HOW ‘JERKER’ HELPED IGNITE OBSCENITY DEBATE’ : Comedian Carlin Has a Few Choice Words for Media Watchdogs
Comedian George Carlin is angry enough to use a few of his own “seven dirty words” when he thinks about the First Amendment, the FCC and media watchdogs he sees as determined to curtail free speech on radio and TV.
“Indecency (and) profanity are protected by the First Amendment,” says Carlin, the comedian whose infamous “seven dirty words” routine set the precedent for what could not be said on the radio for nearly the last decade. “There is nothing about indecent language that meets the test of obscenity. You can say them in books, you can say them in newspapers and magazines, you can say them in plays and you can say them in movies. You can’t say them on the radio and on television. There is no logic to that at all.”
What is logical, Carlin says, is that the federal government should not be allowed to regulate anything on radio and television that falls outside the clear laws of obscenity. It’s an opinion that both he and his words have been arguing all the way to the Supreme Court and beyond.
In 1973, public radio station WBAI in New York played a Carlin recording entitled “Filthy Words” as part of an afternoon program devoted that day to the use of various kinds of speech and its protection under the Constitution. The comedy routine dealt with seven words that Carlin maintained could not be uttered on radio or television.
John Douglas, a member of the national planning board of Morality in Media, was, at that moment, riding in his car with his 15-year-old son. Before the monologue, a disclaimer was read over the air saying that Carlin’s sketch contained language that might be offensive to some people. Douglas subsequently complained to the FCC. “In an area of 20 million people, the New York market, it was the only complaint the FCC received. Hardly indicative of community standards being violated,” Carlin said.
That one complaint was enough, however, to eventually send Carlin’s monologue to the Supreme Court. And, in a 1978 ruling, the court gave the FCC the right to prohibit the use of Carlin’s seven dirty words on radio and television. Though to many people the bit was--and remains--terribly funny, Carlin found nothing funny about the ruling.
“Language can’t hurt people. If these words could be shown to truly create moral problems for people, I’d have to take another look at it. But I don’t think there is a shred of evidence that the use of bad language in any way makes the person a bad person.
“There is nothing about indecent or profane language that is morally corrupting, or the police department, the Marines and every athlete in this country would be suspect. The words aren’t morally corrupting, so I had every right to use them. And I wasn’t challenging anybody, but I’m glad the challenge was taken up because it smokes these people out of their corners.”
“These people,” Carlin said, are the same fundamentalists and reactionaries whose complaints prompted the FCC to issue reprimands last April to three stations for airing allegedly offensive language. In doing so, the FCC significantly broadened the scope of what it regards as indecency but without clarifying what the new boundaries are.
“That’s what these people love,” Carlin says, “the chilling effect. Now everyone is walking around wondering what they can say and censoring themselves, and, as a result, lowering the standards of discussion and thought. Thought and discussion depend on language, and, when you decrease its base, then you decrease the base for rational discussion and thought. And that’s what they want to do.”
Frustrated by their inability to implement their social agenda through Congress, Carlin contends, “the right wing” in this country has been using appointed federal agencies, such as the FCC, to do its bidding. At this point, Carlin says, they are focusing only on sexual and excretory words. But once they succeed on this issue, he believes, restrictions on political speech will be next.
Still, the comedian says he has no burning desire to carry his message beyond his stage act. Carlin’s own list of dirty words has grown over the years to more than 400. It has become the most enduring part of his concert act and has always been designed to point out the nuances and hypocrisy inherent in our language.
“It’s interesting, it’s fun, it makes great theater to watch it and study it and complain about it, but I’m not going to go looking for the line to step across. I think this is an extremely important thing, but the issue can come to us. I just want people to have the chance to discuss it properly.”
Carlin says he does have a definitive solution to the question of how to handle the problem of radio indecency. Strangely, it seems to come right out of the political right’s own lexicon.
“Let the free market decide,” Carlin concludes. “Let the free market of ideas decide the value of ideas, the level of significance of discussion, the levels of taste, and sort it out. That’s what this democratic experiment is about in this country. Howard Stern or Ollie North, they should all be protected.”