This past week I read a poem at an open mic during a live remote radio broadcast. Before the show, the guest interviewees, musicians and writers gathered for a briefing to learn our place in the line-up, provide the emcees with our introduction, and receive a pink Post-It note. The pink slip contained seven words deemed indecent or obscene by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Words we were asked to not say out loud on the show. I was curious, were these in fact the same seven words that helped launch George Carlin’s career to national prominence after he first uttered them in 1972 in his monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”
Carlin was a stand-up comic, satirist, actor and writer. He followed in the footsteps of another legendary and controversial comedian, Lenny Bruce. Bruce was known for his edgy performances that featured commentary on religion, politics and sex. He was first arrested on stage in 1961 at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco for obscenity for uttering only one of the seven words.
Notoriety and the police followed him for the next few years until he was arrested during live performances in April 1964 at Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. After a six-month trial, he was convicted of obscenity in November 1964. Bruce died while he was free on bail to appeal the case. Later he received a pardon posthumously, the first in New York State history. Years later he was found not guilty in a landmark trial for freedom of speech.
George Carlin was present at Lenny Bruce’s arrest for obscenity and was also arrested when police asked him for his identification. Carlin responded he did not believe in government-issued IDs. Carlin rode with Bruce in the same squad car. Years later in July of 1972, Carlin was arrested at Milwaukee’s Summerfest and charged with violating obscenity laws. He later referred to the incident as the “Milwaukee Seven” as a reference to the political trial of the Chicago Eight following the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and arrests.
Carlin’s routine entitled, “Filthy Words” performed on a radio station the following year led to the New York FM station being fined for violating regulations prohibiting obscene material. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 later upheld the ruling stating Carlin’s performance was “indecent but not obscene” and that the FCC had authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be among the audience.
The question I raise is what makes these particular seven words so dangerous? Language is powerful and the context in how it’s used, informative. I believe these seven words do say a lot about the culture and politics of our time, then and now. Are these the most obscene and dangerous words we could utter, or are there others you’d choose instead? Now, a word of warning, or more precisely, seven words of warning. The list of seven words.
Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.
Listen to the list of seven words from Carlin himself from 1972 when he was arrested at Summerfest in Milwaukee,Wisconsin. The Carlin family released the rare recording in 2015 that got him arrested in 1972.