Dr. Dougie – or – How I learned to stop worrying and love the eff bomb
Doug types too much...
October 31, 2018
I know a lot about eff bombs. I’ve been dropping them for quite a while now. And I’m an old guy. I won’t say I was there when the word was invented, but I seem to remember being there the first time it was written down.
Society, and its general acceptance of the bomb, has changed dramatically from when I was a kid. In my youth, I don’t remember hearing it a lot, certainly not within the confines of entertainment. In the 1960s, at a time when many entertainment products came with family values seals of approval, I became aware of vinyl record albums that were sold in mom & pop garages. That was where I first heard of people like Redd Fox and Rusty Warren.
Then there was George Carlin with his 7 words you can’t say on television. To this day, I can still recite them in order. Lenny Bruce was arrested many times for indecency. For words. And let’s not forget our history and the fact that Mr. Carlin was actually arrested for saying those words on stage as late as the 1970s.
In the 1990s, I belonged to a community theater group in upstate New York. I sat in a board meeting once where a report was given on a show that was slated for their upcoming season. Brighton Beach Memoirs. By Neil Simon. Author of The Odd Couple. Mr. Simon comes with a fair amount of credentials. Board members had gone through the script removing sections of the play they deemed not appropriate for their aging clientele who were affectionately known as the “blue hair” patrons. So if it was “offensive” or “too heavy,” it came out. They’d drawn large Xs through portions of the play. I remember that one section involved humorously discussing masturbation and another talked about death.
“They’ll never sit still for that!” And out it would come under the guise of maintaining community standards.
I am a writer. Maybe not your favorite writer and I am certainly not the best writer in the world, but I will tell you this – I put in a lot of time and effort. And I don’t say that as an applause line, I mention it because I want you to know that every word I put on a page was calculated and planted for a specific reason. When I agonize over plot points, I’m not interested in an intermediary helping me out with their non-writer filters.
In Amadeus, Mozart premieres a new piece for royalty and is aghast when his music is critiqued for having “too many notes.” Mozart was convinced he knew better and time has proven him right.
When it comes to my stuff, once we get to the end game, it is my final stamp. I own it. If there’s an eff bomb planted, it was meant to be a part of the rhythm. It’s my song. Listen or don’t. But don’t change it on me. Believe me, if I didn’t think the eff bomb should be there, I would have stripped it out myself. Trust me on that because I’ve done it. Many times. Sometimes swearing isn’t appropriate. And just to assuage your fears, I have written many things with no bombs inside. I have progressed beyond gratification for its own sake.
The 2nd time playwright censorship acted out in front of me, I spoke up.
It was Hot l Baltimore by Pulitzer prize-winning author Lanford Wilson. All of the swear words had been dutifully tallied – racked and stacked with the eff bomb being the primary concern. There were 9 occurrences. The reader felt like 7 was a more appropriate number and wanted to honcho a discussion about which 2 bombs could be removed.
There is a Martin Scorsese movie called The Wolf of Wall Street which holds the distinction of unloading over 500 eff bombs in about the same time it takes to act out Hot l Baltimore. My suspicion is The Wolf is full of generously improvised swearing. But my guess is that the 9 bombs in Hot l Baltimore were placed precisely.
Are the eff bombs placed for shock value? Yes! They are there on purpose!
My hackles were up as I straightened in my seat and addressed the group.
“How many people here have a Tony award? An Obie? A Pulitzer? Or any writing award for that matter?”
I was met with stony silence. No hands went up, so I continued.
“So what gives you the right to carve up somebody else’s art?”
One of them piped up that I needed to be mindful of community standards.
I didn’t miss a beat.
“Number one, I think you underestimate the intelligence of your audiences. Number two, this play is copyrighted and you don’t get to change it just because you feel like it. If you’re worried about offending your audiences, do The Sound of Music again.”
This episode did little to thaw relations between me and the board.
The straw that broke my camel back was an evening of one-acts. I offered up an original called The Dandelion. In the original 1987 production directed by my mentor Ben Matlock and starring yours truly, The Dandelion was paired with 2 other one-acts I’d penned.
But for its revival, I was paired with 2 other non-Doug Bari one-acts that were far less controversial. My play had “language” – it’s about a murderer on death row – I thought the language was not only appropriate for the piece, but each word was placed precisely for maximum import.
After voting my play in without reading it first, the board wanted to “un-vote” it. I made a personal plea.
“Give your audiences the benefit of the doubt here.”
I tried to assure them with my calmest and most soothing Doug Bari voice.
They went along, but were wary with their approval.
All through rehearsals, the old guard at the theater fretted about eff bombs in Doug’s play. What to do? At one point, my play was just going to be unceremoniously axed.
The compromise was putting my play on the end of the line-up coupled with me standing up in front of the blue-hairs to warn them they had time to leave before my play started.
My jaws were tight on this. I ain’t gonna lie to ya. I didn’t want to give a warning, but I swallowed my pride and did it so all of the actors’ hard work would not be in vain.
At the end of the play on opening night, a blue-haired lady inched toward me in her walker and exclaimed, “I don’t know what all the fuss was about – I thought it was wonderful!”
