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?
It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”