Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: A Bit of Comedy History

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If you’ve spent a lot of time at Montreal comedy shows, you’ve probably heard some jokes that you felt were a bit over the top. After all, one of the great things about the art of comedy is providing social commentary through pushing boundaries and – sometimes – stepping over lines. While comedy clubs in Montreal may not be on the news often, every now and then a comedic performance has ripple effects throughout society. Such was the case with George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

Who Was George Carlin?

Many fans of comedy are quite familiar with George Carlin. However, those new to standup comedy may not recognize the name. Carlin was an American standup comic from the 50s until his death in 2008 at 71 years of age.

George Carlin first became nationally popular through his work on The Tonight Show. He was a frequent guest of host Johnny Carson for nearly three decades. He is also well known as the host of the first episode of Saturday Night Live. Throughout his career, Carlin has 14 standup comedy specials. He is frequently recognized as one of the top comedians in history.

His genre of comedy focused heavily on reflections on sociological, cultural, and political events. He often talked about topics seen as quite taboo for the time, routinely pushing the boundaries of comedy with his dark humour.

What was “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television?”

Carlin’s most famous – or, for some people, infamous – a bit of comedy was titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” This skit was first recorded in Santa Monica, California, in 1972 for his album, Class Clown.

The skit included a lot of wordplay, another common aspect of Carlin’s comedy, focused on seven specific words that were considered too profane for television. For the sake of décor, we will refrain from listing the words here. However, if you are curious, you can easily find them – and the routine – online.

Over the course of the routine, Carlin says these seven words quite a bit. The skit seeks to help normalize “dirty” words by making fun of the English language and how some things are considered offensive while seemingly similar things are seen as normal. This often included examples of intricacies and weird aspects of language.

This bit often begins, “There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are 7 of them that you can’t say on television …  399,993 to 7. They must be really bad.”

“Seven Words” and Carlin’s Arrest

As could be expected, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” led to quite the controversy for Carlin on several occasions. One such occasion occurred during Carlin’s performance at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in 1972. Carlin was picked as the opener for musician Arlo Guthrie at the festival which is billed as a family-friendly event.

After Carlin launched into the bit, local police received many complaints regarding the vulgarity, primarily coming from parents who attended the show with their children. After Carlin departed the stage, he was arrested by local law enforcement and charged with disorderly conduct.

A few days later, the charges were dismissed by a Milwaukee judge. The reasoning behind the dismissal was that Carlin’s act, while described by the judge as “indecent,” fit within the confines of the right to free speech and did not cause a disturbance. This event further launched the profile of Carlin as a top comedian.

Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: A Bit of Comedy History

1972: Comedian George Carlin is led away by Milwaukee police after being arrested for his performance of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”
(Source: Milwaukee Journal sentinel Files)

“Seven Words” and the Federal Communications Commission

The year after the Milwaukee incident, Carlin once again found himself at the center of a legal controversy regarding his “Seven Words” bit. This time, the routine ran afoul of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is a U.S. government agency that regulates communications across television, radio, and other platforms including what is considered decent versus not.

Carlin’s routine was broadcast on radio station WBAI-FM following a warning for offensive language. The routine played was not the full “Seven Words” skit but rather a similar one entitled “Filthy Words.” An executive of television station CBS was listening alongside his teenage son that evening. This person also was part of a watchdog group called Morality in Media, who filed a complaint with the FCC regarding the broadcast.

The FCC ruled that the broadcast was indecent, threatening sanctions on the company that owned the radio station. This led to a lawsuit that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court who ruled 5-4 that the FCC has the power to create language guidelines for broadcasts. This case was the first in a number of times that this doctrine would be challenged.

The FCC’s power was challenged again in 2009, this time by Fox Television Stations. In 2012, Fox won their case on a technicality, leaving the earlier decision as precedent. Today, the FCC maintains the power to determine what is considered decent for broadcast on various forms of media, although their standards have obviously been revised often as culture shifts. Still, it was Carlin’s “Seven Words” routine that served as the catalyst for the FCC v. Pacifica decision.

The Legacy of George Carlin

While “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” remains Carlin’s most well-known comedic routine, his career is filled with hilarious and thought-provoking observations. Fans of comedy who are not familiar with Carlin’s work can always check out his material on their favourite streaming services.

While there is no other George Carlin, you can certainly see many comics who strive to push boundaries in social commentary during our great Montreal comedy shows. View our shows here. If you are a fan of Carlin’s style of comedy, you may love our weekly late-night comedy shows in downtown Montreal. We look forward to welcoming you and leaving you laughing.


Post by Eddie Case, exclusively for, All rights reserved.
Comedyville is a Comedy Club located in Downtown Montreal. 

One Response to “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: A Bit of Comedy History

  • Hello from Florida (as a youngster) by way of North Carolina (as a retiree). Big fan of George Carlin. Hear most of my life about Montreal shows, including the jazz. Keep it up. If I ever have the resources perhaps will visit.

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