During the first half of the 1990s, the media conglomerate Time Warner was seen by many as one of the most damaging cultural forces in America. Among its most infamous products: Madonna's "Sex" book, Body Count's "Cop Killer," and coldblooded gangsta-rap recordings by the likes of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur. "Whenever a new low is reached in the culture," wrote columnist John Leo in early 1995 in U.S. News & World Report, "check for the corporate name behind it. With amazing frequency it will be Time Warner."
The company that on Jan 11 became AOL Time Warner is no paragon of virtue, but it's not king of the hill anymore where cultural pollution is concerned, either. That dishonor now belongs to the Viacom empire, the television home of the World Wrestling Federation, the employer of Howard Stern, the owner of CBS and the publisher for Senator Hillary Clinton.
The WWF and Stern are such colossi of coarseness that they overshadow plenty of smaller-scale vulgar Viacom fare like MTV, the alleged "music" network aimed at youngsters. MTV's latest sensation, "Jackass," is the subject of a cover story in the Feb. 1 issue of Rolling Stone. "Jackass" showcases a group of young men performing stunts and pranks, some of them dangerous, more of them just plain disgusting.
MTV programming chief Brian Graden tells Rolling Stone that "Jackass" is "a natural for our brand." That's true, I suppose, if MTV is to be seen as a feces-obsessed network. In the show's premiere last October, the star, Johnny Knoxville, stands in a portable toilet containing considerable excrement. The toilet is turned upside down; a camera captures Johnny as waste spills over him. Later, as Johnny cleans off in a car wash, a black rectangle superimposed over his privates, we see shots of flies buzzing around his filthy pants and of the interior of the poo-spattered toilet.
A few weeks later, Johnny's colleague Dave England smears refried beans all over himself and lights a stink bomb, creating the impression that he's covered in feces, then offers to embrace passersby. In another segment, Johnny goes to restaurants, places excrement (apparently authentic) in the meal he ordered and complains to the staff about what's in his food.
Meanwhile, in terms of the other bodily functions that are MTV's stock-in-trade, Jan. 22 saw the season premiere of the libidinous "Undressed," which has featured things like a man and a woman waking up handcuffed together, each without a clue as to who the other is, and a male college student having sex in front of his roommate and his roommate's girlfriend.
Then there's Comedy Central. Since Viacom is a mere co-owner of this network, it can only share the credit for its outrages. In March, Comedy Central will unveil "That's My Bush!," which soon will compete with Viacom-owned UPN's "WWF Smackdown!" for the title of most vile television program with an exclamation mark in its name.
"That's My Bush!" is a sitcom spoof, set in the White House, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of another surpassingly crass Comedy Central show, "South Park." It will use live actors, but the "humor," it seems, will be in the same infantile vein. "In the first episode, which is about abortion," reports the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes, "the antiabortion movement is led by an aborted fetus. In the second episode, about the death penalty, the president stages a mock execution for his frat buddies ... but accidentally fries someone."
In a December interview with the Hartford Courant, Parker remarked that he and Stone were "really excited about" what they could do with the roles of President Bush's twin college-age daughters. "We are just going to find the two hottest [actresses] and make [the characters] always just about to make out" with each other, he promised.
That was December. In mid-January, Parker described as "false" the "rumors" -- "rumors," it should be noted, supported by his statement to the Hartford paper -- that the twins would be portrayed as incestuous lesbians. He also said that "someone in the [incoming] Bush administration" had been in touch with him, adding, "Of course, when you get calls from Washington telling you, 'Don't you dare do it,' it makes us want to do it all the more."
By the way, Parker and Stone landed their "South Park" deal as a result of their making a now-notorious videotape in which Jesus Christ and Santa Claus beat each other up. That video was financed by Brian Graden, then at Fox. Today he's the previously mentioned MTV bigwig who sanctions "Jackass."
Viacom, as I said, co-owns Comedy Central. The other co-owner: HBO, which is part of ... AOL Time Warner. Surprise, surprise.