June 23, 2008—Today the Competitive Enterprise Institute mourns the loss of one
greatest comedic talents, George Carlin. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, remarked that Carlin was
part of stand-up’s holy trinity, to be revered alongside Richard Pryor and
This amount of adulation is absolutely deserved. Carlin made
23 comedy albums, won four Grammy awards, produced 14 HBO specials, and was
nominated for five Emmys.
The Kennedy Center announced five days ago that Carlin was
to be awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, making him not only one
of the greatest of a generation, but of all time. He was truly one of America’s great
Like Bruce and Pryor, Carlin’s controversial material
invoked the ire of authorities who sought to make examples of the comedian for
violating obscenity laws. In 1972,
Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee
for performing his “seven
words ” routine, which describes at length the words that are banned on
television and radio.
In a fantastic case of legal irony, Carlin’s “seven words”
routine was eventually broadcast over the air, resulting in a landmark Supreme
Court case. In 1978, the Court ruled 5-4
in the case of FCC v. Pacifica Foundation—or
the “Carlin case” as it now commonly called—that
the Federal Communications Commission had the right to regulate the airwaves to
prevent children from hearing profanities—striking a huge blow against free
But the Court was sharply split on this decision. Justice Brennan’s railed against the majority
in his decent proclaiming:
As surprising as it
may be to individual Members of this Court, some parents may actually find Mr.
Carlin's unabashed attitude towards the seven “dirty words” healthy [ . . . ]
Such parents may constitute a minority of the American public, but the absence
of great numbers willing to exercise the right to raise their children in this
fashion does not alter the right's nature or its existence. Only the Court's
regrettable decision does that.
Both Justice Brennan and Carlin himself recognized that the
bit was about more than filthy words; it was a reflection on language,
obsessions with certain words, and our society’s sometimes unhealthy attitudes
on free speech and censorship. Carlin
taught us that “[There are] no bad words—bad thoughts, bad intentions...and
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