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Speaking Blue to Power

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, July 4, 2008

All the appreciations of George Carlin described him as a counterculture comedian, but really the connection was just circumstantial. Carlin was no hippie -- actually I don't know that there were any hippie comedians, apart from Cheech and Chong, or maybe Sonny Bono if you want to push the point. Long hair and beard or no, Carlin was really the last hipster; the sardonic tone and scat riffing went straight back to Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Lord Buckley. And Carlin would have been the first to acknowledge his debt to Bruce for a lot of the elements in his "seven words you can't say on television" routine, from the ruminations on the grammar of profanity to the rapid-fire recitations of a string of dirty words, like a second-grader pledging allegiance to the flag of some undeclared nation of the id.

But it was Carlin's routine that entered American folklore and that stamped his identity as a performer. That's partly because Carlin's material was less confrontational and more ribald than Bruce's was. But it also reflected a cultural sea change.

In their time, comics like Bruce and Sahl were relegated to the category of "sick" humor. Bruce himself disliked the label, though he used it in the title of a 1958 LP. But whoever spoke it, "sick" always implied a deviation from "normality," and required a special dispensation in the name of art. When Bruce was arrested for obscenity in New York in 1964, a group of cultural luminaries including Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Allen Ginsberg issued a petition on his behalf. True, they said, Bruce's routines sometimes made use of "the vernacular," but they defended the language as essential to Bruce's "satirical intent" and went on to compare him to Swift and Rabelais.

 Actually "Rabelaisian" describes Carlin a lot better than Bruce. But by the time Carlin started performing his dirty words routine a few years later, public profanity didn't require an artistic justification -- it was a form of social protest in its own right. There's a telling moment in the movie Woodstock when Country Joe and the Fish engage the crowd in a call-and-response of the F-word -- "Give me an F…. Give me a U… " and so on -- before launching into their anti-war "Feel like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," the one that goes "it's one, two, three, what are we fightin' for?" That segue would have been bewildering a decade earlier. But by 1969 shouting the f-word had become a gesture of political liberation. It wasn't just that the stigma of the word embodied American sexual repression and hypocrisy, but that those very hang-ups were held to be responsible for the injustice and violence of the American system. As Jerry Rubin put it, "How can you separate politics from sex?... Puritanism leads us to Vietnam."

That connection between sexual and political repression was at the heart of Carlin's seven-dirty-words routine:

(Clip) You know the seven, don't you, that you can't say on television? Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits. [Words bleeped in broadcast version.] Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.

At the time, in fact, some people were making those charges in perfect seriousness. After the Chicago police beat up demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey defended the police actions by saying, "The obscenity, the profanity, the filth that was uttered night after night… was an insult to every woman, every mother, every daughter, indeed, every human being. . . . You’d put anybody in jail for that kind of talk."

But that was a more innocent age. There may still be a lot of people who are disturbed by the tide of ambient vulgarity that was loosed in the 60's, but nobody's really shocked by it anymore. It's been quite a while since you heard profanity denounced as subversive, much less as an insult to American womanhood. And in a more enlightened age, we don't put people in jail for talking dirty. It's more expedient simply to allow the FCC to fine broadcasters that air language that the agency deems indecent, thanks to the 1978 Supreme Court decision that grew out of a daytime broadcast of Carlin's routine by a Pacifica station in New York.

Carlin himself never stopped speaking blue to power. He kept reworking the routine over the years, to an increasingly universal acclaim that testified both to his elevation as a cultural icon and his perceived irrelevance in a world awash in apolitical raunch. After his death he was even paid tribute by the director of the Parents Television Council, the watchdog group that was set up to orchestrate a deluge of email to the FCC whenever Detective Sipowicz spoke his vernacular mind or when Diane Keaton lets slip an unacceptable modifier on "Good Morning America."

But then the battle lines are drawn very differently now. In its next term the Supreme Court will be taking up broadcast indecency for the first time since the 1978 decision. Only this time around the case pits the FCC against Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting and the offenses involve expletives that Cher and Nicole Richie dropped during the Billboard Music Awards. It's sad to think we'll never get to hear Carlin go to work on that lineup. But I've got a pretty good idea which side he would have come down on in the end. 

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.