It wasn't very long ago that George Carlin, who died on June 22, graced the pages of Westword. A piece with the now-ironic headline "Carlin Continues" appeared in the paper's April 3 issue in connection to an appearance at the Buell Theatre to benefit Channel 12, which issued a press release after news of his passing broke. (The release is reproduced at the bottom of this post.) As for the first mention of Carlin in Westword, it dates back thirty years, to the very beginnings of the publication -- an indication of his comic and cultural influence.
The initial article, "Those Seven Filthy Words" by Tobi Kanter, which saw publication on July 21, 1978, dealt with a Supreme Court decision about a Carlin routine based on seven dirty words that couldn't be used on television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. The Court ruled that the FCC had the right to fine WBAI, a Pacifica station based in New York, that broadcast a Carlin monologue, and supported similar censure during times when children were likely to be in the audience.
This conclusion caused concerns among broadcasters and free-speech advocates around the country, including John Stark, then the program director for Boulder's KGNU. Here's what he told Kanter:
"During the past year, there has been a relative period of freedom since the Court of Appeals overturned the FCC's ruling. We've only been on the air for two months of that period, and we have exercised our freedom. With the new Supreme Court ruling, it may hinder our efforts to provide the Boulder County community with controversial programming.
"We've never broadcast obscene programs. We have, however, broadcast programs that contain language which the Supreme Court apparently considers offensive. When airing programs that contain these little nasties, we always have preceded the programs with language advisories as a courtesy to our audience. These advisories state something to the effect: 'The following program may contain language which is objectionable to some people in our listening audience. If you believe that you may be offended by common Anglo Saxonisms, also known as filthy language, please tune away from KGNU for the next (period of time).' I believe that this procedure is sufficient.
"This may effect our commitment to do controversial and real programming. 'Cause we can't have people openly express themselves on the radio. They will have to respond in a guarded manner. It will perhaps limit our ability to present certain programs during hours when people are awake. If we slip up and don't thoroughly audition a tape, it could cost someone two years and $10,000... which is ridiculous."
Little has changed in the three decades since then. In fact, virtually all of the mainstream news coverage of Carlin's passing has avoided specific mention of those seven words -- acts of coyness that certainly would have amused the man himself. Nice to think that wherever he is right now, he's laughing. -- Michael Roberts
Channel 12 press release:
DENVER – June 23, 2008 – KBDI-TV deeply mourns the passing of comedian George Carlin.
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Carlin, who died yesterday, had an ongoing relationship with KBDI, Channel 12, performing in eight benefit concerts since 1994. The last Carlin concert for KBDI was on April 12 of this year.
Carlin performed shows for large promoters throughout the country. But in Denver he instead chose to support KBDI Colorado Public Television exclusively.
“It’s not about the money,” Carlin explained to KBDI staff member Roth. “It is about loyalty, making the right choices and helping support an organization that truly makes a difference.”
“George Carlin reflected KBDI’s deep commitment to freedom of speech,” Wick Rowland, KBDI general manager, said. “He had an unwavering, clear-eyed capacity through comedy to see the truth and bravely share his insight.”