The icing on the cake came a couple of months later. There had been a judge from the Theatre Association of New York State at one of the performances. Doug’s eff-bomb laden play got selected as one of the 7 best one-acts in New York state for that year.
It was the first time that theater full of blue-hairs had seen an entry go into statewide competition in 21 years.
Did that warm relations between me and the board?
No. Not really.
So Judy and I brainstormed. And we became our own theater group. We used my original plays at first to avoid royalty fees. We used bare-bone sets. A couple of lights and a Radio Shack 4-channel sound board and our stereo speakers carried from home.
On opening night of our newly created “group,” our publicity had been zilch. Nobody would cover us. Judy and I drove to the military community center in a blizzard. Most everything was shut down for the night because of the snow.
That afternoon, before the snow started, I got a call from the commander’s office. It was the CO’s right-hand guy. He was calling to tell me we had to cancel our opening performance that night which was literally hours away.
“Why? Because of the snow?”
No. One could only be that lucky.
“The commander’s wife heard your script has objectionable language in it and she doesn’t like that. So she talked to her husband and he’s canceling the show. The base doesn’t want to promote this type of thing.”
I started laughing which I think caught the right-hand guy off-guard.
But I could tell he was serious.
I pleaded my case.
“Has the commander or his wife read the script?”
“Oh. So they don’t even know what’s in it?”
“No. We just heard.”
“Look, you have a base movie theater which as we speak is showing an R-rated movie. Are you telling me the commander and his wife want to shut down the base theater? Because we aren’t using any words on stage that the troops and their families aren’t hearing up the street at the theater.”
I remember this pause on the line.
And then right-hand guy brightened up. Got cheery even.
“Oh, so we’re just talking about things like ‘Fuck you’ and stuff like that?”
“Yeah, that’s what we’re talkin’ about.”
You know, just normal husband-wife interchanges.
Right-hand guy rolled over. Without resistance and offering his best wishes.
That preceded us showing up to perform in a blizzard.
Just when we were about to pack it in, 2 cars pulled into the snowy parking lot.
Judy and I looked at each other.
“Okay, they made the trip. Let’s go out and kill it.”
And we did.
I’ve told this story before. 2 of the 5 in the audience were the local mayor and his wife who happened to own a local newspaper. Their review the following week led to sold out houses in the 5 years following.
At first, we rented rooms to perform in. Not too long after we started, we got noticed by an art director who ran a community center. The hope was sponsorship so we could afford to do plays other than mine.
I remember our first meeting.
The art director started out by telling us we’d have to adhere to community standards.
I choked and got up to leave. “Dude, we just went through this which is why we started our own group.”
The Art Director guy smiled and gestured for me to sit back down. “Well, let’s not forget our community has HBO. So anything we might see on HBO is fair game. Unless you want to do nudity. I’m not saying you can’t, I’d just like to discuss it first.”
He didn’t have to worry about nudity with us, but it was nice to have options.
We did some really forward-thinking material during the next 5 years. And guess what? Some of it was squeaky clean language-wise. We just wanted to put out great shows.
We got a reputation rather quickly because we were the only one of 4 theater groups in town doing new stuff. Edgy stuff. Important stuff.
Flash forward to Faux Paws, our social comedy about gay werewolves escaping to freedom. It has a lot of eff bombs in it. I know, because I’ve counted them. Just like that guy in that theater group who audited swearing in scripts.
I didn’t count them because I wanted to, I counted them because I had to.
Back in late 2013 when the Virginia Film Festival showed us in rough-cut to a raucous crowd of hundreds, I was informed by a woman at work that she had purchased a ticket to the screening.
She probably wouldn’t care if I used her real name, but we’ll call her Linda.
Linda is a person I support with IT tasks. I know her fairly well. Well enough to know that even though she drives a Harley, she is also a born-again Christian who does not take to loose language. In fact, for the longest time, she had a prominent sign above her office that announced you were in a “No profanity zone.”
So when she approached me and said she’d purchased a ticket to our movie, I offered to buy it back from her.
“Look, I don’t want to offend you. We have a good working relationship and I’d like to keep it that way.”
She was having none of that.
“No, I have my ticket and I’m going.”
I didn’t see Linda for two weeks after the screening. And then I got the call. Linda needs help. Go see her.
When I got to the briefing room she was trying to set up, she told me the workstation wouldn’t fire up to do her demo. I had to crawl under the table and play with fiber cables. The whole time I was down on the floor, all I could see was her feet up to her elbow level. The arms were crossed. One of her feet tapped impatiently.
When I crawled out from underneath and stood up to dust myself off, Linda stared at me cold-blooded.
“I went to see your movie. I counted over 80 eff bombs.”
She was not cracking even a hint of a smile before she burst out laughing.
“But I gotta tell ya, I laughed so hard! That was so funny!”
I’ve had moments where you could have been blown me over with a feather. That was one of ’em.
Linda had impressed me. How was it possible to watch and enjoy Faux Paws and simultaneously tally eff bombs in one of the back rooms of her brain?
