From the Archive — George Carlin arrested at Milwaukee’s Summerfest

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It’s been ten years since George Carlin died, depriving the world of one of our most combative, stealthily insightful voices. And it was forty-six years ago on the day I post this — or re-post it, really — reflection on his notorious arrest at Milwaukee’s annual multi-day festival. When the offending performance occurred, Summerfest was early in its existence, and the delicate Midwestern sensibilities evidently weren’t quite ready for such vigorous profanity. I wrote this as part of the “Flashback Fridays” exercise I cooked up at my formal online home.

Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits. These seven words were identified by George Carlin as the ones that could never be said on television. There was no official edict from the Federal Communications Commission that Carlin drew upon to compile his list, nor any guiding memo from a network’s Standards and Practices department. Carlin made up the list himself, basing it on his own informed knowledge of what language set censors aquiver, which words never got an airing on broadcast stations.

That routine was part of Carlin’s set when he was booked as a performer at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, a lakefront showcase for bands and other performers then in its fifth year. These days, the comedians are given their own venue on the Summerfest grounds, but in 1972 Carlin was there to open for Arlo Guthrie. By most accounts, things already weren’t going that well by the time he reached his bit about the “bad words,” including extended explication of each member of the salty septet. Complaints were registered with the police officers patrolling the grounds, the preciousness of the previously unsullied ears of children evoked (even in 1972, several of those children undoubtedly had heard longer, harsher litanies of profane language whenever the Packers were losing). Carlin was arrested for disorderly conduct. Luckily for him, he’d gotten wind of it before it happened and ditched a stockpile of drugs in his possession before the officers came around with the cuffs. According to at least one individual offering some firsthand reporting, it was a busy night for Milwaukee’s finest (as opposed to Milwaukee’s Best) as they also hauled in several disgruntled Doors fans on the verge of riot when the the band’s set was cut short.

The arrest helped make “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” arguably Carlin’s most famous routine. It was the final track on his album Class Clown, which came out that fall, and immediately elevated his status as a burgeoning counter-culture icon. The incident was emblematic of the era as the authorities, previously dumbfounded by the surging claims on freedom and self-expression by the youth, decided that the best tactic was to push back hard. The fall would bring the reelection of the president as the silent majority made the nation’s transformation into Nixonland complete.

Carlin’s list of words would eventually find its way into the public record. His next record, 1973’s Operation: Foole, included a follow-up routine called “Filthy Words” which expanded upon the “Seven Words” bit. This was the track played on radio station WBAI resulting in the court case Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica, which led to the Supreme Court’s defining assertion that First Amendment rights don’t really apply to broadcasters. Carlin took pride in that, becoming, as he put it, “a kind of footnote in legal history.” The great observer of American culture wound up having a deep influence on it in a tricky, intricate, deeply embedded way. Or, again in his words, “It’s nice, because I’ve insinuated myself into the furniture of this culture, and I kind of like that.”

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