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Crossing the Line

George Carlin's Legacy and Our Own

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George Carlin - Mug Shot / Booking Photo

Booking photo of comedian George Carlin following the infamous 1972 performance of his "seven dirty words" routine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo: Milwaukee Police Department. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
June 23, 2008

George Carlin died last night at the age of 71 after a history of heart problems.

Eulogizing the guy would be, by his own standards, a waste of time. Over the next few days we'll see hundreds of headlines with titles like "George Carlin: An Appreciation," "George Carlin: A Hero of Our Time," "George Carlin: Champion of Free Speech," and other things that would have struck him as embarrassing and ridiculous. This is a guy who wanted to call his 2005 comedy special I Like It When a Lot of People Die, until Hurricane Katrina forced him to retitle it to the slightly gentler Life is Worth Losing. I'm pretty sure he'd want to be remembered as some kind of hero about as much as Ronald Reagan would have wanted to be remembered for Bedtime for Bonzo.

But he was serious about what he did, and that made him very useful to the development of the First Amendment as we know it today. "I think it's the duty of the comedian," he once said, "to find out where the line is and cross it deliberately."

In the early days of the sixties, when he was cleanshaven and wore his hair slicked back and substitued for Johnny Carson on a regular basis, Carlin joked mainly about the English language but threw in some edgy humor about hippie counterculture and the Cold War. Then he grew his hair out, grew his beard out, and got more risque in the early 1970s--more countercultural humor, more political humor, material about his own changing appearance, and, of course, material about profanity. His most famous routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," first appeared in 1972. A performance of the routine got him arrested in Milwaukee on obscenity charges, he challenged the arrest, and it was overturned. Thanks to George Carlin, I could go on stage at a local bar on open mic night, drop the f-bomb, and stand no chance of getting arrested--in Mississippi. Maybe somebody else would have done it if he didn't. Doesn't matter. He did it.

"Seven Words" was also the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), in which the Court ruled--by a narrow 5-4 margin!--that the FCC can fine networks for indecent content. What inspired the ruling? Somebody played "Seven Words" on the radio. And the FCC's response validated Carlin's point:
Yeah, there are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can't say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They'd have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven. Bad words. That's what they told us they were, remember? "That's a bad word." "Awwww." There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions ...

I mean, I think the word f--k is an important word. It's the beginning of life, and, yet it's a word we use to hurt one other, quite often. And uh, people much wiser than I have said, I'd rather have my son watch a film with two people making love than two people trying to kill one other. And I of course agree. I wish I knew who said it first, and I agree with that. But I would like to take it a step further. I would like to substitute the word f--k for the word kill in all those movie cliches we grew up with.
Seven words you can say on the radio: Kill, murder, assassinate, slaughter, butcher, slay, massacre. But Carlin's seven words you can't say on the radio, or on a blog like this one--two are anatomical references, two are references to the way our bodies process food and liquid, three are sexual references. (The list is actually much longer than seven words these days, but Carlin's general point still stands.) And yeah, the words are vulgar and offensive--whatever that means--but the ideas behind them aren't. And while it's understandable that content-neutral regulation means that only words can be restricted, not ideas, it has created a culture of euphemism that says (for example) that it's racist to use the n-word but less racist to favor policies that make real life harder for black folks, or that it's sexist to use the b-word but not sexist to favor policies that make real life harder for women, or that it's homophobic to use anti-gay slurs but not homophobic to favor policies that make real life harder for lesbians and gay men.

War also illustrates what Carlin was talking about. Shock and awe, decapitation strikes, smart bombs, laser-guided missiles, special ops--these are all very technical ways of saying that we're killing people by sending pieces of metal through parts of their bodies at a high rate of speed, or blowing their bodies apart, or burning them to death. All the lovely little euphemisms that are used to describe this process are never considered offensive, but God help us all if somebody uses the wrong word to describe how they evacuated their bowels this morning.

It's a testament to the power of profanity that Carlin never quite topped the level of notoriety he achieved with "Seven Words," try though he did. In the 80s, he discussed bodily functions. In the 90s, he spent more time on religion. In the 00s, he talked about death and the human capacity for cruelty and sadism (including his own!). Sometimes he genuinely went overboard and said something nasty and indefensible. But none of this ever generated as much controversy as "Seven Words"--and even our memories of "Seven Words" are about the fact that it contains the seven words, not about the argument that it makes. Our enduringly shallow reaction to "Seven Words" proves its potency as an argument, and has established him as a weird kind of prophet. I don't know if that's what he had in mind, but I guess it'd explain why he grew the beard.
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