land’, you need to know two things. First, the US television landscape is an incoherent mix of cable, broadcast and streaming video. The old-line broadcast networks still adhere, mostly, to an antiquated set of rules and regulations about which words, exactly, they’re allowed to broadcast and how much of the unclothed human anatomy they’re allowed to show. Cable and streaming services can pretty much say or show anything.

Second, there’s an active and dedicated community of American history buffs who enjoy spending their weekends and holidays engaged in Civil War re-enactments. They dress up as soldiers and generals in the Confederate and Union armies and re-enact battles up and down the East Coast.

Right now, I’m producing and writing an American comedy that appears on a major broadcast network. In one of our upcoming episodes, we included two sequences that are causing us trouble. The first involved a character in a hospital gown (the kind loosely tied across the back) in which the character’s ass hangs out indecorously. We’re not fools, of course. We know the rules. When we shot the sequence we made sure the actor’s actual fleshy ass was covered by a fleshy coloured pair of tight underpants, and when we edited the shot we pixelated the area, which distorts the video enough so the viewer is treated to a chessboard-looking matrix of mixed-up video squares. It looked pretty funny. The pixelated ass landed.

It landed too hard, apparently, for the collection of executives at the network who are tasked with enforcing the rules. Under no circumstances, we were told, could we depict rear nudity on TV. But we weren’t depicting nudity, we said. The actor’s wearing tiny little underpants. But he looks naked, they replied. When I announced this to the writing staff, they were furious. (Comedy writers never want to cut a joke that lands, for any reason, but especially for silly ones.) When I related the story to another writer I know, his response was to sputter: ‘This is what it’s like to be a writer in the age of Trump! The right-wing kooks have taken over the media!’

That wasn’t the only problem we encountered with the episode. Another sequence involved a character at a Civil War re-enactment. He was especially excited because he had finally been promoted, after years of portraying a corpse, to the position of General Stonewall Jackson, one of the titans of the Confederate Army. Jackson’s role is to give a stirring oration to his men, after which he is mistakenly shot by a soldier on the same side, which leads to sepsis and death. Put it this way: if you’re into Civil War re-enactments, it’s a choice part.

The sequence was short, but it did require the character to express his joy at finally being allowed to portray Stonewall Jackson. We’re not fools, of course. We made it clear that although the character was pleased for the opportunity, he wasn’t, you know, sympathetic to the Confederate cause. He was pretending to be a Confederate because Stonewall Jackson is a cool part to play and also because for a Civil War re-enactment to make any sense at all, you do need someone to play the Confederates.

The executives at the network were deeply unsettled. The sequence had been filmed weeks before the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, had suddenly thrust the 152-year-old conflict on to the front pages, and no one anticipated that a statue of General Stonewall Jackson might end up on the news. Is there any way we could downplay the whole Confederate angle?

In other words, they wouldn’t let us pixelate a human ass, but they insisted that we pixelate a dead Confederate general. As a professional TV writer, I have a rule: don’t fight this stuff. So I made the actors re-record crucial dialogue, turning ‘General Stonewall Jackson’ into the unspecific ‘the General’ and ‘It’s been my dream’ into ‘Someone has to do it’.

‘This is what it’s like,’ a conservative writer friend told me when I related this story, ‘when the PC police take over the media! This is why we need Trump.’

Both writers were wrong, of course. But it’s hard, in the Age of Trump, or the Age of Obama, or the Age of the Outraged, to come up with a joke that lands.


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