Sitcom Swearing: 10 Memorable Moments – Rolling Stone
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What the Bleep: 10 Memorable Moments in Sitcom Swearing

We look back at some of the landmark bad language and fuzzed-out f-bombs dropped over two decades of primetime comedies

Network Sitcom Swearing List

(L-R) Kent Brockman from 'The Simpsons' and Lily from 'Modern Family.'

©20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection; Peter 'Hopper' Stone/ABC/Getty

Any HBO show can drop an F-bomb. For a primetime comedy or drama on a major network, however, that obscenity is still considered off-limits. More than 40 years since George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” monologue, broadcast TV stations remain prohibited from airing five of them: shit, fuck, cunt, cocksucker and motherfucker. (Sanctions against “piss” and “tits” have more or less been lifted). Still, for two-plus decades, series writers and increasingly cavalier executives have subverted the FCC with an assortment of bleeps and tricky pixelations (in which a character’s mouth is digitally fuzzed out to prevent viewers from lip-reading profanity), often in tandem and always for laughs. What was once the select, semi-risqué province of shows like Seinfeld has now become punchline fodder for a series like ABC’s The Goldbergs, a coming-of-age show set in 1980s suburbia that boasts almost weekly occurrences of scrambled expletives.

With that in mind, here are 10 landmark moments from the past 21 years of purposefully obscured network-sitcom swearing. (We’ve restored as many of the offending nouns, adjectives and verbs in our blurbs as we can, for posterity’s sake.) You may not have had actually heard the curse words in question, but as these scenes prove, maybe you didn’t need to — you already knew what the [bleep] these characters were saying.

'Arrested Development'

‘Arrested Development’ (‘Bringing Up Buster,’ 2003)

Mitch Hurwitz's celebrated dysfunctional meta-sitcom left no witty wordplay unexploited or linguistic acrobatic unperformed. Network standards about the odd "fuck" or "shit" only offered more sources for mischief — and, in the case of one scene involving the Peter Pan-ish mama's boy Buster Bluth, pure comedy gold. When his siblings air frustrations about their manipulative mom, Buster surprisingly chimes in. Mistakenly, they encourage him, which leads to a single, prolonged beep (itself a funny upending of the cliché) that finally, mercifully ends with one discernible phrase: "You old horny slut!" And unlike his regretful brothers and sister, Fox's censoring allowed us to preserve some memory of Buster's innocence.

'The Office'

‘The Office’ (‘Diversity Day,’ 2005)

If the goal of the American cover version of The Office was to immediately distinguish their show from its iconic UK forebear, the inaugural season's second episode — "Diversity Day" — was a nervy salvo. At the outset of an unbearably misguided afternoon of tolerance training, the perpetually misguided boss Michael Scott sets the bar sky-high for insensitivity with his muted riff on Chris Rock's "Black People vs. N—-s" bit. This cringe-comedy moment would only be the first of many, many uncomfortable social interactions involving Steve Carell's character over his seven-season tenure on the series — nor would it be the last one necessitating ear muffs.

'Parks and Recreation'

‘Parks and Recreation’ (‘The Stakeout,’ 2009)

Poor Ron Swanson: While his fellow Pawnee parks department colleagues are out busting pot farmers and indulging in romantic bliss, the show's gruff, mustachioed man's man is rendered immobile in his desk chair thanks to a hernia. Worse, it takes the office's resident misanthrope, April, hours to secure her dad's car keys so she can drive Ron to a hospital. She jingles the keys, asks whether he's ready for their trip, and the manliest man in all of Indiana declares, "I'm Ron Fucking Swanson!" You most certainly are, sir.

'Modern Family'

‘Modern Family’ (‘Little Bo Bleep,’ 2012)

It's either a sign of progress in one area or inertia in another (we'll split the difference and say both) that Modern Family received more flack over using a four-letter word than its portrayal of openly gay and interracial couples. But the beauty of the running joke — in which toddler Lily starts dropping bleeped and fuzzed-out profanities like fairy dust − is that we never know where she learned the word in question, and her parents are horrified. But when she lets one fly in the middle of a wedding ceremony, everyone cracks up and treats her foul-mouthed exclamations as if it wasn't a big deal. Ah, such pearls of wisdom from the mouths of babes.

'Modern Family'

’30 Rock’ (‘Standards and Practices,’ 2012)

We're still not sure how Kenneth went from lowly page to NBC censor, or how, exactly, Tracy Jordan used themes from The Sixth Sense to justify performing his filthy stand-up act live on TGS. But at least it led to the show's in-house goody-two-shoes furiously bleeping out virtually every other syllable of Tracy's bits like a conservative possessed. And then, the even bigger payoff of Standards and Practices head Gaylord Felcher "fucking promoting" that "little fuckface," flipping Liz the bird and declaring, "Who among you has the power to censor the censor?" If Gaylord had a microphone, it would have dropped.

'The Goldbergs'

THE GOLDBERGS - "The Goldbergs" stars Wendi McLendon-Covey ("Bridesmaids") as Beverly, Jeff Garlin ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") as Murray, George Segal ("Don't Shoot Me") as Pops, Hayley Orrantia ("The X Factor") as Erica, Sean Giambrone as Adam and Troy Gentile ("Good Luck Chuck") as Barry. "The Goldbergs" was written and executive-produced by Adam F. Goldberg ("Breaking In," "Fanboys") and also executive produced by Doug Robinson. The pilot was directed by Seth Gordon ("Identity Thief," "Horrible Bosses"). "The Goldbergs" is from Adam Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, and is produced by Sony Pictures Television. (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images) TROY GENTILE, WENDI MCLENDON-COVEY, HAYLEY ORRANTIA

Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty

‘The Goldbergs’ (‘Circle of Driving,’ 2013)

Beyond its pastiche of pop culture references (and there are plenty), ABC's sleeper-hit sitcom is, chiefly, a charming tribute to one man's rough-around-the-edges suburban Philadelphia clan. Which, in part, translates to a lot of filtered F-words and similarly colorful language courtesy of the show's parents, Jeff Garlin and Wendi McLendon-Covey. Right out of the gate, the series premiere finds the show's matriarch reprimanding a cop who has busted her elderly dad for reckless driving. "Memorize this face," she warns the officer, "because it is going to haunt your dreams, sir. It is gonna haunt your fucking dreams." Or at least that's what we assume is being said beneath the bleep. Whatever it was, it was salty.

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