The TV Age of Hysterical Prudishness

There was a time in America when husbands and wives didn't sleep in bed together, and pregnancy was an unutterable, dirty word. It was called "The Golden Age of Television."

Leonard Stern, an Emmy winner who wrote for the likes of Jackie Gleason and Steve Allen, remembers a hysterically prudish America, when a network would put the kibosh on anything that even sounded like sex. The memos he's collected from those days say it all:

"On page 7, Ed Norton says, 'va-va-va-voom,'" a producer says. "Before we can give clearance, what does it mean in English?"

It's amazing anything could be created under such scrutiny. "We had one thing going for us … and that was Gleason. He was a powerful guy. The network had to listen to him," Stern says.

"They even objected to Norton working in the sewer. They thought that people would be eating while they watched the show and might get grossed out. But Gleason knew that Norton just had to work in the sewer."

Stern, a veteran of 40 years of television, called on such TV giants as Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart and Sherwood Schwartz to compile the most outrageous, idiotic memos from TV executives in 1994's A Martian Wouldn't Say That!! (Tallfellow).

Stern and his writing partner Diane Robison are now bringing the book back into print, and he's promising an update to show the ever-shifting battlefield between writers, producers and the network.

No Nasty Names for Hitler

The past battles did serve for dark humor. When producer E. Jack Neuman was bringing Inside the Third Reich to TV in the early 1980s, Standards and Practices tried to stop him from referring to Hitler as a "bastard."

One memo states, "In the line, 'And that little bastard in the big pants will strut across the stage wagging his mustache' … You must delete the word 'bastard' in regards to Hitler!"

A livid Neuman had to shoot back his own memo, pointing out that Hitler was a textbook bastard. "Hitler's mother was named Schicklgruber, and he was born out of wedlock," he wrote. "No less than two thousand prominent histories mentioned that fact, and no less than half the world's population … regards Hitler as a bastard."

Now, because of Neuman's convictions, we can all call Hitler a bastard on TV.

But the victories are rarely that decisive, and often writers have no recourse against network meddling. Here's a sampling:

"Please consider eliminating the child abuse and homosexual references. They are no longer popular with the audience."

"Although Connie is a sociopath, make sure she's not without warmth."

"Considering today's sensibilities, when you discuss euthanasia, be sure you do so in a positive light."

"There are too many hells and damns in the first three episodes. Please spread them throughout the season."

"The celery may be construed as phallic. Use broccoli."

Stern says TV suffers from the same problem as politics: Everyone is looking at the ratings and polling. The content is secondary. While Stern didn't attach names and dates to the memos offered up in Martians, he says they're all too real.

When Stern was producing Get Smart in the 1960s, the bean counters shot this memo across his desk: "Please avoid anything morbid, inappropriate or detrimental to his image in the display of the dead, gay midget lying under the toilet."

"We really pushed the envelope with this show. I mean we did have a dead little person under the toilet in the script," Stern says. "But once the guy is dead and under the toilet — how can you do anything that would not be inappropriate or detrimental to his image?

"TV execs aren't bad people," Stern says. "I think they are sometimes operating in an environment where they have no conception of what creativity is. They think everything will work out if you concentrate on the bottom line."

And that type of mentality truly scares some folks, who fear it promotes ignorance and intolerance. Producer Bruce Johnson says he received this memo on one project: "We cast a black actor as our lead, but the way you've written the dialogue you can't tell that."

Johnson wrote back to the vice president of development that he didn't intend the black character to sound black. The VP wrote back, "Okay, but how will the audience know he's black?"

"I intend this book to be funny, and I didn't include names sometimes because I don't like to get sued," Stern said. "But there is a subtext to it."

And now Stern is compiling a second volume. If you think about what happens on Sex and the City and The Sopranos on screen, you can only imagine what the memos are like.

The Weird News Roundup

Strippers Union

Here's some inspiration to look for the union label. The Striptease Artists of Australia Inc. are seeing official recognition as a union representing lap dancers, topless waitresses and other erotic performers. A union representative who calls herself "Mystical Melody" told The Associated Press that the strippers are a little "too hot" for traditional unions to handle. Like a lot of other working stiffs, the strippers want better pay and working conditions.

Toilet Paper Caper

What was Ernest Myers planning to do with 18,000 rolls of toilet paper? The 47-year-old from Bensalem, Pa., pleaded guilty to stealing a tractor-trailer loaded with toilet paper before leading police on a high-speed highway chase in January. Meyers hardly got off Scott-free. He was sentenced to two to four years in jail. Why did he rob toilet paper, instead of stereo equipment, like other crooks? "You can get rid of it quick," he told the court.

From Bad to Worse

A man who wanted to correct a severe curvature in his penis won $1.5 million from his doctor as a result of the surgery, which shrank his sex organ to half its pre-surgery size. "You really don't understand how devastating this is," his attorney, William L. Myers Jr. of Philadelphia, told the Daily Record of Maryland. "It can really cause problems in a marriage." Edward Stamper suffered impotence because of his condition. While his organ is now straight, he still suffers from sexual dysfunction..

Buck Wolf is a producer at The Wolf Files is a weekly feature. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.