A Fine Mess of Violence

Posted on 2017 April 23


a fine mess of violence papapishu-Fighting-cat

Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. — Laurel and Hardy

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were for watching cartoons and goofball comedies. Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges. And on primetime there was Huckleberry Hound and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

These programs often relied on slapstick violence. Daffy Duck gets his bill blown off by a shotgun blast. A bomb detonates right in Foghorn Leghorn’s face. Olive Oyl’s arms get stretched like Silly Putty as Popeye and Bluto try to pull her away from each other. Moe pokes Larry in the eyes.


Even as a small boy, I understood that these scenes were ridiculous and absurd. It never once occurred to me to try them out in real life. Of course, I didn’t own a shotgun, wouldn’t have known a bomb if it fell on me, and would never think to poke someone in the eye.

In college I heard that the Dutch had legalized pornography, and their sexual assault rate had declined. More recently I read that Portugal loosened restrictions on recreational drugs, and the country’s addiction rate went down. On the other hand, there are recurring reports that kids who watch violence on TV are more likely to become aggressive at school or elsewhere.

Sex and violence and drugs aren’t always connected, of course, but apparently there’s something to be said for letting people explore vices, on the ground that eventually they will self-regulate. Meanwhile, in the U.S. we tend to celebrate guns and our massive military and football hits-of-the-week and hockey checks, whereas we frown publicly on porn and drugs. So maybe violence gets a pass that the others don’t.

Today, what bugs me the most about TV violence is how fake it is. On TV, guns go off like cannon — cool! — but in real life they sound like firecrackers. On TV, a fistfight will rage on and on and on — slug! pow! bam! — but in real life one of the combatants would be prone in seconds, moaning or unconscious. On TV, someone gets pierced in the gut by a bullet or knife and instantly falls dead; in real life, they’d lie there, bleeding, and an ambulance would retrieve them. Maybe they’d die later.

On TV, the heroes escape an exploding building, get slammed to the ground by the concussion, then dust themselves off and walk away; in real life they’d be in the hospital while their relatives paced and fretted, waiting for them to come out of a coma. On TV, you can walk up behind someone, grab their chin and the back of their head, twist sharply, and they collapse, dead of a broken neck; in real life the person would turn around and yell, “Ow! What the hell are you doing?” Well, probably. I’m not sure.

I don’t want to argue that TV should be more realistic — I watch action shows for the escapism, not for the accurate portrayal of physics and physiology — but maybe we should admit that primetime TV violence tends to be as absurd as those Saturday-morning cartoons. And as unaffecting.

Bam! Pow! Rat-a-tat! That was fun. Okay, next activity.