George Carlin and the Seven Filthy Words

This is part of a recurring series on the history of American censorship.

I first came across George Carlin as a very young lad when he played Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station, of Thomas the Tank Engine fame. I’m sure many of you are going, “Oh, shit! That was him!” right now.  It was him. IMDB it. What he is most famous for, though, is this bit on the seven words you can’t say on television. Lewis Black’s got nothin’ on a rant like this:

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, 1973, WBAI, a New York radio station owned by the Pacifica Foundation broadcast Carlin’s bit.  A few weeks later a man wrote a letter to the FCC complaining that he had been in the car with his young son when the bit was played. He didn’t appreciate it all the much.

He stated that, although he could perhaps understand the “record’s being sold for private use, I certainly cannot understand the broadcast of same over the air that, supposedly, you control.”

The complaint was forwarded to the station for comment. In its response, Pacifica explained that the monologue had been played during a program about contemporary society’s attitude toward language and that, immediately before its broadcast, listeners had been advised that it included “sensitive language which might be regarded as offensive to some.” Pacifica characterized George Carlin as “a significant social satirist” who “like Twain and Sahl before him, examines the language of ordinary people. . . . Carlin is not mouthing obscenities, he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes towards those words.” Pacifica stated that it was not aware of any other complaints about the broadcast.

I have to applaud the station’s stance and explanation, and those humanities people out there can probably imagine writing an undergrad paper with the same stance. I can also see where the father was coming from, but seriously dude. Just turn the dial.

Regardless, the letter was sent to the FCC and they had to do something about it. Here are the organization’s stances regarding indecency and obscenity. Note that there’s a difference:

Obscene Broadcasts Are Prohibited at All Times

Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be broadcast at any time. The Supreme Court has established that, to be obscene, material must meet a three-pronged test:

  • An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
  • The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Indecent Broadcast Restrictions

The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.

The Carlin affair would appear, on face, to be a simple First Amendment issue. But the word is broadcast — as in broad and in everyones face. The FCC eventually ruled that the broadcast was not obscene, but definitely indecent and thus subject to restriction. Semantics, you may cry, but remember, as Carlin stated so well, semantics and context are everything.

Now, I want to be clear here. The FCC wasn’t going after Carlin, per se.  Their beef was with the Pacifica Foundation who broadcast Carlin’s bit, which answers interesting questions like: to what extent are artists responsible for reproductions of their work? And furthermore, to what extent are artists responsible for what gets done with their work? Not very much at all, it would appear.

I got to see Carlin do his thing live on stage and in the then-living flesh a couple years before his 2008 death. The tickets were a birthday gift and I brought my dad and best friend to the show. Carlin was hilarious but also incredibly crass, cutting, and at times depressing. I was a teenager and while I was excited to have my parents condone such filth, I have to admit I was squirming in my seat at times, especially during his bit about auto-erotic asphyxiation that had my pops and the gaggle of old ladies in front of us in stitches. It was weird, in a good way, to see adults laughing at words so vulgar. I’d like to think that’s what he was going for.

photo credit: RiverRatt3, Creative Commons/flickr