Christ, What an Asshole: an NPR hour on a word they can't say on-air
January 27, 2013 10:47 AM   Subscribe

To the Best of Our Knowledge does a program on assholes. Much bleeping/blanking ensues, along with a lot of use of "a-word" to describe both word and the persons it names.

After beginning with an apologetic disclaimer, the show intros with Denis Leary's classic "I'm an Asshole" (uncensored version on Youtube here).

Highlights include thoughtful discussions with Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (the title of which sounds like "Scent of the..." when you say it on the radio) and with philosopher Aaron James, author of Assholes: a Theory.

Perhaps in a bit of NPR solidarity, the show also intercuts sections of Terry Gross's bizarre interview with Gene Simmons (empty Fresh Air page here, archive.org page here) with the Leary song.


[No mention is made of the New Yorker Cartoon Contest.]

TTBOOK previously on Metafilter: 1 and 2.
posted by Mngo (34 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
One thing I love about reading The Economist is they treat their readers as adults and reprint swear words in quotes when needed. They don't shy away from "fuck", for instance, and don't childishly print f–––. Bleeping words like "asshole" is offensive.
posted by Nelson at 10:55 AM on January 27, 2013 [14 favorites]


CBS Sunday Morning interview (December 2, 2012) with Geoffrey Nunberg: A Delicate Discussion On The "A-Word" (video | 05:54).
posted by ericb at 10:56 AM on January 27, 2013


Some people complain to me that we aren't expressive enough in the day to day, but there's always that sour look on their face after a reply of, "Of fucking course we aren't".
posted by Slackermagee at 10:58 AM on January 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is surely a sign of the Apocalypse.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:59 AM on January 27, 2013


Blame the Federal Communications Commission for the need to bleep out swear words. They will heavily fine public broadcasters, especially public radio, for offending any "average person" who applies the incredibly vague term of "contemporary community standards". This gives your college radio station in a liberal city a little leeway, but a nationally-broadcast program like TTBOOK can't afford the risk of annoying a single person who might think of calling in to complain.
posted by Theiform at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


I liked the solution on The Dinner Party of using the name "Ethel".
posted by knile at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


They had no problem with saying "bitch" on air when comparing the two terms. Do we have Meredith Brooks to thank for that?
posted by pmdboi at 11:06 AM on January 27, 2013


Previously, Nunberg and James on assholes from earlier this month.
posted by purpleclover at 11:18 AM on January 27, 2013


Blame the Federal Communications Commission for the need to bleep out swear words. They will heavily fine public broadcasters, especially public radio, for offending any "average person" who applies the incredibly vague term of "contemporary community standards".

Ah, this must be why NPR has become so chary of "Republican" since the elections.

I was somewhat nonplussed to hear recently that "fiscal conservatives" were threatening to block raising the debt ceiling, and that "fiscal conservatives" were standing in the way of Federal aid for victims of hurricane Sandy, for a couple of examples.
posted by jamjam at 11:30 AM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


All words are 10x more vulgar with a -hole suffix. Try it, mefiteholes.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I heard the Terry Gross interview of Gene Simmons when it came out. I think that it is the only Terry Gross interview that has ever stuck with me.

Dollars to donuts, when she finished and the "On Air" light went off, she muttered, "Christ, what an asshole."
posted by leftcoastbob at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey do you know what you are?
You're an ASSHOLE!
An asshole!
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:51 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


One thing I love about reading The Economist is they treat their readers as adults and reprint swear words in quotes when needed.

This isn't peculiar to the Economist. It's just much less of an issue over here. Most upmarket papers (Guardian, Telegraph etc.) will print words like "fuck" without starring if the occasion demands.
posted by rhymer at 11:53 AM on January 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


I prefer euphemism-hole
posted by zippy at 11:58 AM on January 27, 2013


I've noticed that half the books in the "humor" section these days seem to have titles with self-censored profanity. It just strikes me as annoying, half-a#%ed edginess.

