George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (But You Can Say in English Class!)

A lot of you youngsters may not know about this, but comedian George Carlin debuted a brilliant routine about free speech and censorship in 1972.  It was called the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and you can see what they are in the meme above.  Like a lot of people my age, I was inspired by Carlin’s on-point social commentary about a lot of issues, and I used him and my musical idol Frank Zappa as inspiration for a speech I gave to my college English classmates at ASU a decade later in 1985.  Carlin was arrested for delivering these words in a comedic routine to an audience in my hometown of Milwaukee (how embarrassing for Milwaukee, imho!), and the case actually made its way to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1978 where the court ruled against Carlin, and the uptight crowd embarrassed itself yet again!  The topic of my speech was freedom versus censorship, and what more relevant issue could I possibly come up with for a college Public Speaking class?!  (And you know how I feel about freedom!)

In 1985, the idea of censorship again caught the public eye when a group called the Parents Music Resource Committee (PMRC) reared its ugly head.  It was led by Tipper Gore (congressman at the time Al Gore’s wife), and they actually held congressional hearings about rating so-called “obscene” records similar to the way movies were (and still are!) rated today.  Heavy metal was big at the time, and the religious poser types in Congress hated all that “satanic” crap about sex, drugs, and “the Devil,” and they didn’t seem to like Prince too much either.  Of course, my musical idol Frank Zappa was front and center at the congressional hearings speaking out against such anti-freedom foolishness, and that put the issue of freedom versus censorship on my radar as a particularly relevant topic for a speech I was assigned to give in my Public Speaking class at Arizona State.

One of the things you were graded on was your ability to come up with an attention-getting opening for your speech, and boy did I have the perfect one in mind—Hahahaha!!!  I must confess that I considered several possible openings before deciding on the one I really wanted to give.  On the one hand, a more perfect opening than Carlin’s “seven dirty words” could not possibly be had since his routine and story were quite well known in 1985, and it perfectly illustrated the theme of my speech. But on the other hand I had to consider whether I would flunk the speech, fail the class or suffer some other disciplinary action if the teacher didn’t like it.  The English teacher was an older dude, but he appeared pretty socially liberal to me, so being the WTF kind of guy I was, I decided to go for it.  After all, they were only seven words, and if you listen to the entire George Carlin routine, he actually defends the idea of verbal freedom quite well and makes censorship of mere words look pretty absurd.  So I already had a defense prepared should things go south with the teacher; and I knew that I was taking a bit of a chance, but I think you know by know that I’m pretty much wired that way!

The day of my speech arrived, and I was starting to feel pretty nervous (not about public speaking like most people, but about doing something banned by the U. S. Supreme Court in a college classroom instead of in a nightclub or a theater!)  I had actually written an alternate “wussy” opening in case I lost my stones at the last minute, so I could wait until I got up on the podium to decide.  A few speakers were scheduled before me, and as you might expect in an undergrad Public Speaking class which was required for all English majors, most of the kids dreaded public speaking, had no experience doing it, and just wanted to get their 6-8 minutes over and done with!  Consequently, the few speeches preceding mine were boring as hell in terms of both topics chosen and the utter lack of passion or interest that went into writing and delivering them.  In fact, they were so lackluster that half the class wasn’t even listening to the speakers and were staring down at their desks reading or writing something unrelated (we didn’t have cell phones then–Hahaha!  In spite of the fact that the speakers were pretty boring, there was something almost rude about ignoring them, and this just didn’t sit right with me.

I was becoming increasingly annoyed and said to myself a few minutes before my speech that I sure as hell wasn’t going to be ignored like that!  Unlike the English majors taking the class because it was required, I was a Journalism major and took the class as an elective because I actually enjoyed public speaking and thought it would be an easy A. I was on the debate team in high school, had been onstage many times in bands, and I had written what I thought was a pretty good speech on a topic I was quite passionate about (freedom versus censorship), and there was no fucking way I was going to let my fellow students just ignore me.  I don’t even care whether anyone agrees or disagrees, or loves or hates what I’m saying, but if I’m standing up there talking, I’m damned sure doing my best to not waste your time and make you want to listen!  And that was really the assignment anyway—To write and deliver an interesting speech that grabs the audience’s attention and interest.  So with all those thoughts congealing in my head, I took the podium, gave myself a few seconds to become annoyed at being ignored by my classmates, and said without any introduction or explanation: “SHIT, PISS, FUCK, CUNT, COCKSUCKER, MOTHERFUCKER, AND TITS.”  And I said it loud so that I made sure even the people at the back of the room heard it. 

There were about 30 students (and the teacher) in the classroom, and the gentle buzz of whispered conversations and rustling papers immediately gave way to dead silence as everyone looked up at me in utter disbelief.  I can still remember it to this day–The open-mouthed looks on the other students’ faces silently screamed: “DID HE REALLY JUST SAY THAT IN ENGLISH CLASS?” After an appropriate pregnant pause, I think my next line was something like: “Now that I’ve got everyone’s attention I’m going to talk about the important issue of free speech versus censorship, and I’m pretty sure you know which side of the issue I stand on.”  I smiled and got a few laughs on that line, and I can say with absolute certainty that the entire class listened to my entire speech and even applauded at the end—Hahaha!!!  I also remember concluding my speech by pointing out that even if some of the audience were offended by some of my language, their discomfort was a very minor thing when compared to the importance of a free flow of ideas and discussion in a free society! I also made the point that a college classroom was an ideal venue for the free flow of ideas so that we could all learn as much as possible.

