The late veteran entertainer laments the decline of his profession.
By Steve Allen
An ancient theological concept is the occasion of sin. It refers to social contexts that individuals attempting to reform themselves would be well advised to stay away from. Examples are obvious enough: A recovering alcoholic ought, not to spend time in a saloon. Someone trying to kick the curse of addiction ought not go to parties where drugs are freely passed around. A man wrestling with a sexual compulsion should avoid his local singles bar.
In today's Anything Goes culture it sometimes seems. that our entire society has become one massive occasion of sin. We live in an environment bombarded morning, noon and night with messages from films, television, radio, recordings and other modes of mass communication. It is almost impossible to escape encouragement to act in ways that have traditionally been the province of the libertine, thuggish, coarse and depraved.
The result? We now have 12-year-old schoolchildren walking down the street blithely singing lyrics that advocate the rape and violent abuse of, women, the killing of police officers and other forms of social madness, while at home they watch "Dawson's Creek" and "South Park," to name but two of the shows now featuring moral disorder and tastelessness. Meanwhile, the latest R-rated movie opens with a splash at the cinema down the street, only to turn up at the neighborhood videostore a few months later for easy rental, or on HBO. MTV pours out its slick, seductive images and the radio blasts its shock-jock crudities and soul-destroying music.
Some modern people are made uncomfortable by such terms as "sin." No problem. Personally I don't care if we refer to such morally heedless, destructive cultural production as simply "bad stuff," but we had better agree on some set of terms to discuss the profoundly disturbing realities of our present social predicament.
There was a time when we might have been able to ignore the worst of all this -- it was once at the margins. But it is now in the mainstream, and the evidence is everywhere, especially on TV, the most pervasive medium in the culture.
Although such humorists as Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman and the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart made us laugh hysterically without sexual references, there's hardly a sitcom on TV today -- right there in prime time -- that doesn't depend on them, crudely and explicitly. And there is apparently no longer a debate about the sleaziness of soap operas. As for table TV, practically all its shows should be rated double-V for "Violence and Vulgarity."
The effects on comedy of this new coarseness have not gone unnoticed by traditional comedians themselves. I have been hearing from dozens of colleagues who agree that the sleaze and classless garbage of recent years exceeds even the boundaries of what has traditionally been referred to as Going Too Far. Popular comedians such as Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, Tim Allen, Milton Berle, Tom Poston, Louie Nye and Bob Newhartto name only a few-are horrified at what has happened to the beautiful and socially necessary art of comedy. Qbviously some of these gentlemen occasionally work a little rough in a nightclub -- again, none of us are saints-but we draw the line when it comes to TV and radio.
Luckily, increasing numbers of people are disturbed by this collapse of standards and values in the popular arts. Civilization has, faced such decadence before, of course. It is said, for example, that during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the seventh century the arts became so depraved that the church often refused religious burial to anyone connected with them. Today's clergy are more compassionate, but they are nevertheless gravely concerned.
And they are not alone. All across the political spectrum thoughtful observers are appalled by what passes for entertainment these days. No one can claim that the warning cries are simply the exaggerations of conservative spoilsports or fundamentalist preachers. Even people who fall far short of a state of personal sanctity -- myself, for example -- are revolted.
What to do? An old rural joke from the turn of the century concerns a farmer who had a particularly obstinate mule. A stranger came along one day and said, "I can work on that mule for you." The farmer told him to go right ahead, at which point the fellow picked up a club and gave the animal an unmerciful blow to the head. "Why did you do that?" the farmer asked.
"Well," said the man, "first you've got to get their attention."
For more than a dozen years I've been quietly communicating with friends and associates in the entertainment business warning them about the mounting chorus of complaints and the various forms of censorship to which continued excesses could lead. Friendly persuasion hasn't worked, so now I'm serving as a spokesman for the Parents Television Council, which has long stood for family-friendly programming.
The PTC has placed a series of full-page ads in newspapers across the country appealing to the television executives who are personally responsible, along with others, for the present coarsening of American culture. The ads frankly declare that "TV leading children down a moral sewer," calls on the sponsors of degrading shows to withdraw their support and invite readers to back PTC's efforts with a contribution. To judge both by letters from several corporate sponsors and by what I interpret as embarrassed silence from the studios and networks, we've gotten their attention.
In 1993, Ken Auletta wrote an insightful feature in the New Yorker reporting the answers of the film industry's top executives to the simple question of whether they would want their own children to see some of their productions. Many of the executives dodged and weaved -- and implicitly answered "no." Since then the problem of cultural coarsening has only gotten worse Mr. Auletta's question must continue to be asked.
Our radio and TV stations and networks, after all, are not owned by Larry Flynt or Al Goldstein -- two pornographers who at least do not disguise what they are doing. The offenders often turn out to be the country-club elite, many of them Republican, some of them proudly conservative and church-going.
Let us, by all means ', direct the beam of our ethical concern on this till-now dark corner. Let us see who scurries away, or -- if we are lucky -- vows to men his ways. This will happen, though, only if the finger of public disapproval of public disapproval is pointed individuals and entities. The PTC is doing its part, but surely there are hundreds of other organizations that might join in. The occasion of sin, it turns out, is also the occasion for doing the right thing.
This article was first published in the Wall Street Journal,, Friday, November 13, 1998. It is used here with Mr. Allen's permission.