The '7 Dirty Words' Turn 40, but They're Still Dirty

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Four decades after George Carlin's legendary monologue, the law still can't decide how to handle publicly broadcast swearing.

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Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

Now that that's out of the way, let's start from the beginning. On May 27, 1972, George Carlin took to the stage for a show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to record his Class Clown album, which was scheduled to come out that fall. Carlin—a comedic champion of the counterculture with long hair, a thick beard, earrings, and a propensity for recreational drugs—was writing material that was going to upset some people. He didn't think much of what kind of influence a seven-minute routine on those seven words would have on the culture at large. He was aware, however, that what he was going to say that night could put his career in jeopardy.

A decade earlier, Lenny Bruce had been blacklisted from performing in U.S. clubs because of his profanity-laced routines. Bruce, a tremendous influence for Carlin, was driven to destruction. Carlin saw this firsthand after sharing the back seat of a police car with Bruce the night Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges during a Chicago show in 1962, accused of saying (at least) "fuck" and "tits." Carlin, who was at the show, was arrested, too, for refusing to show identification to the police. With this memory in mind, Carlin helped mold the "Seven Dirty Words" to be morally challenging yet friendly in its delivery. The message was directed at not just the corporate control of the entertainment industry, but also the sterile society that refused to rethink its own attitudes and values toward language.

"It was rebellious on a sort of profound level and it also had a kind of jubilance to it," says Tony Hendra, one of Carlin's closest friends and author of Last Words, the New York Times-bestselling "sortabiography" on Carlin. "For him, that's what the piece meant. I think for others in the larger community of comedians who were trying to be themselves and trying to be more relevant, it was definitely a kind of brilliantly funny, brilliantly daring piece in its time." Hendra adds: "It was pretty clear he was the first person to say these things on a public stage since Lenny."

The consequences mattered little to Carlin, a tireless student of language. The words he used in the monologue were part of his natural manner of speech from growing up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York. Throughout the bit, the gritty contrarian chided the idea that the seven words would "infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war." The routine would lift the album to cult-classic status. It still resonates today, maintaining a perfect five-star rating among iTunes customers.

"The bit had such a good rhythm to it," Patrick Carlin, George's brother, says. "It was just beautiful. It was a perfect, perfect thing and offensive all the way. It showed the stupidity of picking seven words out of thousands and how they can't be said."

To George Carlin, the routine's driving force and message weren't in the ideas behind the seven words, but rather the words themselves. For the first time, someone was doing a convincing enough job of cajoling an audience into thinking that these words weren't really so tasteless after all.

"He kind of took the door that Bruce opened and basically put a door-jam in it," says comedian Lewis Black, who cites Carlin as one of his prime influences. "[Profanity] allows comedy to go further. For me, he provided a comfort zone."

Forty years and a landmark Supreme Court decision have passed since Carlin first spoke out about the seven words you cannot say on television. But we're still wrestling with the issues that Carlin raised with his monologue. How should the government define acceptable language? What can we learn from the 40th anniversary of the most famous, foul-mouthed comedic routine shortly before what could be the most substantial Supreme Court decision on profanity to date?

"I wouldn't have changed anything I did if I had known there were children in the audience," Carlin said in the 2007 documentary, Summerfest Stories. In July 1972, Carlin was arrested on obscenity charges after performing "Seven Dirty Words" at Milwaukee's Summerfest, a scene that mirrored what happened with Bruce in Chicago ten years earlier. It was one of several times Carlin was arrested on such charges because of the routine. "I think children need to hear those words the most because as yet they don't have the hang-ups. It's adults who are locked into certain thought patterns."

He added: "I find it kind of funny to be hassled for using [them] when my intention is to free us from hassling people for using them."

About a year and a half after the gig in Santa Monica, John Douglas was driving with his 15-year-old son back to New York from a college visit at Yale University. It was an early Tuesday afternoon in 1973, the day before Halloween. Douglas, a CBS executive and a member of a pornography watchdog group called Morality in Media, was flipping through the radio when he landed on 99.5 WBAI-FM. Paul Gorman, the host of WBAI's "Lunch Pail" afternoon program, warned listeners that he was about to play Carlin's "Filthy Words" bit, a modified version of "Seven Dirty Words" recorded on the Occupation: Foole album, and that some of the language could be deemed as offensive. Douglas kept the dial on WBAI. A month later, Douglas filed a complaint with the FCC, calling the monologue "garbage." "He was the funniest comedian of his generation," Douglas told the Chicago Sun-Sentinel in 2008, shortly after Carlin's death. "I didn't turn him in. I was turning in WBAI."

Upon receiving the complaint from the FCC, Pacifica Foundation, the broadcast company that owned WBAI, called Carlin "a significant social satirist of American manners and language in the tradition of Mark Twain and Mort Sahl," defending the station's airing of "Seven Dirty Words." But the FCC upheld the complaint. Though it did not punish Pacifica, the FCC issued the foundation a warning that said, "in the event subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress."

Shortly thereafter, Pacifica won an appeal at the D.C. Circuit Court to overturn the FCC's original finding; the court said the FCC didn't have the right to regulate WBAI broadcasts. No one knew what would happen once the case made its way to the Supreme Court in April 1978, especially when the Justice Department switched its support from the FCC to Pacifica and President Gerald Ford's Supreme Court nominee, Justice John Paul Stevens, arrived on the court. In July 1978, almost five years after John Douglas heard Carlin's bit driving back from Yale, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC action in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation in a 5-4 decision. The majority decision stated that the FCC was justified in deciding what's "indecent," saying the Carlin act being was "indecent but not obscene." The Court ruled that because Carlin's routine was broadcast on the radio, during the day, it did not have as much First Amendment protection. The Court saw Carlin's language as an invasion of privacy against listeners without warning. The FCC could regulate offensive content on broadcasts between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., the Court said, because a child could accidentally be exposed to harmful profanity.

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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