Okay, this is George Carlin’s infamous bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” so please don’t watch it at work. That said, a bit of context: Carlin, arch comic satirist and incisive social critic, originally performed this routine in Milwaukee in 1972. Carlin is deliberately pushing the envelope here, and he’s paying homage to the great Lenny Bruce, who was persecuted by censors and police, and hounded out of work, more or less, for doing what Carlin does above—poking fun at our American squeamishness about the body, sexuality, and religion. With Elizabethan glee, Carlin takes seven words from Bruce’s original nine and reduces them to absurdities. As we all know–South Park and pay cable excepted–most of these words are still taboo and can send certain viewers, media watchdogs, and congress people into fits.
Carlin’s point is exactly that—people squirm when they hear obscene words, as though the language itself had some magically destructive power, but as he says, “there are no bad words. Bad thoughts, Bad intentions,” suggesting that the problem lies in the minds and hearts of those who assume that quarantining certain uses of language will keep us from certain ideas and acts they fear—or in his own irreverent voice, that some words “will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.…” Carlin was arrested after his Milwaukee appearance when an audience member complained, but a Wisconsin judge determined that his speech was protected. Later, when the bit was broadcast by a New York radio station, legal trouble ensued once again, and the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1978 that the government had the right to restrict television and radio broadcasts in case children were listening. Carlin, who died in 2008 at the age of 71, said of the case, “My name is a footnote in American legal history, which I’m perversely kind of proud of.”
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.