Seven Dirty Words

Comedian Discusses What Couldn’t Be Said On TV

The Robert H. Jackson Center hosted a discussion on comedian George Carlin’s “7 Dirty Words.” Emmy-nominated producer Stephen J. Morrison, serving as moderator, was joined by comedian Lewis Black, Carlin’s daughter Kelly Carlin and Cornell Law professor Howard Leib, to discuss the impact of the seven words and the FCC V. Pacifica 1978 case. Pictured from left are Lewis Black, Kelly Carlin, Howard Leib and Stephen Morrison. P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

The “Seven Dirty Words” were not censored Wednesday night.

Comedian George Carlin often took a stage in the 1970s and continuously listed seven words he believed couldn’t be said on television. In 1978, the Supreme Court agreed, at least during the hours from 6:01 a.m. to 9:59 p.m.

The Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s first indecency policies after the comedian’s monologue was aired on a radio broadcast and a listener wrote a complaint because his child heard the material.

The safe harbor hours were established from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. when Carlin’s seven words and other indecent content could not be aired. In the time outside of the safe harbor range, indecent, but not obscene content, could be played.

A panel inside the Robert H. Jackson Center comprised of Stephen Morrison, Emmy-nominated producer and moderator; Lewis Black, comedian; Kelly Carlin, author and George Carlin’s daughter; and Howard Leib, Cornell Law professor, discussed the landmark ruling and its impact.

The Pacifica radio station WBAI broadcasted an uncensored version of a routine that included the aforementioned seven words. Known as the “”Seven Dirty Words,” the panel discussed the impact of them and the subsequent 1978 FCC V. Pacifica 1978 case on censorship.

Kelly Carlin told an audience gathered inside the Robert H. Jackson center that her father enjoyed the idea that the bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” would live on through human history because of the impact that it had. She also talked about how her father got to be the way he was.

Growing up, George Carlin and his mother would study words from the newspaper. Oftentimes, if George Carlin didn’t know a word his mother would direct him to the dictionary to learn it for himself. Kelly Carlin described it as a game, but when that old game rubbed off onto her own life it drove her “crazy.” Her father would constantly correct her pronunciation.

Separate from the court case and the seven words, Black said he admired Carlin’s ability to be “so specific” with his stand-up comedy and with words so much so that he found it “irritating.”

“He was just exquisite at it,” Black said. “It’s not only what he did with words, the specificity of it, but the musicality. That was extraordinary.”

A year before Carlin’s controversial bit was played on the radio and the FCC received a complaint, Carlin was performing in Milwaukee at Summerfest when he was arrested for his language on stage. This was also 10 years after comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity for language that he used on stage as well.

On stage in Milwaukee, Carlin learned that he was to be arrested when he exited the stage, Kelly Carlin recalled from memory of the event. So her father jumped into the “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” bit until his microphone’s volume was gradually turned all the way down.

As for if the country’s society and culture has made progress with censorship, profanity and indecent language, Leib was not optimistic. Leib said many radio stations and TV networks work in fear of being fined by the FCC. Leib poked fun at the vagueness of the ruling in 1978 as to what content was indecent and what was obscene.

“It’s not changing anytime soon,” Leib said.

As “desert,” as Morrison described it, the audience was treated to footage of Carlin performing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” at the end of the discussion.


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