100 Years of Swearing on Film and TV
In 2014, The Wolf of Wall Street broke records as the most profane Hollywood feature film ever produced, with 569 uses of the word “fuck” alone. It symbolised a new era in television and film, where profanity is viewed by censorship authorities and audiences at home as less offensive than ever before.
It’s been a long and difficult time coming. Half a century earlier Kenneth Tynan used the “fuck” on a late night television show on the BBC and provoked four separate House of Commons motions signed by 133 Labour and Tory backbenchers.
When did swearing lose its power to shock audiences? Here’s a timeline of the evolution of offensive language in television and films.
1916: The Douglas Fairbanks comedy The Habit of Happiness is reportedly the first Hollywood film to contain a swear word. As this is a silent film, the swear is only recognisable to lip readers. However, it sparks controversy in the US nonetheless.
1925: John Gilbert yells “Goddamn it!” in hugely successful film The Big Parade.
1930: The Motion Picture Production Code, or Hay’s Code, came into use to govern filmmakers, and forbade all profanity. It was followed to varying degrees for twenty years.
1939: Gone With The Wind, which is widely believed to be the first film to use the word “Damn” is released. In truth, there were many incidents prior to this both in silent movies and talkies (see above).
1956: Noel Coward’s play “Blithe Spirit” appears on CBS series “Ford Star Jubilee”, including words such as “damn” and “hell”. After complaints, Coward said, “People who object to the profanity in ‘Blithe Spirit’ are crackpots, and Mr. Ford should be happy if even one of them doesn’t buy his car. They would be a menace on the highway.”
1957: Elvis Presley’s gyrations are considered too suggestive, so in 1957 he’s filmed only from the waist up for The Ed Sullivan Show.
1960: In the US, Congress grants the FCC the power to fine broadcasters who air “obscene, indecent, or profane language.”
1965: In the UK, Kenneth Tynan says ‘fuck’ on TV and four motions are tabled in parliament, causing four motions in the House of Commons and a national outrage.
1965: In the US, the first prime time sitcom curse word (“damn”) is uttered in an ad-lib line from Doris Packer.
1967: The British lead the way for swearing in mainstream movies, as Ulysses becomes the first mainstream movies to use the word “fuck”.
1968: The first major Hollywood film to use the word “bullshit” is Bullitt.
1972: George Carlin performs his now famous comedy routine on what is and isn’t allowed on television:
1976: The Sex Pistols use the word “fuck” several times on British tea time show Today which leads to a suspension for the show’s presenter and the band being banned from television.
1981: Charles Rocket is fired from Saturday Night Live after accidentially saying “fuck” on-air.
1983: Jools Holland uses the phrase “groovy fuckers” on a live broadcast of The Tube and is suspended for six weeks.
1999: The first use of the word “shit” on scripted US TV appears on Chicago Hope.
2001: South Park use the word “shit” more than 150 times in spoken and written form in an episode titled “It Hits The Fan”.
2002: Cher accidentally says “fuck” on a live awards show—and nothing happens.
2004: Janet Jackson has a nip slip during a Super Bowl performance. CBS receives the largest ever indecency fine for a TV broadcaster: $550,000.
2010: A new study shows that profanity on broadcast television has risen nearly 70 percent in the past five years.
2014: Wolf of Wall Street is released, containing 3.16 uses of the word “fuck” a minute.