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.
Photo credit: RiverRatt3 via Flickr