Sadly, one of our most brilliant and insightful comics has died. George Carlin, who dared to be political and outspoken in his scorn for the establishment, was also a looming media presence for most of his career. Carlin was one of those personalities who showed us where the invisible lines are drawn because, thankfully, he overstepped them routinely. Cultures need such characters to not only point out their flaws, but also to help induce change. They make us uncomfortable for good reason.
What I remember him for, here, is the part he played in helping to establish federal broadcast policy regarding indecent speech. His famous 7 Dirty Words broadcast on WBAI radio in New York City, which led ultimately to the Supreme Court case, Pacifica v. FCC, established community standards as the yardstick to measure the extent to which the federal government can sanction broadcast indecency, particularly during periods of time when children could be in the audience. Before Carlin dared to say what could not be said on TV and the radio, the FCC was able to fine stations for what it considered indecent speech, not taking into consideration what was and is acceptable in different parts of the country, and at different times during the day. It took someone to (boldly and offensively) start that conversation and bring about policy change that is still the legal blueprint used today for broadcast stations. Even though now we have content carried via cable and the Internet, both of which are outside the strict confines of the FCC’s content restrictions, broadcast television and radio remains a staple for millions of Americans. When we no longer have free over-the-air broadcasting, if that day ever comes, I wonder how a counterculture curmudgeon like Carlin will be able to wake all of us up—no matter our age, income, ethnicity or digital abilities–when we’ve gotten too sleepy?
–Katherine G. Fry