It's truly a special moment when a father and son have "the talk," wherein the father, embarrassed to use words like "gonad" and "fallopian," is relieved to find his son already got the gist from How I Met Your Mother.
This is because television directs our national discourse on sex. It's nothing to be embarrassed about, unlike puberty. Television reflects our curiosities, our insecurities, our indulgences, and our willingness to purchase sleeved blankets. These ten moments inspired America to think about sex, as if that's some accomplishment.
1. Married couple shares bed; nobody notices (1947)
For years, sitcom couples avoided sharing a bed. There was a good reason for this: the husbands were gay. At least, this was the case with certain key sitcom husbands, such as the guy who played Mike Brady, though there was too much sexual tension amongst the Brady children to notice.
Anyway, the first married couple to sleep in the same bed didn't come after that era, but before. Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, stars of Mary Kay and Johnny, were shown sharing a mattress as early as 1947. That was a simpler era, before anyone realized such a depiction would lead America's youth down a path of sexual debauchery that would culminate in Greg and Marcia doing it.
2. Lucille Ball gives birth despite never being pregnant (1953)
When the star of I Love Lucy got knocked up by husband Desi Arnaz, producers were left with a quandary: how to explain the miracle of life in the sort of family-friendly way that wouldn't scare off cigarette advertisers?
Normally when a female star is with child, sitcoms either write it into the script or hide it with wardrobe choices and camera angles. I Love Lucy did both: Lucy Ricardo produced an infant after about a two week gestation during which nobody used the word "pregnant."
Of course, any more than that would have been too shocking for a nation that spoke about pregnancy only with doctors, spouses, and while watching Mary Kay and Johnny, because that show had a full-on talked-about pregnancy four years earlier.
3. Archie allows Edith exactly 30 seconds to change (1972)
Not that menopause isn't a beautiful part of the female lifecycle. Or at least, not that I'd state that publicly. But even for a show known for confronting social issues head-on, this was a surprising topic. In the end, Archie had enough and gave Edith a full half minute to complete menopause and return to emotional stability, which turned out better for him than it would've for a real-life husband, in that the city coroner didn't get involved.
It was an election year, which helps explain why Dan Quayle got so upset when Candice Bergen, as Murphy Brown, correctly spelled "potato." Also she had a baby out of wedlock, and decided to raise the child herself after the father disclaimed responsibility.
Of course, these days politicians get mad at fictional characters all the time. Kentucky senator Jim Bunning regularly goes on tirades against Dora the Explorer, spilling his Lucky Charms everywhere. But it says something that in 1992 the Vice President of the United States was willing to fight about a fake love child, whereas today people don't even tune in for interviews with the mother of John Edwards' real one.
5. Jerry Seinfeld manages not to pleasure himself until the third act (1992)
In "The Contest," a fourth-season Seinfeld episode, the show's four stars battled to abstain from sexual gratification. This may have been a valid commentary on a taboo subject, but it was distressing for viewers to think about the quartet in this context, insomuch as they possessed the raw sexuality of a family of boll weevils.
Still, it was an interesting question: how long could Jerry Seinfeld go without making love to himself? The answer, for anyone at home with a stopwatch, was approximately 27 minutes. This is why "The Marriage Ref" has to have so many commercial breaks.
There had been butts on TV before. There had even been butts on NYPD Blue before. But all hell broke loose when detective Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, bared his rear end, played by Chewbacca.
Why the outrage? When a beautiful person exposes his or her rear end, it does nothing to challenge the shared illusion that our own butts look like that. Franz's heinie raised the possibility that, like him, our butt cheeks could be more or less indistinguishable from our faces.
7. Ellen DeGeneres tells an airport full of people why "Mr. Right" sucked so bad (1997)
On the April 30, 1997 episode of Ellen DeGeneres's sitcom, the world learned what it had only suspected after an appearance on Oprah, a Time Magazine cover, and a nationwide skywriting campaign: that Ellen DeGeneres had a sitcom.
Also that she – or more specifically, her character – was a lesbian. The resulting media typhoon was so great, parents couldn't protect their kids from the news. I know because I was a child at the time, and I distinctly recall my precocious, innocent response to Ellen's coming out: "So?" The lesbian thing I understood: some people have romantic feelings toward members of their own gender. What I didn't get was, who cares this much about a sitcom?
8. Will and Grace premiere proves gays equally capable of standard sitcom plots (1998)
A year after Ellen's TV outing, NBC executives realized there could be potential in a heartwarming, thoughtful series showing that gay people are the same as everyone else. Then they made Will and Grace instead.
Was it shocking that a show could have a gay protagonist? No, that barrier was broken by Ellen. "Will and Grace" was just the first show to send its gay protagonist through all the standard sitcom tropes: a too-lavish apartment; wacky friends; going through menopause in 30 seconds; etc.
9. Apparently, women have nipples (2004)
Viewers were shocked during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show when Justin Timberlake grabbed at Janet Jackson's chest to reveal: something. Possibly a nipple, though it was hard to tell, being as how it was covered by a giant hunk of metal. Still, within seconds the world searched furtively for pictures, even though it was the least pornographic thing on the Internet.
The ordeal had all the elements of a huge story: pop stars, the Super Bowl, an excuse for Ted Koppel to say "nipple." Six years later it remains so ubiquitous, it's impossible to look at a starburst nipple shield without thinking "Janet Jackson."
10. "[Censored] and the City" cleaned up for syndication (2004)
Sure, shows get changed all the time when they move from cable to broadcast. But with Sex and the City, it's not like you couldn't figure out what the characters were talking about: "I can't even tell you how many men have been in my [censored]," or "My gynecologist says I have the cleanest [censored] she's ever seen." (The word in both examples is "apartment.")
So here was HBO's revolutionary show about the conversations prostitutes would have if they didn't feel shame, slightly modified and available to the masses. And if the general public can embrace Sex and the City, it can embrace anything. At this rate it'll only be a few years before we can handle Mary Kay and Johnny reruns.
Scott Green is an award-winning humor columnist who has written regularly for the Washington Post and CBSNews.com. In 2009 he was named one of the top 100 young journalists in America, and now shares his thoughts on pop culture, politics, sex and relationships at ScottSays.com. He lives in Chicago with his fiancée and their two TVs, ages 4 and 3.