On his seminal comedy album Class Clown
, the late great George Carlin
observed that there were exactly seven (later upgraded to ten, later upgraded to over 200) words you could never say on (American) television. Over 35 years later, his Seven Dirty Words
are still the best and most famous encapsulation of the bizarre censorship standards that exist in American television.
Modern American network television is notoriously rife with violence, sexual situations, and other unpleasantness that would not be seen in most countries. But American TV is also notoriously priggish when it comes to language and social mores. American broadcasters avoided broadcasting mundanities like toilets, pregnancy, and two-person beds until the 1960s, or even later.
It is against this backdrop — priggishness way beyond cultural norms, at a time where American society was openly questioning authority — that Carlin's little list caused such a furor.
In 1972, Carlin was arrested merely for performing his Seven Dirty Words
routine in public. At the time, many places had laws against public obscenity and indecency, which local Moral Guardians
gladly enforced. But in the climate of the times, such arguments found their way to higher courts, who found the concept of obscenity notoriously difficult to define.
A year later, a New York City radio station (WBAI-FM) played a different iteration of the Seven Dirty Words
bit, uncensored. A man driving in the car with his young son complained to the Federal Communications Commission
that his son had to be exposed to such filth. When the legal dust settled, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Seven Dirty Words
might be acceptable for broadcast under circumstances, but that the FCC had the right to restrict broadcast content at times when children might be exposed to it. But they weren't exactly specific about any of it.
With no real definition of what is or isn't obscene, pushing the envelope in American network television has mostly been a game of "try it and see if you get away with it
." The FCC has the right to grant and revoke broadcast licenses, so they wield considerable power. For this reason, American broadcasters err very heavily on the side of not pissing off the FCC. Especially after that whole Janet Jackson boob thing
, which saw unprecedented complaints, litigation, fines, and stricter new rules.
However, the FCC's process is quite opaque. For one thing, they generally do not monitor broadcasts on their own; action is initiated because of viewer or listener complaints. If the audience prefers coarser material, the broadcaster can get away with just about anything. The context of the offensive word is also important; somebody using the word as an exclamation or generic descriptor ("Holy shit!" or "What is this shit?") generally earns less punishment than a description of sexual acts or bodily fluids ("Your dog took a shit on my lawn.") However, none of this is guaranteed, and can be easily swayed by public opinion or industry influence.
So how do the Seven Dirty Words
hold up against modern standards? (Especially since you can say shit and fuck in a British eulogy!
The FCC has established a "safe harbor" of midnight to 6am. A broadcast station, if it could get the rights to do so, could run the unedited version of Scarface
at 3 in the morning, up to and including Elvira's complaint, "Can't you stop saying 'fuck' all the time?" without being subject to penalties. During the rest of the time, whether they can run a particular vulgar word depends on why it is is happening, the context and the time of day that it is shown. A judge on a three-judge panel overhearing the Fox Network's appeal of an FCC ruling, sardonically questioned the government's lawyer, by saying, "So while a television station normally wouldn't be able to use this sort of word during the day time, it would be legal if one of them ran an unedited news report at 8 AM where a federal judge said 'fuck' from the bench to a lawyer?" and the government's lawyer more-or-less reluctantly agreed.
- Shit - NYPD Blue, a show long known for pushing boundaries, announced that it would air the first uncensored instance of the word "shit" on network television. The furor was fairly small, but the idea was viciously mocked in an episode of South Park. In "It Hits The Fan", the word "shit" was said 165 times, and an on-screen counter was featured. (It should be noted that Comedy Central is a cable channel, and isn't under the thumb of the FCC. They now say "shit" pretty regularly on that channel.)
- This is not exactly accurate, as CBS, more than a decade earlier, announced it would leave two uses of the word "bullshit" intact when it ran the movie Network.
- Piss - It's hard to tell when exactly it started, but this word is perfectly acceptable on TV now and has dropped all the way down to the PG tier, at least in a figure of speech ("piss[ed] off", meaning annoy[ed]). George Carlin himself, in later life, pointed out in at least one interview that the acceptability of "piss" is generally a question of whether or not it is an actual reference to urine — "I got pissed off" is far less likely to get bleeped than "I got pissed on".
- Fuck - Still strictly verboten in American television. Bono said it at the 2003 Golden Globe awards. The FCC originally found it not to be indecent in this context. Then they changed their minds. We await further clarification. We are not holding our breath. Hence the existence of Frak, Rut, Frell, and Belgium.
- However, on September 11, 2001, some of the networks aired amateur footage of the World Trade Center attacks with the F-bombs intact (Dan Rather even apologized for a few of them), and the FCC didn't do anything. Later on, when CBS aired the Naudet Brothers' 9/11 documentary, they were (somewhat controversially) allowed to leave the F-bombs intact.
