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R.I.P. George Carlin -- Groundbreaking comic's legal legacy may be the opposite of his ideals



Georgecarlin It's taken me a while to write something about the death of George Carlin, and not just because I'm a fan who found his later work increasingly disappointing.

My bigger problem: putting a finger on his real legacy. After all, this was a guy whose button-pushing comedy routine about the seven words you can't say on television actually resulted in a Supreme Court case, 1978's FCC vs. Pacifica, which has provided the legal foundation for all the indecency fines since levied by the government against broadcasters.

"The 5-4 decision upheld the FCC’s right to regulate indecency based on the government argument of protecting children," said Jeremy Lipschultz, a communication professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written a book on the FCC and the First Amendment. "It was a decision about how deeply the government injects itself into the specific decisions people make about how to express themselves, by telling them which words are indecent. It also extended the notion that there is a difference to material that is broadcast over the public airwaves.”

I'm enough of a fan that I can remember all the words in his original routine -- shit, p--s, c--k, c--t, c--ksucker m--herf--ker and tits (even on the blog, I'm not comfortable actually writing them out). The sidesplitting routine, aired on New York Pacifica radio station WBAI, prompted a lawsuit from a parent concerned that his child be shielded from such material.

The result: a ruling allowing the FCC to set up its current guidelines, in which indecent material is banned from broadcast TV and radio during a "safe harbor" of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are presumed to be listening. According to the FCC, indecent material "depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities."

Carlin Carlin nailed our conflicted, repressed relationship to language so well, that even now only a couple of his "filthy words" can be heard on broadcast TV, usually after 10 p.m. In the process, his work inspired a court decision that enshrined those wacked-out values in law, distilling the attitude so well, Lipschultz still plays the routine in classes to teach his students about the impact of the FCC's content policing.

Perhaps that's why Carlin's routines seemed to get more bitter and angry as the years progressed, until recent standup shows seemed to consist mostly of his recounting things in life that pissed him off -- which was most everything. A lifetime of rebellion is a tough gig, especially if it inadvertently makes your enemies stronger.

“I saw many interviews with (Carlin) and he seemed pleased that it went to the Supreme Court and was glad to become the poster child for indecency," said Lipschultz, noting that Carlin died in a year where the Supreme Court is considering a case which might remove the FCC's ability to punish broadcasters for airing curse words in error. "It's a shame he didn't make it long enough to see some of this come down."   

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:48pm]


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