By Tom Gliatto
April 01, 1996 12:00 PM

>The ‘A’ Word


HELEN HUNT HANGS UP THE PHONE IN Mad About You and says, “MBA, my ass!” On The John Larroquette Show, someone says, “He’s ass-backwards.” And in the TV movie Marked for Murder, “a—h—e” is uttered three times. Lately, the “A” word could be heard on Murder One, The Single Guy and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Something’s going on, no butts about it.

The word “ass” probably arrived in prime time in 1973, when, on The Odd Couple, Tony Randall pointed to the word “assume” and told a courtroom: “When you ‘assume,’ you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ ” In 1994 “ass”—referring to either the buttocks or the beast of burden—was used 28 times on prime time, according to a Southern Illinois University-Carbondale study on TV obscenity.

This, though, is the Season of the Full Moon. On the debut of Fox’s The Show, “ass” was dropped twice; NBC’s Friends had a “scary-ass clown” reference; and on Seinfeld, Kramer’s license plate once spelled out ASS MAN. Meanwhile, David Letterman gives out Big Ass Hams and also celebrates a Canadian gas man named Dick Assman.

What has happened is no mystery: A once-verboten word has gained the approval of the censors, and writers are working the word hard for verisimilitude or easy laughs. “Dickens used it,” says The Simpsons’ Matt Groening. Perhaps, but not on every page. There apparently has been no outpouring of complaints. Still, as usual, the collective imagination of the television industry seems to be in arrears.