- Cunt - The odd one out. A Word You Still Can't Say On Television, and the only one of the seven which may be considered more offensive now than when Carlin did the original routine. Not only forbidden in American television, but in almost all conversation. Considered extremely vulgar and sexist in America, even though it is used more as a unisex term of offense outside of the USA and Canada. Both Moral Guardians and Political Correctness Gone Mad agree this word is offensive, so it is likely to remain so.
- Cocksucker - While "suck" and other forms are widely used even in G-rated media, and "cock" is acceptable if you're talking about chickens, "cocksucker" is still largely banned. If you want to know for certain, watch a non-HBO rebroadcast of the movie Bull Durham; there is a scene that depends upon the word.
- Motherfucker - See "fuck." A fan pointed out to Carlin that the word was redundant, but Carlin kept it in because removing it disrupted the rhythm of the piece.
- Tits - Like "piss", it probably crept in at some point, but there are still places that will censor it. It was deleted, for example, from Grease in the scene where the T-Birds are mocking the cheerleaders.
Later in the 1970s, Carlin added three auxiliary words to the list:
- Fart - This one has changed significantly. At the time, Carlin observed that not only was the word "fart" forbidden, but you weren't allowed to reference the act. Nowadays, fart humor is a staple of comedy shows of all types.
- Turd - Carlin said it best: "You can't say 'turd' on television, but who wants to?" It's used for toilet humor, which is currently accepted and common in PG-rated works that cannot use "shit" freely.
- Twat - Like "cunt", but a little milder. In Britain, it can also mean to hit or strike something, as in "Twat him in the face, Steve!" or a person who is generally extremely stupid, as in "You are such a twat, Steve!"
Are there any words not on Carlin's 1972 list that can't be said on American television in 2008? Lots of them. So if you think about it for a moment, these aren't seven dirty words at all
. "Goddamn", "dick" (at least when used to refer to a penis), and "asshole" are usually out and always have been (although "dick" has seen increased use on network comedies and dramas to refer to unpleasant persons, and "asshole" is also allowed, to an extremely limited extent, on a few network dramas).
A rather humorous incident occurred when a live program allowed a person to refer to the former Vice President as Dick Cheney, but then bleeped the speaker when they referred to someone else as a dick.
It's interesting to note that "goddamn" and "asshole" are usually censored as "---damn" and "ass---- "
. Yes, "God" and "hole" are bleeped out*
"Blowjob" and "handjob" are also reduced to "*** job." "Douchebag" was, until recently, fairly unheard of on broadcast stations (although "douche" and "d-bag" were allowed). Shows such as 30 Rock
have recently begun to use the word to a limited extent, although it is still far from commonplace.
- Something that makes it kind of hard to discern between them, "*** " and "*** " both being four letter words and all.
Racial and ethnic humor, a staple of 1970s television, is now avoided
. It would be impossible to air fully half of this sketch
from the first season of Saturday Night Live
in 1975. You could probably make a new list from all the ethnic slurs that were once permitted in American television, but aren't any more. In fact, if you were a visionary comedian, you could probably make a very funny bit out of it.note
- Amusingly enough, in a number of broadcasts of The Wall on American networks, the two words censored in "In the Flesh" (the second one) are "coon" (slur) and "Jewish." Now, think about that for a moment
Live events, to avoid these and other dirty words, often refer to a seven second delay; an athlete, say, will say something, and seven seconds later it actually hits the air, giving the networks time to modify the transmission. Note that live events are NOT immune to the dirty words; ask Dale Earnhardt Jr, who walked away from a race with a few less points and a few less thousand dollars after commenting that his win didn't 'mean shit'. The penalties were obviously levied by NASCAR, not the FCC, but would NASCAR have done it without someone else's suggestion on what's dirty?
Media That Have Referenced The Seven Dirty Words:
- The Simpsons comic book in one issue showed a weary George Carlin talking about "The Seven Words You Used to Not Be Able to Say on TV But Are Perfectly Alright Now."
- In Sam & Max Season 2, you can actually change the "seven words you can't say on television" to Items on a Grocery list. (Cantaloupe, Melons, Chicken Breasts, Oregano Vanilla and Soda)
- On Radio Caroline's 1977 New Year show, Dutch DJ Marc Jacobs responded to a ribbing by another DJ with the words "You motherfucker!" Jacobs later apologised on air, but since Caroline was a pirate station there were no official reprisals.
- Spongebob Squarepants, "Sailor Mouth":
Mr. Krabs: Yessir, that is bad word number 11. In fact, there are 13 bad words you should never use.
Squidward: Don't you mean there are only seven?
Mr. Krabs: Not if you're a sailor.
- The concept of censorship itself is also played with later in the episode-throughout the episode, instead of actual swears, we hear any of thirteen different sound effects, depending on which swear is being used (this is important). Later in the episode, after being soundly scolded by Mr. Krabs' dear old mum and forced to paint her house in order to atone for their sins, Mrs. Krabs stubs her pegleg and emits the sound of an old automobile horn. Mr. Krabs, shocked, cries, "Mother!" Whereupon Mrs. Krabs says, "What? It's Old Man Jenkins in his jalopy!" (Now just think about that for a minute or two)
- The Simpsons
- After Kent Brockman was fired for saying "a word so vile it should only be uttered by Satan himself while sitting on the toilet", Grandpa remarks that in his day TV celebrities weren't allowed to say "booby", "tushy", "burp", "fanny-burp"note , "underpants", "dingle-dangle", "Boston marriage", "LBJ", "Titicaca", or "frontlumps".