Things are kinda different than when I was growing up browsing Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes books.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:59 AM on January 27, 2013


[Hmm, thanks purpleclover; I didn't tag with Nunberg and James' names, or I would have probably just put this in the existing thread. Mods, I won't complain if you want to can the thread and change my username to C,WAAH.]

It's interesting that gender comes up in multiple spots but the double standard around asshole/bitch only comes up, I think, in Nunberg's interview.
posted by Mngo at 12:20 PM on January 27, 2013


I liked it years ago when MetaFilter members made heavy use of the term "asshat". A euphemism that isn't too bowdlerized (and besides, we had members using the names arsehat and sasshat). But then, I'm cool with the Battlestar Galactica-based euphemism "frak", which since the use of hydraulic fracking, now works on more levels.

I have an anecdote from when I did some comedy club open mikes in the '80s, and was taken aside by the owner for my use of "fuck". I pointed out all the other comics using it the same evening and he pointed out that they used it as an interjection; I was the only one who used it as a verb. (Verb. It's what you do.)

And in college radio, I edited together a "radio friendly" version of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television", using a different cartoon sound effect (thank you Hanna Barbera Records) for each of the words, and carefully matching the sounds to the words. The dirtiest 'clean' thing I ever did on radio.

I also have noted that the title of the book and TV versions of "Shit My Dad Says" used symbolic censorship that looked a LOT like the letters they were replacing: "$#*!" although they could've been closer with "$#!+"

Censorship can be fucking funny.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:25 PM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm always glad to see mentions of To the Best of Our Knowledge. It's one of the best shows on radio, and it always seems to get less notice than it should.
posted by Miko at 12:47 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


All words are 10x more vulgar with a -hole suffix.

Hmmm, that syncs up with my friend who use to call rude taxi drivers "cabholes".
posted by benito.strauss at 1:12 PM on January 27, 2013


What the cus? Oh no you cussing didn't, NPR!
posted by Brocktoon at 1:26 PM on January 27, 2013


This is precisely the sort of irritating coyness that makes me turn off NPR after about five minutes of listening. I know that irony is the province of the young, but NPR stations court an older audience, and 90% of NPR content strikes me as painfully ironic, commenting on "contemporary culture" with an air of aloof detachment. It's as if they'd like to cover more serious issues, but — alas! — this asshole thing is the pivotal issue of the day, so let's devote all our journalistic energies to it. Perhaps we could convince our listeners (who are normally too prudent to enjoy prurient coverage of this sort) that it's okay to talk about vernacular topics if we cover them with a patina of classy respectability.

I say this as a compulsive Charlie Rose viewer. But if Rose started mincing words and wasting time on tedious circumlocutions to avoid the impression of being too familiar with naughty topics, I wouldn't be able to listen for very long.
posted by Nomyte at 1:54 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I dunno, Nomyte, I felt like the show gave the impression of very specifically working around the FCC prohibition--well, after the first initial apology, which seemed to me to exaggerate how "offensive" the discussion was going to be. And I think the Terri Gross montage came pretty close to the show itself calling Simmons an asshole--not directly insulting him, but not exactly mincing.

That said, I do agree that NPR niceness can be incredibly irritating. And don't get me started on Prairie Home Companion...
posted by Mngo at 2:06 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Puritans go home!
posted by Kerasia at 2:13 PM on January 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had to turn it off after about 15 minutes. The continuous audio cutouts were just that annoying.
posted by ryanrs at 2:28 PM on January 27, 2013


And don't get me started on Prairie Home Companion...

The best worst best show on the air.
posted by Nomyte at 2:38 PM on January 27, 2013


Puritans go home!

My god, no! Stuff like this is why we sent them over the ocean from Europe in the first place... makes it much more relaxed over here.... ;)
posted by SAnderka at 3:08 PM on January 27, 2013


seemed to me to exaggerate how "offensive" the discussion was going to be.

