The Irony of George Carlin Being Bleeped, Posthumously, at Award Ceremony

Twain Prize producers thought bleeping the late George Carlin's words would be "funnier."
Twain Prize producers thought bleeping the late George Carlin's words would be "funnier." (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" was so far ahead of its time -- or maybe just so plain profane -- in 1972 that you still can't utter the Big Seven on prime-time broadcast television, or read them in a fine upstanding newspaper such as this one.

And as it happens, you can't necessarily hear them at the Kennedy Center, either.

The center, which programs many high-minded acts and shows, has no specific prohibition on profanity or nudity, and has occasionally hosted events that have had both. In recent years, it staged "The Canterbury Tales" and a festival of Japanese arts, for example, that included flashes of male and female nudity.

"We do not censor the art on our stages," spokesman John Dow says.

People who attended the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony this week, however, got a bleepin' earful when a clip was shown of Carlin, the night's posthumous honoree, doing the "Seven Words" routine. But in place of the those words -- which Carlin famously described as the ones that will "infect your soul, curve your spine and lose the war for the Allies" -- came . . . bleeps. Lots and lots of bleeps -- a veritable censorious symphony of them.

TV and radio stations can be fined by the FCC for broadcasting "indecent" language, the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 in a case that centered on a broadcast of "Seven Words." Which is why some of the words spoken at the Kennedy Center ceremony Monday will be missing from the audio when PBS stations air the tribute in April.

But since the rules don't apply to live performances, why the bleeps at the Kennedy Center? Was this an outbreak of the sort of fussy propriety and uptight double-standard about language that Carlin was satirizing with "Seven Words"?

That's certainly how some saw it.

Comedian Lewis Black, who fulminates about many things, seemed barely able to contain himself as he took the stage to laud Carlin. "And I was going to try to not be irritated tonight," he sputtered. "To bleep it on TV, I kind of get. But here?"

(The incident might have some personal overtones for Black. In one of his HBO comedy specials, he contended that the Kennedy Center declined to rent one of its theaters for his show because he'd dropped [word that rhymes with "buck"] 42 times in an earlier special. The Kennedy Center, however, says it couldn't reach a deal with Black, but not because of any content concerns).

Ronald K.L. Collins, a First Amendment scholar who attended Monday's ceremony, said he found the sanitizing of Carlin's routine "so outrageous as to amount to a defamation of the memory of one of America's greatest social comics." Collins, who interviewed Carlin several years ago for his book about Lenny Bruce's censorship battles, said the incident "might have been funny if it were not so pathetic."

"As for clipping the Carlin clip, the decision "was made by the television producers in anticipation" of the TV broadcast, Dow said.

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