I’m working on some Dilbert strips that will be published in early April. The series will feature a new character that works for the government and looks like a monster. His job is to make the tax code more complicated for no reason, with Dogbert’s help of course. My problem is the name I’ve given this character: Stanky Bathturd.
Newspapers are about thirty years behind network television in terms of what they consider acceptable content for the general public. You can say turd on network television – if you don’t say it too often in one episode – but you could never print the word turd in a comic strip that runs in newspapers.
But what about Bathturd? Is that worse than a plain turd, or is it less offensive because I hid the turd with the bath, so to speak?
The genesis of the name was that I was trying to come up with something that reminded the reader of “bastard” without crossing the newspaper decency line. I considered Batherd, Bastord, and other spellings, but none of those felt just right.
Then Bathturd popped into my head. It sounds like bastard but it has the added benefit of sounding like bath-turd. It’s doubly offensive, and I call that a homerun.
But can I get away with it?
Some innocent words have turd in them too. Sturdy and Saturday comes to mind. But Bathturd seems worse not only because I intend it to be naughty but because it is preceded by Stanky. And when you hear the word Bathturd you can imagine a turd floating in your bathtub. That’s worse. Case closed, right?
But wait. If my made-up name sounds like two entirely different naughty words – bastard and bath-turd – then it doesn’t really refer to either one of those bad words specifically. Can I get off on a technicality? Stranger things have happened in the world of editing.
Complicating this decision is the humor layer. As a general rule, the funnier a comic is, the more you can get away with. I can’t show you the comic ahead of time, but assume it’s somewhere in my normal range of funniness. Also working in its favor is the crowd-pleasing theme of hating the government’s tax system. I can get away with more if every reader agrees with my central point, and I think that would be the case with this one.
So let’s say you are my editor and you know there is a 100% chance that a few newspaper clients will reject this comic. That’s not the end of the world because they always have the option of running a repeat, and that happens a few times a year with Dilbert for exactly this sort of reason. But you don’t want to inconvenience your customers, so ideally we want to avoid the rerun option.
No matter what, the Stanky Bathturd comic will end up on the Internet, either on the main page of Dilbert.com or in this blog. And no doubt it will be forwarded from there. So don’t worry that the comic will be wasted.
There’s also the two-version approach. I can change the character’s name for print clients and publish the naughtier version online. I’ve done that a number of times over my career, but the scrubbed comic without the funny name might just float there like a … bath turd.
As my editor, what do you do?
- Kill the clever name but keep the comic.
- Change the clever name for print clients only.
- Go for it (and know newspaper clients will complain)
Your opinions will likely influence the decision.