That weekend, Judy was gone to a dance festival. Padding around the house in my Hugh Hefner bathrobe, I couldn’t get Linda’s counting chops out of my head. I mean, this woman would kill in Vegas.
I curled up with our Boston Terrier Sophie, queued up the movie, and sat making hash marks with pen and paper.
Linda was right. The exact number was 86.
I stopped hash-marking about 20 minutes from the end of our movie. Not because I gave up trying to keep track. No. I stopped because my vulgar, profanity-laden movie does not include a single eff bomb beginning at about 70 minutes in. And that was on purpose. Once my werewolf heroes were approaching real freedom, they didn’t have to be so angry anymore. So they didn’t swear as much.
It’s a subtle touch from the writer. My script is kind of like The New York Times. “All the eff bombs that fit.”
I don’t know. We all draw our individual moral lines in the sand. Swearing, especially the dropping of eff bombs, manifests itself differently with everyone’s unique filters.
Prince famously did not like swearing in his presence. Yet he stuck a fair amount of eff bombs in his songs. When Oprah interviewed him decades ago, she chided him and asked if the vulgar words were necessary. He got a pass when he demurred. Oprah shook her head.
But not long after, Oprah announced on her show that she had given up getting crazy about cussing. She had, in fact, embraced occasionally saying the eff word. “Sometimes it’s the only word that fits.”
My mother swore combinations like a sailor on occasion, but refused to utter the eff word.
A lot of Germans I met in the 1980s didn’t blink at nudity, but were greatly offended if you dropped an eff bomb in their presence.
I always taught our kids about intent and when swearing was appropriate and when it wasn’t.
When I took Faux Paws out to festivals, I got a lot of surprising reactions to the language in the film. I remember after one screening being approached by a father with his 10-year-old.
“I brought my son to see this and I’m glad I did.”
I couldn’t contain my laughter. “Are you serious?”
“Absolutely. It was funny, but mostly, it had something really important to say. And it was such a sweet movie.”
You might think that a guy who’s worked so hard to trumpet and liberate eff word use would be all over people using it.
Not so fast. As a character points out in Faux Paws, there are times when swearing is appropriate and times when it is not.
It is scary sometimes how things in our world have escalated. It was better when I had to imagine crazy shit.
I am always a bit taken aback when I hear toddlers dressed down in a supermarket checkout line or in a parking lot. Or worse, at a little league or pee-wee football game. I just don’t think, and I’ve never thought, that children should be berated with 4-letter words.
Now bosses and idiot co-workers or friends? I can see the application. But I digress.
In my personal experience, words never bothered me much. I’ve always been more worried about intent. I’m always more concerned about the thrust rather than the actual language utilized.
George Carlin used to lament that he would rather kids watch a film of two people making love than killing each other. My update to that might be “I would rather have my kids watching Faux Paws than…”
Oh, wait. I’m not sure that paradigm fits.
I met Heather Langencamp several years ago at a horror festival Faux Paws won. She was there with Robert Englund to talk about her early Nightmare on Elm Street experiences.
I told her about the guy with his son who’d talked to me at the Faux Paws screening. She didn’t flinch. It happens to her all the time. She has gotten used to Dads and Moms bringing their grade-school children to meet her and Freddy.
About the exact same time Faux Paws was premiering in rough cut, I went to the movie-plex by myself one day. It was opening weekend for Texas Chainsaw 3D.
I was not there for the chainsaws. But in front of me, a young man in his 20s was. A toddler stood beside him. The attendant in the ticket booth was challenging the young dad.
“How old is your son, sir?”
“Well, technically I have to sell you the ticket because the child is accompanied by a parent, but I wonder if this is the right movie for your son.”
The young dad went off.
“You are going to give my son the 3D glasses, right?!”
At this point, people in line were making remarks openly siding with the cashier.
The dad was pissed at all of us. But he got his 3D glasses and his 4-year-old is either numb to violence or is still hiding under his bed.
I’ve pretty much drawn my line in the sand. I guard my speak around many people day-to-day. Frankly, I don’t find it a chore. I am looser with some than others. I adjust easily. But don’t get me wrong. I always have a bomb or two in my pocket if I need it.
I guess if I really wanted to, I could clean up my act. As one of the werewolf heroes in Faux Paws cautions, “Everything can’t be black.”
And indeed it shouldn’t be. I ain’t gonna lie. I’m pretty immune to language at this point in my older age. I don’t mind. Obviously. Not sure if that makes me bad or not.
But I’m also the same guy who went to a classic gilt gold-curtained theater in Denver in the mid-70s when they screened The Sound of Music redone in glorious 70mm with stereophonic sound. I saw it at least once a day for a week. I still love it.
So I’m not all bad. Just kinda.
When I wrote my Judy-inspired screenplay Yes, Virginia about the life of Santa Claus several years ago, I immersed myself in children’s books. I turned off the news. Stopped watching a lot of TV. Instead, I went back to innocence. I read a lot of books. Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew. Children’s classics. Black Beauty. Heidi. Yeah. Surly man was reading Heidi. I did it all. And I liked it! It was a really nice place to be.
But there are places where the bomb fits. At least for me.
I’ve been in the game too long.
Yeah, not gonna quit just yet.