- In the episode where Bart and Nelson go to war, Grampa is seen writing a letter about "words that shouldn't be used on TV", one of them (Family Jewels) turns out to be an example of Strange Minds Think Alike, as it was used a scene earlier.
- From the episode "Mr. Spritz Goes To Washington":
Krusty: I could even tell the FCC to take a hike. Look at this list of words they won't let me say on the air. (hands Bart a piece of paper)
Bart: Aww! All the good ones. Hmm, I never even heard of number nine.
Krusty: That's 2-ing 13 while she's 11-ing your 5.
Bart: Can I keep this?
Krusty: Sure, no 12 off my ass.
- In yet another episode, Krusty is banned from television for ten years for saying the word "pants" on the air during the fifties. The word "pants" was, in fact, considered a dirty word at one time, though this was in the 19th century rather than in the 1950s. For that it would seem perfectly normal to still be an issue in Springfield, since they burn people at the stake for science. They move at a slower rate than the rest of the world.
- Krusty seems to like this one. From yet another episode:
Assistant: George Carlin on the line.
Krusty: Yeah? Lawsuit? Oh, come on. My "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" bit was entirely different from your "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" bit.
- And then there's Kent Brockman in a (supposedly) live newscast:
Kent: How can I prove we're live? Penis!
- South Park: In the aforementioned "It Hits The Fan", the verboten words are revealed to represent a literal curse, each one associated with a dragon, and defended by the Knights of Standards and Practices. One of the less-well known dirty words is "Mee Krob", a Thai noodle dish.
- The Animaniacs song about Lake Titicaca ends with the Warners stating their love of saying that word...think about it for a minute, por favor.
Oh Lake Titicaca, yes Lake Titicaca
Why do we sing of its fame?
Lake Titicaca, yes Lake Titicaca
'Cause we really like saying its name!
- In Bruce Almighty, the eponymous Bruce is trying to convince his ex to come back to him, and has the following conversation:
Bruce: Would it help if I said I was being a complete ass?
Nearby Child:You said ass!
Bruce: It's okay if I'm talkin' about a donkey.
- But then he goes and ruins it.
Bruce: ...If I said "hole", as in assHO-
Grace: (cutting him off) OKAY!
- When The Simpsons Movie is broadcast on television, Marge's line "Somebody throw the Goddamn bomb!" is censored to a varying degree, depending on the network: some cut the "God" part, others delete the swear entirely.
Media That Have Referenced American TV Censorship Standards In General
- The South Park feature film, Bigger, Longer & Uncut, brutally savaged the MPAA's rules for industry censorship as the driving force for the main story arc.
- In fact, the subtitle was original something more tame but less subtle. Censors got on their asses about it and they responded as you might expect Trey Parker and Matt Stone would.
- One Story Arc in Bloom County referred to finding the word "snugglebunnies" as offensive. A strip in this arc had Milo and Binkley, upon notification, yelling "SNUGGLEBUNNIES!" repeatedly until being cut off mid-word. And mid-panel; the fourth panel was blank, presumably because the strip was cut off.
- The Angry Video Game Nerd: The "TV version" gag during his Action 52 review:
Whoever came up with this is an ass[bleep]
...Hole? — ASS[bleep]!
...Television makes a whole lot
- The Family Guy episode "PTV" blasted the FCC with both barrels, portraying them as going so far as to censor real life.
- On Moral Orel Frances Clara Censordoll's name and character are a Take That at the FCC. She is a selfish Manipulative Bastard Moral Guardian with a god complex.
- Most of the time South Park attempts to take on the Muhammad representation controversy, they get shut up by the network, a fact that the show has picked up on.
- After the network censored one episode, they decided to show how screwy the censorship is by testing what exactly the network thought was "too much". Apparently Muhammad and an aesop about intimidation and fear (which didn't even mention Muhammad) isn't ok, but a mentally handicapped kid getting raped by a shark is.
- Recess, in the episode "The Story of 'Whomps'" dealt with a made-up word ("Whomps") which was deemed offensive by the adults.
- Eric Idle wrote a song about the FCC after he was fined for swearing. 
- The chorus of Aerosmith's "Just Push Play" has the phrase "fuckin' A" deliberately muted, the next line rationalizing that "they're gonna bleep it anyway". Subverted in the last verse, where it's uncensored. Double Subverted when it was released as a single with a completely rewritten chorus, with no "fuckin' A", censored or not.
- In addition to his I Bet You They Won't Play This Song On The Radio, a parody on the use of random sounds to beep out swear words.
"Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, fart, turd and twat."
— George Carlin, a little bit later.