We live in an increasingly unfunny world, which might be why comedy is booming in our culture like never before. Today, every ad tries to be funny, every politician tries to be funny. Many of us get our news from comedy shows , if we haven't already been filled in by the day's viral tweets and Facebook memes. Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings has a new book out about our comedy-first culture, called Planet Funny, which is on sale now, so we've asked him to spend June debunking some popular misconceptions about humor and comedy. He'll be here all month! Tip your waitress.
The Debunker: Were There "Seven Dirty Words" You Couldn't Say on Television?
George Carlin was one of the most gifted and beloved comedians to come out of the counterculture era of the 1960s. Carlin recorded nineteen comedy albums, appeared in fourteen HBO specials, and wrote three best-selling books. His mix of black comedy, social critique, and wordplay is still regarded with reverence by stand-ups and comedy fans today, a decade after his death. But to the wider public, especially in his generation, Carlin was more famous for a single comedy bit: his "filthy words" routine. And perhaps rightly so: the legal wrangling over the routine's broadcast became a landmark Supreme Court case, the first ever to take on the FCC's regulations on indecency.
In the act, Carlin famously (and off-handedly) rattles off the list of seven words you can't say on television, and they're exactly the four-letter words you'd expect. The routine is so famous today that most listeners probably assume that Carlin, a TV comedy veteran who appeared on The Tonight Show over one hundred times during his career, was reporting actual network policy. In fact, that's not true. The FCC used a much vaguer standard for profanity (basically, no "obscene" material at any time, and no "indecent" material before 10 p.m., with profanity defined merely as language so "grossly offensive" that it becomes a "nuisance") and network standards and practices departments did not have a list whittled down to seven specific words.
Carlin seems to have been inspired by a nine-word list of taboo words that Lenny Bruce said, in a 1966 routine, had gotten him arrested. Carlin left "ass" and "balls" off his own list, presumably because there were TV contexts in which those words were okay. ("Ass," like "bitch," might be acceptable if referring to animal husbandry, and sports announcers said "balls" all the time.) But there's no way his list is a complete compendium of the no-no words—TV was pretty strict in the early 1970s. In 1960, Jack Paar had stomped off the set of his show because censors wouldn't let him tell a joke in which a toilet is euphemistically called a "W.C." As late as 2006, the doctors on Grey's Anatomy were not allowed to say "vagina" in a childbirth scene. (A decision that gave the world a great gift: the word "vajayjay.") So there's no way that the no-fly list in 1972 was just seven words. Carlin's list doesn't include "asshole" or "goddamn," for example. He seems to have chosen his words more for comedy rhythm than accuracy. The f-word and "motherf__er" are included as two separate words—a cheat, perhaps, but the joke, he found, didn't land without the longer word.
After a New York radio station aired "Seven Words" in 1973, Carlin's routine went all the way to the Supreme Court and the FCC's decency regulations were upheld 5-4 as not violating the First Amendment. Ironically, this cemented his (essentially made-up) list as a de facto legal standard for TV obscenity for decades! Today, little has changed. "Piss" can now be said on broadcast TV without comment, and a couple of the others sometimes squeeze past the censors. But for the most part, forty-five years later, George Carlin's list is still as @#$%ing relevant as ever.
Quick Quiz: What basic cable drama series, which has the highest viewership of any show in cable TV history, got the okay in 2017 to start using the "f-word" in its eighth season?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.