Fox Does Have Standards--and Double Standards

By Howard Rosenberg

© Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1999.

     Trying to give his kids some fatherly advice on how to live their lives some years ago, that endearing doofus Homer Simpson could not remember the word "Christianity." So he sought help from his precocious daughter, Lisa.
     "What's the name of that religion," he asked, "with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life?"
     Big laugh.
     Nothing unusual here, either about the show's wickedly nipping satire or that its target was religion. Throughout its decade of smart existence, "The Simpsons" has made delicious, but not malicious fun of just about the entire cosmos, with Fox joining viewers in giving a big thumbs up.
     The Matt Groening series' oft-splendid wit earned a large audience that, along with fans of the raunchier "Married . . . With Children," gave early credibility to the newborn Fox in its early fight for life as a fourth national network beside ABC, CBS and NBC.
     Yet speaking of rules that don't work. . . .
     "I'm really angry," said Mike Scully, who has been with "The Simpsons" for six years and executive producer for three. He is angry at Fox.
     Scully learned recently that Fox wants Catholics treated differently than other religious faiths when designated as punch lines by the show's writers. And learned that all Fox series are not equal when it comes to the network imposing standards of taste. Given its famous flaunting of sleaze and death-defying motorcycle leaps, the big news here is that Fox has standards.
     Its latest production is Censors Who Kill Jokes.
     But not equitably, it turns out. Although Fox reportedly axed a "blood of Christ" gag from its nasty new animated comedy, "Family Guy," that series has been allowed to spew crude jokes about sex, masturbation, blacks and President Kennedy's assassination, for example, and a darkly funny gag about Jews in the premiere.
     Yet "The Simpsons" has been slapped down by the network for benignly deploying Catholicism in its funny parody of Super Bowl commercials during an episode that ran immediately after the actual Jan. 31 Super Bowl telecast by Fox.
     "People can say hurtful things to each other about their weight, their race, their intelligence, their sexual preference, and that all seems up for grabs," Scully said. "But when you get into religion, some people get very nervous."
     The episode in question was repeated last week with a small, but crucial edit imposed by the network in panicky response to criticism generated by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. That's the same watchdog that had a snit over a mild joke about Communion sacraments in an earlier episode of "The Simpsons." The same one whose fanatical crusade against "Nothing Sacred" helped drive that achingly noble ABC series from the air.
     Inspired by an old ZZ Top video, the commercial spoof showed a dusty service station where a car pulled up to the pumps and the nerdy driver got out, looked around and hit the horn. Gyrating to rock music, three scantily clad babes emerged from the station seductively, and as the driver's eyes widened, they suggestively flipped open the hood, shook off the squeegee and plunged the gas nozzle into the tank. The driver was even more excited when spotting a glittering cross hanging in one of the wiggling female's ample cleavage.
     Voice-over: "The Catholic Church: We've made a few . . . changes."
     Then the shot widened to include Marge Simpson and Lisa watching the spot on TV between quarters. Lisa: "These Super Bowl commercials are weird."
     As are some network decisions, for "Catholic" was deleted from the voice-over in last week's Fox-edited rerun, leaving only "The church."
     Doing that or changing the entire reference to "religion" was what Scully said he was asked to do by Roland McFarland, Fox vice president of broadcast standards. When he balked, Scully said, McFarland advised changing it to "Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists," anything but Catholic.
     Scully: "When I asked what would be the difference changing it to another religion, and wouldn't that just be offending a different group of people, he explained that Fox had already had trouble with Catholics earlier this season."
     Different standards for different religions?
     McFarland would not comment. Nor would Christina Kounelias, senior vice president for publicity and corporate communications.
     The "trouble" cited by McFarland came from the Catholic League, which had protested that earlier gag in a November episode of "The Simpsons" when a famished Bart asked Marge while they were in their car: "Mom, can we go Catholic so we can get Communion wafers and booze?" To which she replied: "No one is going Catholic. Three children is enough, thank you."
     The Catholic League also threw its mail might against dialogue about priest pedophilia in two of this season's episodes of the network's "Ally McBeal." In one, a preacher disclosed to his lawyer that he'd been having an affair, adding, "I realize that doesn't make me an altar boy." The reply: "If you were an altar boy, you'd be with a priest."
     The other episode had a wayward nun chatting about sex with Ally and saying: "A priest has sex with a boy, he gets transferred. . . . At least my lover was of legal age, for God's sake."
     Although often seeing anti-Catholic demons where none exists, the Catholic League does have a point when it comes to "Ally McBeal," pedophilia being an ugly stereotype that's far too broadly applied to priests. Enough already! Given prime time's long record of demeaning religion, moreover, the Catholic watchdog's thin skin is understandable.
     Yet not always justified, for "The Simpsons" committed comedy, not Catholic-bashing.
     "The joke was an observation on crazy Super Bowl commercials, not a comment on the Catholic Church," said the 42-year-old Scully, who calls himself a "lapsed" Catholic. "We had the idea for the content of the commercial first. Then we pitched several tag lines. One of the writers pitched the Catholic Church line, and it got the biggest laugh."
     Scully said that the Catholic League organized written protests against both episodes of "The Simpsons," and that Fox, after being supportive, caved in after the second batch of complaints.
     "We got a couple of hundred letters, and it was very obvious from reading a majority of them that [the protesters] had not seen the show. Some of them were from third-graders, all saying the same thing: 'Please don't make fun of my religion.' Which we all know third-graders are very adamant about," Scully added, caustically.
     The battle continues. Set to air this fall is an episode with Homer and his pals forming a motorcycle gang that he names Hell's Satans. When Ned Flanders, Springfield's most devout Christian, lobbies for something less blasphemous, Moe the IQ-challenged barkeep blurts out "The Christ Punchers." It's rejected, of course.
     As the joke was by Fox, Scully said. On the other hand, if "The Christ Punchers" were jumping the Grand Canyon during ratings sweeps. . . .

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