On George Carlin

Benjamin Hooks and Pat Halloran played bit parts.



George Carlin was one of those people whose death reminds a lot of us who grew up listening to his comedy how much the times have changed.

Most of his famous "seven dirty words" that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 are as widely used today as the expressions "man" or "shit," which, come to think of it, was one of the seven words.

Today, a 6-year-old with a computer can hear the rest of them in a variety of formats in about three seconds. How far we've come from 1978 when the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens (who is still on the court), wrote that broadcasting has "the most limited First Amendment protection" because of its "uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of our people" and especially because "broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children."

Carlin recorded "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," often shortened to "Filthy Words," live in California, and a New York radio station played it in 1973. A man who said he heard it while riding in his car with his young son complained to the Federal Communications Commission, one of whose members was Memphian Benjamin Hooks, who was appointed to the FCC by President Richard Nixon in 1972.

The FCC issued an order in 1975 granting the complaint, and the defendants filed a lawsuit that made its way to the appellate courts and, finally, the Supreme Court.

Justice Stevens wrote an opinion that cited, among other things, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous statement that "free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic" and an equally famous opinion about "fighting words."

"The question in this case is whether a broadcast of patently offensive words dealing with sex and excretion may be regulated because of its content," Stevens wrote.

The pithy conclusion of the opinion, which upheld the FCC action, was worthy of Carlin himself.

"As Mr. Justice Sutherland wrote, 'a nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place — like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.' We simply hold that when the commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene."

Appended to the opinion is a verbatim transcript of Carlin's monologue, in case you missed it.

Carlin performed at the Orpheum three times and also appeared at casinos in Tunica. His first appearance in Memphis was at a point where he had turned a corner in his career and was making heavy use of the seven dirty words. Orpheum president Pat Halloran remembers him as the first really foul-mouthed comedian to play the theater but hardly the last.

"While he was creative and successful for decades, I found him pretty difficult to deal with," Halloran recalled. "The angst and the temperament carried over to his regular persona after he left the stage."

Carlin helped open the door, for better or worse, to comedians and entertainers who made dirty words a standard bit. I'm pretty sure I heard most if not all of the seven words in the first five minutes of comedian Kathy Griffin's appearance at the Orpheum a couple of years ago. I know I heard some of them last week in the first 30 seconds of the first cut of the new CD by the Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia, featured on the cover of this week's Commercial Appeal Playbook section. And I "hear" them bleeped out every night on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Strangely enough, newspapers are one of the last institutions that still limit use of words you can hear everywhere else, although we publicize the people who say them.

What I think made Carlin popular for so long was his clean stuff — "When did we all get so dry?" in response to the bottled water craze, for example.

Among several terrific tributes to Carlin was this one from Jerry Seinfeld in The New York Times this week: "As a kid it seemed like the whole world was funny because of George Carlin. His performing voice, even laced with profanity, always sounded as if he were trying to amuse a child. It was like the naughtiest, most fun grown-up you ever met was reading you a bedtime story."

How rich it would be to hear George Carlin do 30 minutes on the current state of things in Memphis, Tennessee.

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