Decorum, civility, the Oscars and public radio

The Oscar statue from Wikipedia

Anyone who has ever met me knows that I’m an unabashed, unapologetic snob.

By which I mean that I like cool, interesting, thoughtful and (when possible) beautiful things, and I don’t like stupid, vapid, shallow, and meaninglessly coarse things.

Fortunately for those forced to spend time around me, my judgments about these things are reasonably broad and eclectic.

I am quite capable of spending a couple of hours watching Family Guy reruns, because the show’s satire of modern American everything is sharp and wicked enough to offset the often brutal ick-factor.

So, admittedly, my definitions of what does and doesn’t pass muster are fickle and fluid.

My standards resemble those of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, whose famous definition of pornography was “I know it when I see it.”

But there is one hard-fast rule that I don’t think be broken only at great peril:  Some places, institutions and moments should be held sacred.

There are times when the gray-zone, wavering definition of civility and decorum that we’ve all come to accept in America should be replaced by something more old-fashioned and fixed and, yes, snobby and intolerant.

Go to church and you should act like you’re in church.  If you come over to my house for a black tie dinner, you should wear a jacket.

When you’re dealing with children, a little potty humor is okay, maybe, but the hard, bitter ironic jokes should be shelved.

I mention all this because this week’s Academy Award celebration was so sadly crude.  On the one hand, you had beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes talking about amazing accomplishments in the arts.

These are people who create powerful theater, translating emotion into poetry and performance.

And the movies this year — about  Lincoln, about the French revolution, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, about  mental illness, about the Iranian hostage crisis — were serious, moving works of story-telling.

Their moment of honor didn’t need to be somber or funereal.  Daniel Day-Lewis’s humorous asides to Meryl Streep were both funny and tasteful.

But did there have to be a song about women’s breasts?  A joke about the bullet that penetrated Abraham Lincoln’s brain?

There were an astonishing two jokes during the night about 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis.

One from host Seth McFarland tried to milk laughs from the idea of the little girl having sex with George Clooney.

The other from the satirical magazine the Onion, jabbed brutally at Wallis, using language that was so savage that it doesn’t bear repeating even in bowdlerized form.  (The  Onion has apologized.)

Some of these attempts at humor, or edginess, or hipness, would have been vile in any setting.  But in this week’s ceremony, they smacked of desperation.

It’s like we’re not allowed to have anyplace where grown-ups gather and celebrate something loftier than side boobs, tabloid irony and a sniggering brand of sexuality.

I know it’s self-referential, but this is one of the reasons why I admire and cling to and spend the vast amount of my own listening time in the world of public radio.

Yes, public radio can be snooty.  It can be self-serious.  There is plenty within our corner of the media world that is prime for parody.  And I know that many of our listeners have questions about our political leanings.

But whatever else you may say about the universe revolving around NPR and NCPR, we are not crude.  We are not willing to pander to the cheap seats.

On our airwaves there is more conversation, less shouting.  More real information, and less phony vote-them-off-the island cultural Darwinism.

We do that riskiest of things in an anything-goes culture, applying a bit of taste and discrimination.  We say No to things.  We tell people to keep their pants on, and their language clean.

And we also expect people to tune in who are bringing their minds and their spirits and, yes, occasionally their suit jackets.

14 Comments on “Decorum, civility, the Oscars and public radio”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Beautiful people? Oh, well. I watched for about an hour and all I saw were a bunch of rich people patting each other on the back for being rich and beautiful.
    There is nothing sacred about Hollywood. Never has been and never will be. It is, after all is said and done, a blue collar town that dresses up from time to time – and in some movies takes the clothing off in the name of “art.”
    Do I like movies? Yes and often the ones I like the most are never in contention for an Oscar.
    I recognize good acting but I also recognize actors are just people. I could say the same about those who play sports.

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  2. Kathy says:

    I don’t think it’s snobbish to value propriety. Good article.

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  3. Will Doolittle says:

    Hollywood is as tacky and superficial as the great description about it that someone coined: “It’s like high school, but with money.”
    The break-their-collective-arms-patting-themselves-on-the-backs bore-o-rama that is the Oscars deserved Seth McFarland, all clean and tuxedoed and crude and mean and tone-deaf and self-absorbed and unfunny as he was, at least for the approximately 10 minutes that I could stand to watch.

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  4. wakeup says:

    I thought he was great. We need thicker skin and in my opinion Brian you are being a little prude. And I also think you are jumping on the bandwagon. MacFarlane had a bullseye on him once it was announced he was hosting.

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  5. wakeup says:

    And it’s MacFarlane people.

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  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Wit is wonderful, satire can be delicious. But I have never found flat out mean to be all that funny.

    The (very) few times I saw “Family Guy” whatever satirical value it attempted seemed tainted (to me anyway) by smug, superior cruelty.

    So, I was actually surprised at how well Seth MacFarlane “cleaned up” for the Oscars.

    Frankly, the error (if there was one) came in picking MacFarlane in the first place. You get who you invite.

