Scott Sassa, in 1991; Jay Leno, same period

For, Friday, March 13, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Deseret News column from Jan. 22, 1999, is in response to NBC’ president at the time saying he intended to tone down sex in sitcoms. Just take a look at almost any sitcom at any time in today’s TV landscape and you’ll see how far that idea went. Sadly, the cynicism of this column proved to be apropos.

Last week, Scott Sassa, the new guy over at NBC (he's the network's fledgling entertainment president), said there's too much sex on television, and he wants to tone it down.

Specifically, Sassa said he wants the Peacock Network to "have less of an emphasis on sex." That night, on NBC's "Tonight Show," Jay Leno noted Sassa's remarks and said, "Well, there goes the monologue."

Then, of course, Leno launched into the same old sex gags that pepper his opening remarks every night.

Sassa's heart may be in the right place, and certainly, critics and viewers have complained for years about prime-time television's obsession with sex. But, ironically, it is Leno who actually put things into perspective.

Even if Sassa is sincere, the people who work for him — those who write, produce and star in TV comedies — are so used to taking the easy, sex-laden route that it is unlikely things will change this late in the game.

These days, even the most innocent family fare on network television seems to interject at least one sexual one-liner or double-entendre into each episode — if not a steady stream of sexually oriented gags throughout each episode.

And even Sassa admits that he's not talking about shows like "Friends," acknowledging that sexual humor will continue to be the mainstay of such "adult" programs.

Of course, he neglects to acknowledge that a huge portion of the "adult" viewership — of that show and others like it — is actually made up of young teens.

In fact, Sassa reveals his naivete when he mentions NBC's limited "family programming," and includes "Mad About You."

"Mad About You"? A family program? Does anyone remember this season's Viagra show? Or the fact that so many other episodes also revolve around sex?

Maybe he's confused because "Mad About You" often airs at 7 p.m. (Including the first run of the Viagra episode.)

Of course, TV sitcoms are no longer a safe haven for families to spend a half-hour — though that was once the case. Even "adult" comedies, like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" in the '60s or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the '70s, were OK for family viewing.


     'The Dick Van Dyke Show'; 'Mad About You'

Groundbreaking programs that were considered shockingly adult in the '70s — such as "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family"  seem quite tame compared with just about anything on TV as we approach 2000.

Perhaps the most telling example of how TV has become a corrupting influence, however, is in the stardom achieved by two of NBC's biggest '90s personalities.

Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld were once considered the cleanest comedians on the stand-up circuit. They never used "blue" material, they never used profanity, and sex was, for the most part, off limits.

They were funny, but they were also unique, as stand-up comics go, because they "worked clean."

Yet, as soon as they got their own television programs — the "Tonight Show" and "Seinfeld," respectively — both began using an amazing amount of sexual material.­

Leno's monologues and skits, and even his quips while interviewing guests, are so sodden with sex that it's likely his current material would have been rejected by the stand-up comic of the '80s.

And especially toward the end of "Seinfeld's" run, Seinfeld's top-rated sitcom, supposedly a show "about nothing," was very much about sex.

A long time ago, in a television era far away, stand-up comics who went on TV cleaned up their acts first. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, etc., left the bulk of their profane nightclub routines behind when they showed up on variety shows with Steve Allen or Ed Sullivan.

But by the time Leno and Seinfeld came along, the situation was reversed. They dirtied up their acts for TV.

So does Sassa really believe he can reverse the trend his own network has helped raise as a standard? More to the point, is he just telling us what we want to hear?

After all, by this time next year, Sassa could be replaced by a new NBC executive who will announce that the network's ratings are down because there isn't enough sex on TV!