Today, May 12th, would have been George Carlin’s birthday. Born in 1937, Carlin was one of the key figures of the stand-up renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Carlin is listed as #2 on the Comedy Central list of the 100 most influential comedians of all time and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize in American Humor.
“Seven Dirty Words” originated on Carlin’s 1972 album, Class Clown, and was revisited on 1973’s, Occupation: Foole. Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972 for performing the routine in Milwaukie. The case was dismissed when Carlin’s routine was judged indecent, not obscene. Carlin’s explication of the words led to a court case that eventually ended at the Supreme Court in Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation—a decision that is a modern touchstone in the debate over obscenity (here is part of the FCC transcript of Carlin’s monologue).
Every once in a while, I try to think what those seven words are–can you think of them?
Okay, still with me. Here they are:
Okay, there we are. My mom would think those are bad. I love to swear, much to my mom’s chagrin. But it is an art form, or should be, which I learned from watching Richard Pryor, especially his Live on the Sunset Strip movie when I was 12 or so (thanks, Trent).
Here is the version from Class Clown:
And a later video performance:
And an interview with Carlin on the words:
And see more of this interview.
Most scholarly work on Carlin’s words focuses on the legal questions of indecency and regulation of television and other broadcasts. Marc Leverette’s book chapter, “Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits“–in addition to being quite the addition to one’s CV–looks promising, although the preview cuts out a few key pages. Leverette argues that Carlin’s “use of language on HBO… both popularized comedy speicals, as well as having a normalizing effect regarding profanity.” (127)
As Melisa Mohr writes in her new book, “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” such words were used in the nineteenth century in much the same way:
The words in question, fuck, shit, ass, and cocksucker, were chosen for their emotive charge, not to denote as directly as possible some part of the body or action. They were employed to shock and offend, or to express the speaker’s emotional state.
and sometimes the risks of using these words went beyond the FCC and court cases:
One final example will have to suffice: in 1894, a New York man murdered an acquaintance partly because the acquaintance wouldn’t stop calling him “cock-sucker.” It’s not clear who started the bad blood originally, but the deceased escalated things by ordering drinks for a group of men but excluding his murderer with the words “Treat them five and leave that cock-sucker out.” He then smacked the defendant on the nose and called him “cock-sucker” several more times. When at one point the defendant didn’t have enough money to pay for another drink, the deceased also butted in with “Let him stick it up his ass.” Eventually the defendant left the bar, came back with the gun, and shot the man who had repeatedly called him “cock-sucker.”
While Carlin’s discussions of dirty words points out the absurdity of having 7 bad words, compared to almost 400,000 acceptable ones, the reaction to Carlin–and the continuing power of these words–should lead us to see the importance of looking at the connection between humor and profanity.
Happy fucking Birthday, George.
(c) 2013, Tracy Wuster