    MacFarlane didn’t do a bad job at doing what he does. He’s a good singer/dancer too, if you ignore the lyrics of gems like “we saw your boobs”. (A very schizoid song. Because it is funny to deflate the high dignity and inflated egos in that room. But what’s to be done about the sexist core of a society that simultaneously says “oh, yes, baby! show us your boobs” and then says “shame on you, you person of low morals, for showing us your boobs”. And leaves men off the hook for imposing the double standard.)

    But back to MacFarlane – blame this on whoever issued the invitation.

    I vote for asking Tina Fey and Amy Poehler next time around. Their humor has less of a cringe factor. Doesn’t seem likely, though as Fey has reportedly said “no thanks”.

    Too bad!

    Hosting does seem to be a huge risk – all that work for one night where everyone is a critic, and only too ready to slag the performance.

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  7. jill vaughan says:

    agree with you, brian.

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I didn’t watch the Oscars but heard a little about it and I’m glad I didn’t see it.

    MacFarlane is about as funny in the same way several of my 8th grade friends and I were funny, and I think we were more clever.

    Lucy makes the point about the “we saw your boobs” skit. Well crafted humor makes points about people or society in general and it seems to me that the boobs skit completely misses the mark. Pointing out people who have shown their body parts isn’t even very good 8th grade humor. Skewering the structure of a business machine that panders to the worst instincts of 8th grade boys in order to generate riches would be more interesting – but I’m not sure MacFarlane is up to the intellectual challenge.

    I think the Onion’s remark about that little girl who’s name I can’t spell is a more interesting case. While it was an incredibly offensive statement it distills the type of “humor” MacFarlane practices down to the most precise granule, and it forces us to recognize something about our society and what we find funny. It is brilliant in its offensiveness.

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  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:


    Hahahaha! Get me a job in Hollywood, I’m really funny!

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  10. The Original Larry says:

    On this, Brian, we agree. There is precious little civility in America today and even less decorum. Popular culture is a reflected view of society in general and that view continues to deteriorate.

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  11. Jeff says:

    Knuck, that is funny.
    I’m in agreement with Brian. I didn’t know the host but unfortunately my 18 year old who wanted to watch the program did and I was in the room observing while doing other stuff. The crass term for breasts annoys me any time and the host offered a lack of creativity. My humor preference leans towards Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain or Bill Cosby. Being crude is like “Mark Twain” what said when asked how much preparation it would take for a speech. If he was to speak for two hours, he was ready immediately, if he had only 15 minutes to speak ,preparation may take two days. Quality takes time and skill to craft. Poor quality displays lack of both.

    What does a program like that teach our children? – I’d stretch that to include some of the Superbowl commercials. – That this is how adults act and thus to mimic adults, my kids heard “4 letter words” on the school bus. It isn’t easy to curb one’s speech but it can be done. It takes more skill to develop humor when there are constraints because more effort is required, more language skills are required and as Brian mentioned awareness of society or specific cultures.

    The few times I watched to William F. Buckley as a teenager a lot went over my head but what he and his guests said made me think and as it was on broadcast television it was “clean.” Watching some of Steve Allen’s programs where he had guests such as Cleopatra and Napolean I found humor and imagination.

    Additionally I see the crassness of today’s culture generating or perhaps allowing the course nature of talk radio. Its bombastic language and name calling is used in part to get or fire up an audience but also because it is allowed.

    When my daughter asks what do we do when people at work use certain language, the issue is how do we speak and act not them. To her, we’re not cool. I don’t like the world others are drawing her into.

    The email by a Tupper Lake Town Official fits this topic of decorum and civility althoughit was not made in a broadcast forum, at least I expect it wasn’t planned to be in a newspaper. A secret shared is not a secret. Everyone should think before speaking, or writing. And understand the value of humble apology.

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  12. Rancid Crabtree says:

    It’s all just a reflection of the degradation of our society. It’s getting harder and harder to find any comedy you can watch without hearing the f word 3 times in every sentence or repeated references to various body parts, defecation, reproductive acts. It’s not even low humor, it’s not even “locker room talk” as Mr Carlin would say. It’s just crude to be crude, cruel to be cruel, stupid for the sake of being stupid.

    The sad part is that there’s nothing wrong with keeping it clean. Bob and Ray never had a problem. Cosby, Carol Burnett, Andy Griffith back in his stand up days. You can be dead clean and really funny. You can sing and dance and not have to mimic the sex act or have a “wardrobe malfunction”. It’s just sad that it’s all sunk so low.

    It doesn’t take thicker skin, it take more talent!

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  13. Rancid Crabtree says:

    The classic recent example of how low we’ve sunk was the New Years eve deal where some desperate comedian tried to be funny be simulating oral sex on Anderson Cooper- at least twice.

    That’s not funny. That’s pathetic.

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  14. Mervel says:

    That is why I listen to Public Radio and Public Broadcasting even when I disagree with some of the premises or bias.

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