TV in the Toilet, Literally

Bathroom humor is an unfortunate staple of the entertainment industry, but it’s not always intentional. Tongues wagged all over America when rock singer Sheryl Crow announced her latest planet-saving ideas on the Internet.

As she cruised the country in a biodiesel-fueled bus to fight against global warming, the singer said some of her ideas "are in the earliest stages of development" — and then proclaimed one of them without having thought it through. "I propose a limitation be put on how many squares of toilet paper can be used in any one sitting … one square per restroom visit."

Her critics are still enjoying the field day. And entertainers wonder why no one wants them setting government policy.

But most of the time, bathroom humor is intentional, and designed to go beyond the comfort zone. It’s not enough to be snarky, or even crass. Now it must be downright revolting to be considered "funny."

The latest offender is ABC’s "According to Jim" with Jim Belushi, a show that was originally marketed to viewers as a family sitcom with the lovable ogre dad, the beautiful mom and three cute little smart-alecks. Now, ABC calls it an "earthy family comedy." Translation: Get ready for a lot of references to toilet contents.

The premise of the April 18 episode, titled "What Lies Beneath," is that Jim lost his wedding ring, and unbeknownst to him, it was found in the front yard (with a metal detector) and brought to his wife, Cheryl. He’s been wearing a counterfeit ring to cover up his mistake. Cheryl wants him to admit that he lost it. So far, that’s a classic sitcom plot that wouldn’t be out of place in the 1930s, or the 1950s, or the 1990s.

But this is 2007. Cheryl bakes cupcakes and tells her family that the only way each person in the house gets to have a cupcake is by publicly admitting to a lie. Jim won’t confess about the lost ring. Cheryl then puts the lost ring on top of his "special cupcake." He glares at it, but instead of confessing his deception, Jim eats the entire cupcake, ring and all.

That’s when the sitcom plot rockets into the sleazy 21st century, setting the bathroom plot into motion, since Cheryl wants to get the "evidence" of Jim’s lost ring back … in the bathroom. But not before her sister unloads an "earthy" story about how "last week, I was up on the roof throwing water balloons I filled with my own urine." What’s with this fictional family? How gross can it get?

The low point of the plot arrives when ABC shows Jim hurrying to the bathroom because he has to pass the wedding ring he swallowed. He is shown taking off his pants and sitting down on the toilet, and then the viewer hears a "clank" sound. It is implied that Jim has just excreted his ring in his waste. Family members are hiding in the bathtub. We see them open the curtain, and Jim’s wife yells, "Don’t you dare flush that toilet." His brother-in-law adds the joke, "And feel free to light a match."

Why must a viewer be subjected to a plot like this? The ratings system has no "S" for scatological content." The "S" is for sexual situations. The Federal Communications Commission defined broadcast indecency in 1987 as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."

This is certainly a plot based on (implied) excretory activities, but it’s certainly not what the regulators had in mind. I suspect that when these rules were written there wasn’t a soul at the FCC who believed "humor" would ever come to this.

Is this the comedy your family pines for when you gather around the TV for an evening of entertainment? Do you know of any family that relishes plot lines about bowel movements? This isn’t a "family comedy," earthy or otherwise. This is cultural waste for the culturally wasted.

A few years ago, Belushi won a Best Actor honor from the Family-Friendly Programming Forum — after the delightful episode about his character’s low sperm count. That "earthy family comedy" plot featured Jim’s brother-in-law switching a "sample" of his own sperm instead of Jim’s for testing, and Jim’s wife convincing the two that she’d been impregnated with her brother’s sperm.

Programming like this demonstrates that networks like ABC don’t seem to have any standards-and-practices cops — never mind standards — and this over-the-top (or under-the-seat) episode wasn’t even a stunt for the May sweeps period. Parents beware: There are no boundaries or guardrails of taste in the world of "family comedies" any more.

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