I must admit I was concerned about what the teacher thought, and he was cool enough that he was smiling a bit and at the end of the speech jokingly pointed out that I had certainly gotten everyone’s attention!  And since I know you’re all wondering, I did get an A on the speech and an A in the class.  As I said in another essay: “No Guts, No Glory!” Unfortunately, I’ve heard from some friends that have kids in college now that things aren’t quite so free anymore. My speech likely would have emotionally “triggered” someone and violated the “safe zone” policy of universities, and I’d be lucky if I weren’t thrown out of school.

So much for the free flow of ideas and all that “old-fashioned” stuff, but it makes me more than grateful that I grew up in the freer era that I did and that the English teacher had the mindset that freedom was a higher value than “emotional safety” or whatever they call the anti-freedom mindset these days. I’m old but I have heard that modern wussies are called “snowflakes” these days because mere words cause them to melt. Apparently they were never taught the “sticks and stones” rule by their parents when they were about 4 or 5 years old. I’m quite grateful for that early life lesson too because if you go around worrying about what other people think and say all the time, you end up living a life of fear rather than freedom. And the ultimate irony is that most people don’t really care all that much what you say or do anyway. Be free…

8 thoughts on “George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (But You Can Say in English Class!)”

  1. Hahahah….I knew as soon as I started reading that you were gonna start your speech with the words- of course! ya had to get their attention….that is so you. I Love that about you. I fondly remember FZ putting Tipper in her place, I loved him more for that. It’s true he got no radio play( except for a few silly songs) – when Kathy Griffin got all that flak for the trump head thing, I thought FZ would come up for Reagan & the electric chair- nothing ….
    Sure wish there was a tape of your speech, I’m glad you shared with us. You are an inspiration!!!
    Love,
    P

    1. Ah, yes–It would have been interesting to have tapes and vids of all the stuff we used to do, but it’s probably a good thing we didn’t have that technology. I believe it actually changes behavior, and I might have wussed out had I been knowingly recorded!
      It is weird how FZ was largely ignored by all the snowflakes for his extremely edgy and over-the-top stuff, but he was just so musically avant-garde that he wasn’t on anyone’s radar. And “the children” didn’t listen to Frank, so they really didn’t think about him and went after the hack metal bands and Prince who were popular at the time…

      Love and music to you too!

      E

  2. Eric never showed any sign of shyness. I was 23 or so in a new town. Looking back I must have seemed pretty backwards.. I was trying to figure out how to get other humans to play my songs. “Turns out” everyone’s got a song. I showed up to an audition for a reggae band I really liked. They were playing some of the militant reggae that i aspired to .. But when i got to the audition, none of those rasta looking gentlemen where anywhere near the premises. I walked around the corner of a makeshift rehearsal/garage on the west. Owned by a beautiful man named Grantman, And I meet Eric. Eric, came dressed for the gig. We smoked a cig or two while the other new arrivals start trickling in. We spoke about Zappa and became instant friends. I had no idea what i was in for. Grantman wasn’t about the militant reggae i had been hoping to play. Nope. Grantman’s plan was and still is, to love everyone up, to the point where women basically melt in front of him. And some nights they did! I couldn’t tell you if it was magic or alcohol consumption. Truly i wouldn’t have known. Eric was the first person i saw talk up a woman in quite that way. Eric can talk up some women! And since Grantman was a married guy, there where plenty to talk up. If by chance Eric’s girlfriend showed up to a show? Then it would get really interesting.. For a backwards Ohio boy, well lets just say, I knew i wasn’t in Kansas anymore. At some point in the course of that band we had been soooo loved up that Eric began saying “jah love mother fucker”. It was the buzz phrase from that day on. Other interesting things about that band. The drummer that trickled in later is currently the drummer for The Gin Blossoms. Scott “Spotring” Hessle. There’s one more thing that happened that i don’t think anyone remembers. One night at a club called Charlie Browns, we were doing our usual reggae love fest. When who should approach the stage but none other than HR the lead singer from Bad Brains! If you know anything about punk music. You know HR is like, Oh I dont know, the Godfather of Punk Music! He would begin shows with a standing back flip.. On this night though, he just wanted to eat a few prawns and sit in with the band i guess.. It wasn’t to be.. No one recognized who this little guy was and Grantman said, ” OH NO my man, You cant come up here.” I thought that was pretty amazing at the time. Later though, it came to pass that HR would owe me money. And Eric still doesn’t know or care who HR is. lol

  3. Hey Man–Thanks so much for your kind words but I was never ALL THAT with the chicks at gigs! You were just a young dude from Bumfuck, Ohio who got married waaaaaaaaay to young and didn’t have any game at that point. (But you figured it out–Hahaha!)

    For the record, I made up the expression “Jah Love, Motherfucker!” (JLMF! for short) a few years prior after I observed a few white dudes in reggae bands who liked to put on the Rasta hat of “peace, love, ganja, and (insert all that Jamaican religious shit here”) while acting like low-rent shysters who couldn’t be trusted around your woman or your wallet because they liked to rip you off of small personal possessions when you weren’t looking. The bro American faux-“Rastas” from an American ‘hood would do the same of course, but it was even more absurd and comical coming from a half-bald suburban white dude with dreadlocks and no real job. I mean, c’mon–seriously?!!!!

  4. Haha, that’s awesome! Good for you. Did you and Amir ever talk about Frank Zappa? He loves him. And we especially love Jewish Princess, because, well, you know. 🙂

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