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.
That swats the ball over to Peter Kaminsky, executive producer of the Twain TV special for WETA (Channel 26). Kaminsky confirms that it was his production team's idea to show a bleeped version of Carlin's routine.
But it wasn't a question of propriety, he said; it was a question of humor: "The Kennedy Center didn't tell us to take anything out. We just thought it was funnier that way," he said. "It got a laugh from the audience. You know, hearing all those beeps, one after the other -- beepbeepbeep -- that was kind of funny."
So it was irony on top of irony? The concept being that you're calling attention to the scrubbing of language in a monologue about the scrubbing of language?
Something like that, offered Kaminsky, a former editor of the National Lampoon, which was never shy about using words that might have qualified for Carlin's list.
"We knew that it would have to be [bleeped eventually] to be seen on TV," he said. "We also knew that if we encouraged too much profanity on the show, people would be talking about profanity and not about all the great things that George Carlin did -- his appreciation of language, his physical comedy, his commentary on issues large and small."
Kaminsky said the presenters weren't absolutely forbidden to swear, "but we didn't want a profane run to things. We said: 'Keep it within bounds.' "
Several particularly pungent words, in fact, were written into the show's script. And few flinched when such presenters as Joan Rivers ad-libbed a few more.
Kaminsky and his fellow producers came another few steps up to the line by including a segment from Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," in which host Stephen Colbert mentioned Carlin's passing and the seven-words routine. While Colbert never actually says those particular words, they do appear next to him on-screen, spelled out with strategically placed asterisks (example: "t*ts" ) that leave little to the imagination.
(Just for the record, washingtonpost.com expunged Jon Stewart's enthusiastic and repeated use of one of the words in a news video of the presenters' arrival at the Kennedy Center).
All in all, "George would have gotten a laugh out of the whole thing," said Jeff Abraham, Carlin's longtime publicist.
Abraham says Carlin was keenly aware of the delicate nature of the "Seven Words" bit, especially when it came to airing it on TV. Whenever TV producers asked for a tape of the routine, Carlin gave them an authorized copy with the edits already made, Abraham said.
"He never allowed his material to be bleeped" by others, he said. "He put them in before anyone did. He knew that if you put in a bleep arbitrarily, you could make it seem dirtier."
Which calls to mind something else Carlin once said: "People who say they don't care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don't care what people think."