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

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.

"I always thought it was a wrong-headed decision, one that really made hash of the First Amendment with respect to the broadcast media," says Floyd Abrams, one of the foremost legal authorities on the First Amendment and a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. "If anything, now it makes less sense than its proponents thought it did at the time it was issued because now we have cable TV, which is not subject to the same rules."

Since the ruling, the media landscape has become unrecognizable. The rise of premium television such as HBO as an outlet for profanity, grouped with the inception of the Parental Guidelines system in 1997 and the FCC's lax enforcement against profanity on cable TV after 10 p.m., have continued to fuel the post-Pacifica debate about the place of indecent language in broadcast media. The presence of cable TV and the Internet alone has done significant damage to the assumption made in the Pacifica case that broadcasting was both uniquely pervasive and uniquely accessible to children, and that the FCC has the right to censor "indecency."

Tim Brooks, a TV and radio historian and former TV executive, says that though it's become more acceptable to say the "Seven Dirty Words" in broadcast media and the culture at large, American society still has an uneasy relationship with profanity.

"Those seven words are still ones you can't say on TV," says Hendra, editor of the satirical website The Final Edition. "On this anniversary of that great, wonderfully popular piece, nothing has happened."

Detractors of Carlin's iconic act maintain that the Supreme Court's ruling was needed to help preserve social values, even as society's standards have declined. Patrick Trueman, CEO and president of Morality in Media, the same group that John Douglas was a part of when he first reported WBAI for airing Carlin, says, "The ruling in Pacifica was an important one for people who want to uphold the standard of decency in society. If the FCC was vigilant, you wouldn't see the networks pushing the envelope, but they do because they aren't interested in upholding standards of decency and are only interested in making money and competing with cable TV. You get to this point where the FCC has not done its job adequately and networks have not done their job. We've come to a point of absurdity."

Both proponents and opponents of the essence of "Seven Dirty Words" understand the cultural significance of the ongoing FCC v. Fox Television Stations Supreme Court case, which examines the FCC's structure for overseeing and regulating speech and whether the current model is unconstitutionally vague. Bono, Cher, and Nicole Richie all said the f-word during awards programs on Fox and NBC between 2002 and 2003, reigniting decency dustups about "fleeting expletives"—sexual or excretory references that are unintentionally broadcast because the words weren't expected to be said. In April 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the ban on "fleeting expletives," but, in the words of the majority opinion, was unable to "definitively settle the First Amendment implications of allowing a federal agency to censor broadcasts." The case was sent back to the lower courts for reexamination of the constitutionality. (Insert one of the "Seven Dirty Words" here.) In July 2010 the Second Circuit said it was unconstitutional for the FCC to prohibit "fleeting expletives," thus setting the stage for the upcoming decision from the Supreme Court in the continuation of FCC v. Fox this summer. Not quite as big of a summer blockbuster as The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, but even more significant.

"All we do is kind of go back through the past and wander around in circles around the same spot, and everyone pees on the fire and goes home," says Black, referring to the ongoing discussion of indecent language in media and society. "We wake up the next day and do it all over again."

The societal fallout from the Carlin case continues to influence people's beliefs about whether profanity should be acceptable in everyday vernacular. In recent years, the increased use of profanity in primetime network programming has been noticeable, signaling a greater embrace of such language at least among media executives—the same broadcast executives who were once a prime target for Carlin. From 2005 to 2010, the use of profanity on primetime network programming increased by more than 69 percent, according to a 2010 study from the Parents Television Council. Instances in which "fuck" and "shit" were bleeped or muted in primetime network programming in 2010 increased in percentages by 2,409 percent and 763 percent, respectively, compared to the 2005 totals. There's also been a considerable shift in how cursing is looked at in the workplace among co-workers. According to a study from the University of East Anglia in the U.K., the use of profanity in the office has been found to often help build relationships among co-workers and relieve stress.

Cursing's growing cultural acceptance post-"Seven Dirty Words" is seen perhaps most visibly within the realm of social media, as evident by the 47 percent of Facebook users who have profanity on their "Walls," according to Reppler's May 2011 survey of 30,000 Facebook users. In March, an Indiana high school expelled a senior for using the f-word in tweets sent from his personal Twitter account, accusing the student of tweeting from a school computer. "One of my tweets was, f--k is one of those f--ing words you can f--ing put anywhere in a f--ing sentence and it still f--ing makes sense," Austin Carroll told Indiana's NewsCenter. The story went largely unnoticed, but the tweet, which could be looked at as a teenager sending a pointless message just 'cause, is inadvertently striking, almost Carlinian. Carroll, who may not even know who George Carlin was or have ever heard "Seven Dirty Words," pushed the same issues talked about for four decades that were raised by the monologue to another form of media for another generation to examine.

"If the 'Seven Dirty Words' have a legacy, it's that language and freedom of speech win," says Jerry Hamza, Carlin's best friend and longtime manager. "I don't think people are going back to saying, 'You can't say this, you can't say that.' I think those barriers are gone. I think the 'Seven Dirty Words' have helped bust down the uptightness about language and I don't think we can ever go back. I can't see it."

"It's like a bucket of cold water being thrown in your face when you're halfway through the marathon," Patrick Carlin says of the routine. "It was a freeing experience for millions and millions of people who were young at that time. It took that restriction off people's shoulders and brought them down to a common level."

Lewis Black, on the other hand, is still pissed. Days before Carlin died from heart failure in Santa Monica, the place where he first performed "Seven Dirty Words," he was named as the nominee for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. In November 2008, Carlin became the first posthumous recipient of the award. Something was a little off when Black made his way to the stage to pay tribute to Carlin during the awards ceremony. Since the event was being broadcast on PBS, the words were bleeped out not just on TV, but also in the Kennedy Center the night of the event. They were the same words Carlin once described in a routine as being bad, dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, coarse, in poor taste, unseemly, street talk, gutter talk, locker room language, barracks talk, bawdy, naughty, saucy, raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, lascivious, indecent, profane, obscene, blue, off-color, risqué, suggestive, cursing, cussing, and swearing. Now, they were just bleeps. Perplexed by it all, Black, avoided profanity to the point that his head looks like it's about to explode. The build-up is capped off by a simple sentiment to his friend and mentor, knowing that Carlin, a master of the language of ordinary people, couldn't hear him: "Fuck it, George."