I always feel Ira Glass does this too. But to be fair, I did community radio and it was inSANE how ready people are to call in and complain about FCC violations, and violations were pretty big concerns. I think they're protecting their affiliates more than anything.

If you don't listen to this show regularly, give it another chance. OR dip into their 12+ years of show archives. They have great interviews on serious topics with really interesting people, often well before those topics appear in more mainstream media. It's a good one.
posted by Miko at 4:00 PM on January 27, 2013


What I don't get is you can say "ass", since of course that's a donkey, and that's in the bible after all, and you can say "hole", which is pretty obvious. But, by god, if you put the two together you end up with an asshole, and no way you can say that since it's horribly vulgar!!! I can imagine having fun with that:

"Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass."

"Hole in one!" cried the golfer who interrupted the sermon.
posted by Eekacat at 4:16 PM on January 27, 2013


shit piss cunt fuck cocksucker motherfucker tits

Should that have been eight words you cannot say on television?
posted by bukvich at 4:31 PM on January 27, 2013


Jesus Christ, why bother to do the story at all?
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:35 PM on January 27, 2013


Okay, I'll be that guy: I miss the days when you weren't allowed to swear so much in public. Being a kid and hearing Roger Daltrey shout "who the fuck are you?" on a Who song was downright thrilling (Wow, did he just say what I thought he just said?). Hearing Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders spit out "FUCK OFF" like she was spitting on the sidewalk, it just felt so right.

Then around the mid-nineties you could hear third-rate grunge and nu-metal bands slipping in "fucks" into their song choruses on morning radio. What used to be daring and transgressive became commonplace. Shows like 'Trailer Park Boys' and 'The Osbournes' were much funnier with the bleeps left in on the soundtrack, precisely because you knew you weren't supposed to hear the swear words (or else you could make up your own, much fouler language in your head).

Use enough curse words, however, and your language becomes lazy. It's what Louis CK was talking about when he said we go to the top shelf for our words every time now. Not everything is "hilarious", but when even the most mundane gag gets described even in passing as "hilarious", the word loses its meaning. The edge gets honed down to a dull nub. When the forbidden becomes commonplace; it is no longer special.

I have relatives who are progressive in many ways, but they are deeply offended when I swear on my FaceBook status. And that's all right. I kind of like knowing that I can still piss people off, and sometimes it's good to work harder and say what you mean to say in a manner that doesn't rely on cheap f-bombs for impact. Don't get me wrong, I love swearing. Catch me on a bad day, and I'm the most foul-mouthed motherfucker you'd ever want to meet. But it was a lot more fun when I had to think more before I had to speak.

Meanwhile, knowing I can offend certain mefites by bleeping out f--- and c--------- when I'm typing is kind of fun. P--- on 'em if they can't take a joke. Or lack thereof, perhaps.
posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 5:19 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thanks, that was very interesting. I you felt condescended to by the cautious intro, I'd say it was worth getting past that. I had a few thoughts:

- Apparently there is some accent out there in America where "bullying" sounds just like "bowling" to me. Confusing.

- C'mon, you're going to talk about assholes and Pablo Picasso and not mention Jonathan Richman? NPR has already taken most of my obscure adolescent loves and established them as boring and mainstream. Why not that too?

- The canonical example of a female asshole seemed to be Anne Coulter. Maybe I've lived in Boston too long, but "asshole" seems entirely inadequate to describe the soul-deep wretchedness of that woman.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:55 PM on January 27, 2013


- The canonical example of a female asshole seemed to be Anne Coulter. Maybe I've lived in Boston too long, but "asshole" seems entirely inadequate to describe the soul-deep wretchedness of that woman.

Thus, the only possible response to that wretchedness. [NSFW]
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:01 PM on January 27, 2013


Thus, the only possible response to that wretchedness.

What does it say about me that I knew what that link was before I clicked it?
posted by benito.strauss at 9:12 PM on January 27, 2013


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