When Eugene and Dan Levy were first pitching their idea for a comedy about a wealthy family who go broke, there was one major stumbling block: the name. When several channels asked them to change the title from Schitt’s Creek to something less vulgar, the Levys doubled down. They pulled out pages from a phone directory to prove that there were actual people with the sweary surname. “If CBC was doing a news broadcast with the name Schitt, would you not use it?”, Eugene Levy told the Toronto Star. “They said: ‘Yes, we would air the name.’” After throwing it at the network’s wall, they finally got Schitt to stick.
But when it aired in 2015, the series was not without its issues. NPR had to spell out the word when talking about it; some channels, such as CBS, had to flash up what’s known as “the lower third” – subtitles literally spelling it out – every time they mentioned it on air. Some TV and radio stations were reduced to simply calling it “Creek”, presumably confusing both Dawson’s Creek and Jonathan Creek fans in the process.
It’s not the first time television creators have dared to get an almost-curse word into the title of a primetime show, however. $#*! My Dad Says (2010), Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (2012), and The End of the F***ing World (2017) are just some of the shows to have linguistically danced around the censors, and this year the trend seems to be on the rise again, with FBoy Island, Issa Rae’s forthcoming Rap Sh*t and the dark meta comedy Kevin Can F*** Himself, aptly starring Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy. But why have TV show names come over all teenager-in-a-tantrum again – and is anyone offended by swearwords any more?
At first glance, any series that chooses a starred-out swearword as part of the title looks as if it’s trying to be edgy, or court controversy. The out-there naming convention first came to prominence via shows such as the underrated 2012 comedy Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which lost some of its kick when its name was changed three times by AMC. Starting off in development as The Bitch in Apartment 23, it was sanitised down to Apartment 23 for the launch, before being changed back to the bowdlerised Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 mid-run. Despite being a surreal and funny riff on the flatmate sitcom, the name changes – and the fact that the network broadcast the episodes out of sync – must have had a part in the show being cancelled after just two series.
In the same year, a similar issue hit the musical sitcom GCB (or Good Christian Bitches). The fundamentalist Christian group One Million Moms called for a boycott of it as it was “blasphemy at its worst”. Whether any of these million mothers actually watched Kristin Chenoweth as the owner of a chain of knock-off Hooters bars, belting out This Little Light of Mine, remains to be seen, but the inflammatory title surely contributed to the cancellation of the show after 10 episodes.
Getting the Schitt to stick … Annie Murphy, Daniel Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy in the Canadian comedy. Photograph: Steve Wilkie/Cbc/ITV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Kristy Beers Fägersten, a professor in linguistics at Södertörn University, Sweden, is researching the evolution of swearing on TV. It is, she says, “still a frontier, perhaps not so much in the UK, but at least from an American perspective. Almost every time someone swears on TV, there’s some discussion: ‘Do we get to do this? Are we allowed to do that now?’
“I think the reason we’re seeing more television shows with swearwords in the title is simply to get attention. They’re not promising that there will be swearing, but the fact that it’s in the title is titillating and lures in potential viewers.’”
Fägersten notes that the full-on F-bombs or B-bombs are never actually dropped in these show’s titles because of communication regulators such as Ofcom, which has a code stating that under-18s should be protected against “offensive language and harmful content” pre-watershed. “They’re censored – it’s this way of not swearing, but still swearing. It’s performing the same effect, but you always have an out as you can say: ‘Oh, I didn’t really swear.’”
For all their potential grabbiness, such names can cause issues behind the scenes. “The name does create a lot of headaches and there are a lot of discussions around it,” says the creator of Kevin Can F*** Himself, Valerie Armstrong. “It’s all boring stuff, like how do you spell it out for metadata, or how will it be used for press.”
Ultimately, despite a backlash to certain series, it seems that we’re finding “bad words” on television less gasp-inducing in general, according to Ofcom, and the number of people who bother to make official complaints about it appears to be on the decline as well. The regulator says just three viewers complained about the title The End of the F***ing World when it was broadcast, and 12 viewers when the trailer aired pre-watershed. These complaints “were assessed and not pursued”, it says. The last big fine imposed on a broadcaster for swearing was back in 2008 for MTV, which had to cough up £255,000 for “repeatedly airing swearing and offensive language” on its pre-watershed shows, including a trailer for the show Totally Jodie Marsh, in which the words “some fucking wanker from a modelling agency” were uttered.
Ofcom also points out that it doesn’t regulate Netflix (a Dutch media regulator does) and other on-demand programme services such as Amazon Prime Video fall under a separate set of rules that don’t have specifications around offensive language. In the US, subscription-based services such as HBO and Showtime can afford to play around with their swearing output more, unlike public channels or regular cable TV, which don’t want to offend advertisers and their deep pockets; this means streaming sites and premium subscription television can get a bit more expletive-happy.
Besides, internet culture has made swearwords more commonplace and softened their blow. From “bitch” being reclaimed as a term of endearment to “AF” (“as fuck”) being used in place of “extremely”, this trickledown effect has seen expletives largely lose their power to shock audiences.
“Because of texting and social media, we’re getting more and more used to seeing swearwords in written form, which perhaps we weren’t so used to before,” says Fägersten. “We’re also getting used to swearing more in our heads, with abbreviations like WTF, AF or LMFAO, whether we use the abbreviation or say the actual words.”
And, even if swearwords are no longer shocking, many people find a certain thrill in them. Armstrong says: “It’s not Kevin Can Eff Himself, that bums me out pretty hard. I always say Kevin Can Fuck Himself. I get a certain pleasure in really hitting the ‘fuck’ – even when I’m talking to my mother or grandparents.”
Kevin Can F**k Himself is available in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, and airs in the US on AMC