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Seven Words You’d Never Hear Today
by Allison Kilkenny
Now is the time when bloggers, pundits, and your immediate family will act like they were personally invested in George Carlin’s artistic acts of bravery. Everyone will crow about the great man because he was great, and they’ll declare his “Seven Dirty Words” routine a pillar of modern American comedy and also a landmark case in censorship.
Those barely old enough to remember Carlin’s mugshot, (and those old enough to remember his arrest and simultaneously crotchety enough to dismiss the opinions of anyone under 30) will masquerade as loyal Carlin soldiers. They’ll bitch and moan like they were standing beside the man at his trial, U.S. Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, in which a narrow 5-4 decision affirmed the government’s right to regulate Carlin’s act on the public airwaves.
The internet will erupt into an orgy of suffering, because that’s what happens when a great man dies. And a great man did die. So even if it’s a tad contrived, Carlin should be paid his due respects. Every flattering statement, every overzealous compliment will still be too few for one of the greatest comedians ever to shout his fearlessness into a microphone.
Counter-cultural icons are always beloved and admired retrospectively. The people that faint after reading an expletive on the internet are the same people that buy t-shirts with Lenny Bruce’s face airbrushed across the chest. These are the same individuals that bemoan a great man like Carlin dying because – weirdly enough – there seems to be a shortage of independent artists fluttering around our corporate media.
Thirty years ago, the FCC functioned much the same way it does today. Let’s say there’s an uptight asshole – a real bible-thumping lunatic – who has a little cherub offspring that overhears a grown-up comedian drop the F-bomb. Logically, the parent turns off the radio, explains the evils of the English language and Satan’s constant onslaught of temptations, and calls it a night, right?
Wrong. In 1973, a man complained to the FCC that his son had heard a similar routine to Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words, which was broadcast one afternoon over WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation FM radio station in New York City. Pacifica received a citation from the FCC, and later the Supreme Court upheld the FCC action, ruling that the routine was “indecent but not obscene,” which is a way of saying, “You’re making us nervous as hell but we have this thing called free speech, so we can’t technically lock you up.”
Though, Carlin would have gladly gone to jail. He’d been there before with another great man: Lenny Bruce. When the cops arrested Bruce for obscenity, Carlin allegedly mouthed off to the cops and joined Bruce in jail. It’s difficult to imagine a performer today exerting such willful defiance and breathless indignation in the presence of a ridiculously corrupt world.
George Carlin hated censorship, and that hatred steadily grew through his life as he watched corporate mergers and an overbearing government sedate its citizenry with dumbed-down entertainment and materialistic toys.
Who would embrace a performer like George Carlin today? Clear Channel? FOX? What major network – what radio station – would broadcast his words? When would the admiration for his bravery stop and the fear of corporate retribution begin? Today, many suits would have patted Carlin on the shoulder and sincerely apologized, “Gee, kid, I love it. It’s just...my boss is a real square! I mean, the guy is SO out of touch. I can’t stick my neck out there.”
The greatest tribute for Carlin isn’t to worship him as the last brave performer. The idea is to take the torch and run with it. Carlin famously said that it’s the duty of a comedian to find where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately. He meant that oftentimes we only truthfully engage with one another when we violate some unspoken social contract. The best conversations, debates, and ideas spring from uncharted interactions. Carlin wanted us to surprise the hell out of each other, in our dull little lives and in our government. Maybe it says something about our culture that he needed to scream "FUCK!" in order to get the message across.
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