The TV Age of Hysterical Prudishness

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Now, because of Neuman's convictions, we can all call Hitler a bastard on TV.

But the victories are rarely that decisive, and often writers have no recourse against network meddling. Here's a sampling:

"Please consider eliminating the child abuse and homosexual references. They are no longer popular with the audience."

"Although Connie is a sociopath, make sure she's not without warmth."

"Considering today's sensibilities, when you discuss euthanasia, be sure you do so in a positive light."

"There are too many hells and damns in the first three episodes. Please spread them throughout the season."

"The celery may be construed as phallic. Use broccoli."

Stern says TV suffers from the same problem as politics: Everyone is looking at the ratings and polling. The content is secondary. While Stern didn't attach names and dates to the memos offered up in Martians, he says they're all too real.

When Stern was producing Get Smart in the 1960s, the bean counters shot this memo across his desk: "Please avoid anything morbid, inappropriate or detrimental to his image in the display of the dead, gay midget lying under the toilet."

"We really pushed the envelope with this show. I mean we did have a dead little person under the toilet in the script," Stern says. "But once the guy is dead and under the toilet — how can you do anything that would not be inappropriate or detrimental to his image?

"TV execs aren't bad people," Stern says. "I think they are sometimes operating in an environment where they have no conception of what creativity is. They think everything will work out if you concentrate on the bottom line."

And that type of mentality truly scares some folks, who fear it promotes ignorance and intolerance. Producer Bruce Johnson says he received this memo on one project: "We cast a black actor as our lead, but the way you've written the dialogue you can't tell that."

Johnson wrote back to the vice president of development that he didn't intend the black character to sound black. The VP wrote back, "Okay, but how will the audience know he's black?"