More than 30 years after George Carlin pronounced “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television,” some of those words have lost their sting.
Some of those words still aren’t welcome on the public airwaves (or, for that matter, in print) and they are still being debated in the courts.
But you can hear those words voiced in everyday discourse more than ever.
Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, observed in his routine: “We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. Then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for that thought — so be careful with words.”
Carlin’s seven words, he would caution ironically, “are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.”
Or course, times — and wars — have changed. At least one of Carlin’s words (a rude term for urine) wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on much of broadcast TV now.
Meanwhile, none of them is alien to premium cable. For many viewers, hearing those Words You Can’t Say On Television being said on television helps make pay cable worth paying for.
Those words were heard on television in 1977, on Carlin’s first HBO comedy special.
They fall into predictable categories: bodily waste; sexual acts (both socially acceptable and frowned upon); and female body parts.
“When he used those words he wasn’t just trying to shock,” said Richard Zoglin, who wrote about Carlin in his recent book, “Comedy at the Edge: How Standup in the 1970s Changed America.”
“He was trying to make a statement that’s familiar today, but wasn’t so familiar back then: ’Why do we have this irrational fear of words?”’
Of this Magnificent Seven, only one, which refers to the female anatomy, retains the power to jolt nearly anyone within earshot. On an HBO sitcom a couple of years ago, the angry husband used this word to insult his wife. It nearly wrecked their marriage. More tellingly, the studio audience emitted an audible gasp.
No swearing during World War II!
Premium cable, and even basic cable, have far more freedom with content than broadcast programming, which is carried on public airwaves by stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.
For broadcast, The Words are actually words the FCC says can’t be heard before 10 p.m. — when the “safe harbor” for young viewers applies. But exactly what those words are, and under what circumstances they may be permissible, is currently unclear.
The picture is further muddied by the fact that 80 to 90 percent of viewers get all their programming (from broadcast stations as well as cable networks) through their cable or satellite subscription, Carter added. Different indecency standards apply to channels whose difference is often undetectable to the audience.
The uncertain regulatory climate led to PBS distributing two versions of the Ken Burns documentary series “The War” last fall. Stations could choose the original version, or opt for a sanitized version of World War II, one that was free of any Words You’d Be Safer Not Saying On Television.
The FCC changed its policy on indecency following a January 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globes awards show by NBC when U2 lead singer Bono uttered the phrase “f------ brilliant.” The FCC said the “f-word” in any context “inherently has a sexual connotation” and can trigger enforcement.” That case has yet to be resolved.
Recently the U.S Supreme Court has entered a legal fight over curse words aired by Fox in 2002 and 2003 on the live broadcasts of “The Billboard Music Awards.” Cher used the phrase, “F--- ’em.” And Nicole Richie said, “Have you ever tried to get cow s--- out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f------ simple.”
Scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court this fall, the case would decide whether the government can ban “fleeting expletives,” one-time uses of familiar but profane words.
Dropping an “f-bomb” on a broadcast won’t automatically blast open the floodgates, said Tim Winter, president of Parents Television Council, but he warned, “It’s a slow accumulation. First it’s once every several months. Then it becomes once a month. Then it becomes once a night.”
“That’s our concern for some of the words that are at issue here,” said Winter, who’s also an avowed George Carlin fan: “It’s unfortunate that a brilliant comedian like George Carlin is a poster child for the lawsuits that are out there.”