The Shock Factor

The other day, while watching Inside the Actors Studio, the host, James Lipton, asked Jay Leno a question that wasn’t ordinary, “What is your favorite four letter curse word?” Right after it was asked I thought the question was interesting considering it was Jay Leno, the famed late night host, who would be answering. I mean, even though he’s on network television, you’d figure he had one, right? Wrong. That’s where his answer surprised me. He basically responded with, and I am paraphrasing here, “the four letter curse words are overused, they aren’t shocking anymore.”

So, that got me thinking, and boy do I hate to think.

What initially came to mind was a class that I took in either 8th grade. I don’t remember the name of the class. But, I remember the teacher was a woman, a very passionate one at that, and on the first day of class she did something I have never seen since in my education, she shocked her entire class. On the first day of class she had written on the board, in the largest handwriting possible, a derogatory word that was used to describe black Americans. You couldn’t miss it. When you sat in your desk all you saw was that word. The teacher sat in her desk, which was to the side of the board. She lead the entire class that day from her desk.

Firstly, I couldn’t believe that it was on the board and on top of that it was in school. I would have been about fifteen at the time and just about ready to wear jeans and talk to girls. So, needless to say I was probably naieve. Never the less, there was a reason to the word on the board, but it sure wasn’t very visible when I got into class. The word was written to drive an emotion and to find out what that emotion was. It was an exercise to see how different people felt about the same word. Whether it was a good lesson or a bad one doesn’t really matter to me, but it obviously stuck. Now, I don’t remember what I felt then, but when I think of or hear that word today it still irks me.

So, this got me to thinking about Jay Leno’s answer to the question. Why doesn’t he have one? I can see why he responded with what he did. The “four letter words” are becoming more common in everyday life that the initial shock value that made them what they are today is not as strong as it was, say, five to ten years ago. We’ve entered the age where now less and less shocks us. We’re now the culture that has a breast flash on public television, news anchors cussing on camera, and violence in television and video games that mimics real live and vice versa. Now, I’m not trying to say that culture is going downhill or that it was so much better in the past. I’m not, I think that the culture that we live in today is more robust than it’s ever been. I’m just simply saying how shock is something completely different today as opposed to what it was in the past. I mean, if you want to talk shock, bring a Maxim back to the forties and tell them it is sold at every major news stand in America.

In the end, after thinking about his response, I can see how he feels what he feels. The humor/shock value of cursing isn’t what it was. Granted, there are still comics who make their living off of this type of shock comedy, but I think overall we’re becoming less and less shocked by what we hear, see, and say. Is that a bad thing? Well, I’m not to say. What’s not shocking to me may be to my parents and vice versa. But, what got me thinking is this… What will be the shock factor five, ten, or twenty years down the road? Will I consider it shocking? What does it take to shock me? It will be interesting to say the least, simply because I don’t really want to think about what is more shocking than what we consider it to be today.