George Denis Patrick Carlin (1937 to 2008) was a, if not the, giant of American counter culture stand up. Although it’s fair to say you could stop almost any non-comedy fan on the streets of the UK and they wouldn’t know who he was. He chose never to grace these shores with his extraordinary talent.
In his life long career he won 5 Grammy Awards for his comedy albums, completed 14 HBO specials, was placed second on Comedy Central’s list of 100 Greatest Comedians of all time and stared in hit movies such as Bill And Teds Excellent Adventure and Cars. He was posthumously awarded the Mark Twain award for American humor a few months after his death.
His solo career began after a brief period in a double act with fellow comic Jack Burns. It was in the early 1970’s that the fully formed style of the George Carlin we came to know and love began to emerge. Straight off the bat audiences could see there was something new about Carlin just by the way he dressed. His stage image of hipster renegade, featuring faded jeans, long hair and earrings was unusual for an American comic of the time. They would normally portray themselves with a cleaner cut suit and tie image. As is much the trend today. Carlin however, looked like he belonged more at Woodstock than on The Ed Sullivan Show where he regularly appeared.
Carlin’s material fell into three categories which he himself described as “The little world” (observational humor), “The big world” (Social commentary) and the peculiarities of the English language (Euphemisms, double speak etc.)
But it’s with one routine in particular that he is famous for above all. 7 words you can never say on television. It fits neatly that this article should follow a path from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin as on separate occasions they were both arrested for use of the same seven words in their live act.
In 1966 Lenny Bruce was arrested for using a list of profane words in his act. In Lenny’s routine he said them in alphabetical order. If you’re of a Church of England deposition it’s probably best you close your eyes now. These words were. “Balls, cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, piss, shit, tits.”
Carlin decided to raise the baton from Lenny’s routine, but he dropped the “balls” (pun intended) and reduced the list to seven words. The routine was released on Carlin’s album Class Clown. The main thrust of his diatribe being that he was amazed you can’t use these words regardless of context. When he performed the routine at Summer Fest Milwaukee he was promptly arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.
In 1973 radio station WBAI-FM broadcast an updated version of the routine. It was this fateful broadcast that moved the routine from cult favourite into mainstream America’s media arena.
John Douglas, an active member of Morality in the Media claimed that he heard the broadcast while driving with his then 15-year-old son and complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the material was inappropriate for the time of day.
Following the lodging of the complaint, the FCC proceeded to ask Pacifica Radio (who broadcast the routine) for a response, and then issued an order upholding the complaint. . WBAI appealed this decision, which they won by a 2 – 1 decision on the grounds that the FCC’s definition of “indecency” was overbroad and vague and thus violated the First Amendment’s guaranty of freedom of speech.
After this initial defeat the FCC decided to take the case to the Supreme Court. It was eventually ruled that the FCC’s definition of indecency may not be too broad, but WBAI were never prosecuted or fined due to issues pertaining to freedom of speech.
However, the case did cause new regulations to be ushered in regarding broadcast material. And it’s here that Lenny and then George scored a back handed victory. Prior to the case the seven words of the routine were considered unfit for broadcast at any time on TV or radio. After the case the Supreme Court established the Safe Harbor provision that grants broadcasters the right to broadcast indecent (but not obscene) material between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, when it is presumed many children will be asleep.
I personally have no problem whatsoever with such regulation. Delicate ears should be protected until they reach a level of maturity able to absorb such dialogues in the context they are intended. So if you’re under 18 and its way before bedtime DO NOT CLICK THE LINK BELOW….
7 words you can’t say on television.