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George Carlin was the real deal

The Lesson of Carlin’s Dirty Words

He was acquitted and entertainment became coarser, as censorship assumed new forms.


By Andy KesslerFollow

July 17, 2022 1:15 pm ET


George Carlin under arrest in Milwaukee, July 21, 1972.



“Now everyone is walking around wondering what they can say and censoring themselves and, as a result, lowering the standards of discussion and thought.” Sounds like 2022, but the guy who said this was arrested 50 years ago this week on a charge of “disorderly conduct, profanity.” We’ve come a long way but seem to be looping back.


Comedian George Carlin was performing at Summerfest in Milwaukee on July 21, 1972, doing his then-current routine noting the absurdity that “there are more ways to describe dirty words than there are dirty words: dirty, bad, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, off-color, blue, naughty, bawdy, saucy, raunchy, street language, gutter talk, locker-room talk, barracks language, indecent, in poor taste, suggestive, cursing, cussing, swearing, profanity, obscenity, and all I could think of were . . .” He then listed what will forever be known as the “seven words you can’t say on television.” I won’t repeat them, but I bet many of you can rattle them off from memory.


The Summerfest arrest wasn’t his first. For refusing to show his ID, he was thrown in the same paddywagon as Lenny Bruce in 1962. Maybe that’s why Carlin developed a routine to push free-speech rights even further. The new HBO documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream” chronicles these stories, although like most documentaries it eventually devolves into political hackery. Skip the final 30 minutes—the rest is comedy gold.


The Milwaukee district attorney asked a policeman, “Was it disorderly?” Getting no answer, he turned to an assistant district attorney and asked, “You were there, what did the audience do?” “Well, they gave him a standing ovation.” During the trial, the judge apparently hid his face to cover his laughter. Mr. Carlin was acquitted.


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In 1973 a man complained to the Federal Communications Commission that his 15-year-old son heard Carlin’s famous routine on WBAI-FM, a noncommercial station in New York. Eventually, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation made its way to the Supreme Court, and Justice John Paul Stevens’s 1978 opinion, which still stands, ruled that to protect children from “inappropriate” speech—add that to Carlin’s list of dirty descriptors—those seven dirty words shouldn’t be heard on public airwaves.


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Though antiestablishment, Carlin’s politics were hard to pigeonhole. On the illusion of choice: “We’re led to believe we’re free by the exercise of meaningless choices. Ice cream flavors, what do you want? We’ve got 31. We’ve got the flavor of the week, we’ve got the flavor of the month. But political parties? We’re down to two.” He had disdain for both sides.


This 1996 bit has been replayed a lot since the draft of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was leaked: “Boy, these conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own.” But there’s also this, from 1992: “I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists; these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren’t enough bicycle paths! People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos!”


After the Pacifica decision, Carlin told the Los Angeles Times, “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.” In 1970s vernacular, “they” meant the man, the establishment. Today, “they” means the politically correct, the social-justice warriors, the thought police who insist you’re racist.


Maybe Carlin’s gift to the world wasn’t identifying the hypocrisy of having words you can’t say on TV but pointing out that shutting down words or ideas or thoughts is destructive to a free society. He’d probably be aghast at the state of social-media censorship today. If the price of our freedom is that someone may take offense, Carlin surely would think that’s worth the cost. I’d agree.


Thanks to censorship and technology, the public airwaves have been greatly diminished. Car radio moved to SiriusXM and Spotify. Television moved to cable and satellite and Blu-ray. Now it is all streaming and anything goes. I still think youth need to be protected, but good luck with that. Eight-year-olds with smartphones can hear the forbidden words daily. I laugh at Netflix’s kid-magnet warnings: “Gore, Language, Smoking.” Even Disney isn’t as family-friendly as it used to be.


Carlin died in 2008, as cancel culture and campus safe spaces for the anxious were beginning to become widespread. Today, there is a long list of things you can’t say, including “all lives matter” and “chief” and “birth mother” and even “master bedroom.” Goodbye discussion and thought. Then add sports-team names and wrong pronouns on playgrounds and shoot, we miss you, George Carlin.


Write to kessler@wsj.com.

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