Serious Dirty Words: George Carlin, 1937-2008

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Jun 24, 2008

George Carlin, the comic who challenged the standards that proscribed the word “fuck” but permitted the word “kill,” died Sunday, June 22 in California of heart failure. He was 71.

It was Carlin who, by articulating the “seven words you [could] never say on television” (i.e., “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits”) helped make it ultimately possible to say almost anything. The change came about via a U.S. Supreme Court decision (in FCC vs. Pacifica) that permitted the Federal Communications Commission to bar some speech—but only during hours that children might be expected to be listening.

The decision brought about the late prime-time “window” during which more “adult” content was broadcastable.(Note, however, that to my knowledge only four of the seven words have actually been permitted on broadcast television to date, while a fifth was uttered earlier this year by actor Jane Fonda during an interview, under the impression that it was allowed.)

Carlin started working as a standup comedian in the ’50s but broke away from the crowd in the ’60s, developing his distinctive long-haired, blue-jeaned persona along with the concerns that occupied him for the rest of his life. Often described as “edgy” and “acerbic,” his routines in fact consistently asked audiences to consider love and sex (and drugs) superior to hate and violence.

Carlin is also believed to have originated the observation that “‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.”

He was seriously funny.

He’ll be missed.



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