Readers of a certain age will remember Dick Cavett, a television personality, talk show host and comedy writer for Jack Parr and Johnny Carson – late-night celebrities of another era. He’s now 86 and living in Connecticut.
I recently came across an interview Mr. Cavett conducted with Bob Hope, another legendary comedian. Hope passed away in 2003 at the age of 100. He was known for entertaining U.S. troops overseas. He did 57 U.S.O. tours between 1941 and 1991.
The year was 1972 and Cavett was asking Hope about his old radio monologues, which the comedian used to deliver daily. This was before television. Hope had an army of twelve writers, and they’d produce reams of one-liners every day. Cavett mentioned that he heard censors regularly blocked Hope’s material when they thought it was too suggestive, crass, or offensive.
“In those days, the standards were different,” Hope told Cavett. “You would never think of saying ‘jerk’ on the air. You would never say it.”
To be sure, Bob Hope’s “humor” could be innocent and clever in those days, but he was also known to push the envelope. “We were trying to do things that got attention,” he told Cavett.
The early days of both film and radio were unregulated, and with all kinds lewd and questionable material being broadcast. But as both industries began to grow, government officials stepped in to regulate them. The Radio Act of 1927 prohibited “obscene, indecent, or profane language.” The Motion Picture Production Code of 1934, better known as the “Hays Code,” forbade the visual equivalents, i.e., gratuitous sexuality, murder, and drug use. “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” read the legislation. “Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.”
The National Legion of Decency was founded that same year by John T. McNicholas, the archbishop of Cincinnati. On June 17, 1934, 50,000 Catholics gathered in Cleveland and pledged to skip any movie that contradicted their faith, pledging to “infuse into society the spiritual life of Christ.” Conservative Protestant churches soon joined the effort.
Writing for Studio Binder, an industry software producer, Chris Heckmann observed, “For better or worse, it wasn’t just religious fundamentalists who disapproved of Hollywood’s jet-setting lifestyle, romantically or otherwise, it was a massive contingency of people who were taught to believe monogamy was a crucial part of the domestic experience.”
Of course, the trend was for the better, but it didn’t last. A 1948 Supreme Court case, “U.S. v. Paramount Pictures,” found that studios were no longer allowed to own and operate theaters. This led to the explosion of international films being shown on now independent screens, and many of them contained everything American films were prohibited from showing. The dam had been breached. Courts refused to enforce the Hays Code, and the trickle of objectionable material soon became a torrent of filth.
While some may suggest the “standards” of yesterday were a bit excessive, like prohibiting scenes of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo sleeping in the same bed, the mere existence of them were a very good thing, and their demise ushered in a new era that’s undeniably lowered the moral standards of far too many.
Long before the advent of radio and television, the apostle Paul seemed concerned with the cultural climate of his day. Why else would he have written to Christians in Ephesus to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
It’s the uneven and often vulgar environment of our times that led Focus on the Family to launch our Plugged In ministry over three decades ago. In many ways, it’s the equivalent of having a team of censors by your side, identifying and reviewing content so that you can make an informed decision concerning what entertainment you’ll be comfortable sharing with your family. You might want to download the app or bookmark the website.