Comedian George Carlin always cheerily referred to himself as "a footnote in American legal history," and in the wake of his death from a heart attack Sunday night, he turned into the most frequently cited footnote since that infamous one in the Starr Report about Bill, Monica and cigars.
And about as difficult to write about in a family-friendly forum. For all the changes in the world since 1978, when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the FCC in fining a radio for broadcasting Carlin's poetically pottymouthed Seven Dirty Words routine, several of those words still make editors blanch and readers fire off smoking letters. Rarely can a single one of the seven be printed in a newspaper undisguised by asterisks or dashes.
That illustrates the paradoxical, lurching course of American culture over the past 30 years. What Carlin called "the seven words you can never say on television" — they all refer to sexual practices, body parts or things you do in the bathroom — are spoken in daily profusion on cable TV.
HBO's revisionist Western Deadwood featured such a deluge of the F-word that several Web sites began counting them. (The show averaged 1.56 utterances per minute over its three seasons.) Comedy Central's scabrously funny cartoon South Park saved viewers the trouble of waddling over to their computers; its episode "It Hits The Fan" kept a running counter in the corner of the screen toting up its use of the S-word — an Olympian 162 times in half an hour.
But even on the broadcast networks, the FCC's triumph over Carlin and the Los Angeles station that broadcast his routine initially seemed more a last stand than a sweeping victory. Within a couple of years of the Supreme Court's decision, a few of the seven words started popping up in prime time.
In 1990, researchers working on a study for the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media monitored 70 random prime-time hours on the broadcast nets and recorded three usages of one of Carlin's words. Four years later, repeating the experiment, they found nine instances in 86 hours. In the early years of Saturday Night Live, cast member Laraine Newman was forced to personally apologize to network censors for blurting out the phrase "pissed off" during a late-night skit; by 1989, the censors were routinely OK'ing prime-time NYPD Blue scripts including stuff like one character referring to another as a "pissy little bitch."
And yes, "piss" — excuse me, p*** — was one of Carlin's seven words. So, believe it or not, was tits, another word regularly used in scripted network programming. But the stronger ones have also made it to air. The F-word peppered both the 2002 CBS documentary 9/11 and ABC's 2004 telecast of Saving Private Ryan.
Even the word that's probably the Queen Mother of all obscenities, an unflattering reference to female nether regions, reached the air earlier this year when Jane Fonda used it on The Today Show. NBC apologized, to be sure, but the sky didn't fall.
If all this makes it sound as if Carlin lost the battle 30 years ago but won the war, don't be so sure. Even before Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl, public complaints to the FCC about broadcast indecency were jumping exponentially — from fewer than 14,000 in 2002 to nearly 170,000 in 2003. In the first half of 2006, the last statistics the FCC's beleaguered enforcement bureau has compiled, there were more than 327,000 complaints.
Hollywood folks often argue that the number of complaints is phony, inflated by clean-up-TV groups that post forms on their websites allowing members to lodge complaints with a few clicks on their keyboards. "You can trace almost all of those complaints to the Parents Television Council," producer and liberal activist Norman Lear told me a couple of years ago.
But that seems to me to be mixing up chickens and eggs. The PTC and groups like it exist because, like it or not, a lot of Americans think TV standards have slipped way too far. "How could an organization develop a public membership of 1.3 million with no marketing if it wasn't a grassroots movement?" wonders PTC President Tim Winter.
The FCC itself can't seem to make up its mind which way to go. Though the agency has been consistently tough on radio shock jocks like Howard Stern, its decisions on TV indecency have been all over the map. It ignored all those F-words in 9/11 and Saving Private Ryan, but then fined a PBS station (in the San Francisco Bay area!) for similar language in the documentary The Blues.
It ruled that F-words used by Cher and Nicole Richie on Fox telecasts of the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003 were indecent but "fleeting," so no fines were levied. But complaints about an F-word exclaimed by Bono during the televised 2003 Golden Globes were rejected because he used it as an adverb rather than a noun or a verb. (And you thought all that stuff in the fifth grade about grammar was useless.)
The FCC's indirection may be resolved this fall, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a lawsuit brought by the networks seeking to overturn the agency's finding of indecency in the Cher and Richie cases. The networks argue that the world has evolved since Carlin's run-in with the FCC, that the number of words you can't say on television is now zero. The FCC, joined by the Justice Department, argues that it still has the right to determine community standards on indecent language and enforce them.
Even veteran court-watchers refuse to venture a guess about which way the Supremes might go; some conservative justices, like Antonin Scalia, have a libertarian streak that sometimes confounds expectations in First Amendment cases. And some justices may wonder if modern technologies like cable TV and the Internet don't make regulating broadcast speech alone into something like trying to scoop up water with a fork.
Either way, it seems unlikely to quell a debate that has raged since Arthur Godfrey got into trouble for saying "hell" and "damn" on his CBS radio show in 1950. If polls are to be believed, then most Americans think there's too much sex and violence and filthy language on TV. If Nielsen ratings are to be believed, they're watching it anyway. At any given moment, half the people watching TV are tuned to the wild, woolly world of cable rather than the more protected broadcast networks.
Carlin once joked that "I don't know what's going on, and if I did, I wouldn't know what to do about it." That's a pretty good 18-word follow-up to the seven dirty ones.
Glenn Garvin is The Miami Herald's television critic.