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Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words Still Controversial After 40 Years

Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words Still Controversial After 40 Years

In 1972, a young George Carlin first performed his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine, in which the comedian pointed out the hypocrisy of broadcast media. In the routine, Carlin wondered why certain words are censored even when they’re less objectionable than the concepts expressed by other “clean words” – saying he’d rather have a child exposed to a scene of two people making love than gratuitous violence. (Those readers who are unfamiliar with the monologue can listen to it here – it should go without saying that there’s generous amounts of profanity in the track.)

Over the years, Carlin was arrested on obscenity charges several times for performing the routine. This came as no great shock to Carlin, who had seen his idol, Lenny Bruce, arrested for a similar show in 1962. But not even Carlin could have suspected that his joke would be the subject of an FCC complaint that would make it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1978.

It began in 1973, when a local radio host in New York played “Filthy Words,” a modified version of the “Dirty Words” monologue from Carlin’s “Occupation: Foole” album. A father driving with his 15 year old son heard the broadcast and later complained to the FCC that the material was inappropriate. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC had the right to censor “obscene” language in radio and television broadcasts.

The rules have loosened over time – some level of profanity is now allowed on cable channels and on network television from 10pm to 6am. And the FCC has allowed some of the words to be used in television programming in recent years, depending on the context – the “f” word can sometimes be used if it’s not referring to a specific sexual act, for instance.

40 years later, we’re still unsure what role the government should play in the regulation of broadcast media. If anything, the rise of the internet – by its nature uncensored, often obscene, and difficult to filter – has started to make broadcast restrictions seem, well, old-fashioned. And, as geek culture blog I09 points out, there are an awful lot of words, like “scumbag” and “gadzooks,” which used to be considered transgressive and are now tame enough for children’s television. Maybe, one day, the words we currently consider too filthy for television will be completely benign.

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Photo credit: RiverRatt3 via Flickr

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212 comments

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1:04AM PST on Feb 6, 2013

Hard to believe.

10:50AM PDT on Sep 2, 2012

I've read some of his quotes and I find them very funny. That means the issues he covered are still valid today. Humor is one of the best ways to target injustices and hypocrisy.

9:27PM PDT on Jun 3, 2012

I miss this honest and funny man.

8:31AM PDT on Jun 2, 2012

Thanks Dennis W., I wanted to comment to Sue myself. But honestly, I don't use this type of language, but have absolutely NO problem with those who do. And in some cases. oh my gosh, it is hilarious! Especially when used by George Carlin. You are so right he absolutely was and always will be in my opinion a Comedy God! What the heck is spick and kyke anyway?!!

4:49AM PDT on Jun 2, 2012

sue t., you seem to either have a problem typing, or just forming coherent thoughts. Probably the latter, as you seem to be a rethug/teahadist/fundie when you express your "thought" about the liberal left (a rather redundant expression; kind of like saying the conservative right). I really get a kick out of the right when they call progressives hypocrites; a classic case of transference, or, in simpler terms (so people like sue can understand it) kettle, meet pot. Oh, and fuck you too!
Carlin was simply a comedy god, and I miss him. People like Stewart, Colbert, Maher and Rock owe him a lot, as their careers are due to him breaking some barriers, and the world is a better (and funnier) place due to him and them. If you can't laugh (and cry) at the utter stupidity of people, you might as well just give up.

2:27PM PDT on Jun 1, 2012

the liberal left is all about hypocriscy,,,,why was my comment not posted.

No no no where has common sense and civility gone? STOP.

just because you can makes it OK? really really wrong.

2:24PM PDT on Jun 1, 2012

NIgger, spick, kyke, slut, whore

and this shit is OK FUCK YOU people.

not in my life /

10:05PM PDT on May 31, 2012

@ Dylan T. I'm surprised no one else sees it this way, which is exactly what this type of humor is. green *

4:26PM PDT on May 31, 2012

I'm a 70 year old man, and I'm in no way a prude. I enjoyed the bar sean, and in combat, foul language was part of standard conversation.I could not share the same room watching TV, or in most movies with my parents. Are there others like me, you bet. I'll be checking out soon, and it is OK. Behavior today is totally unacceptable, and I don't want to be around to see it become even worse.

3:47PM PDT on May 30, 2012

The list of the inappropriate words in 70-ies was diffrent. I was mostly suprised when I learnt about "tits". We in Russia have never enrolled it into the list.

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Julie M. Rodriguez Julie M. Rodriguez is an arts, green living, and political writer based in San Mateo, CA. Her work... more
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