Were There Only 'Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television'?

July 21 marked the 40th anniversary of George Carlin’s arrest for performing “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” [audio from album here] at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Carlin was charged with violating obscenity laws, but the case was dismissed that December, with a ruling that his language was indecent, but not obscene. In 1973, spurred by a radio broadcast of Carlin’s material, a five-year battle of F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation ended with a Supreme Court ruling that the routine was “indecent but not obscene,” and that the FCC could require that indecent broadcasts air during hours when children were not likely to be listening (“safe harbor” hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.).  Carlin talks about how he came up with the brilliant monologue here.



Today, we open the doors to our Archive of American Television interview collection to see what various TV legends have said about their own experiences with TV censorship (interviews slightly edited for clarity).

Holocaust denial

Norman Felton, Producer  []

On Playhouse 90’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1959), the gas company was a sponsor and they said they would pull out if we used the word “gas” on the show. But telling the story of “Judgment at Nuremberg” and Holocaust without using the word “gas” seems ridiculous. The network said when they got close to airtime, “We can’t give up the gas company. We promised them that we’ll take out the word.” It was all live. … “They’re sending an engineer here and if the word is used we’ll bleep it.” That’s what happened. It was the worst thing for the gas company, which got the worst publicity it could possibly have when it came out that the word was bleeped out.


Throw the lay overboard

Dick Martin, Performer/Host  []

In the first “Laugh-In show, I think there were three pot jokes. [The network] had no idea. JoAnne Worley said, “a little pot was Tupperware for midgets.” They said, “Hold it!” We said, “What's the matter?” We always knew better than to say OK. “Tupperware is a plug.” We said Tupperware is not a plug -- they don't sell it in stores, they've got to have a party.” They said, “It's offensive to midgets.” So we got Billy Barty [an actor who was 3' 9"] to come over. And he said,  “That's a fun joke.” So we got away with it…. [Another time] I was with Goldie [Hawn] and I had Hawaiian shirts and leis. The ship captain said, “Well, folks, did you enjoy your stay?” I said, “We certainly did!” He said, “There is a custom here that as you leave Hawaii, you throw your lei overboard.” I picked Goldie up and threw her over the side. I don't know how it got through. But every script was just a fight.


Son of a bitch, she said it!

Norman Lear, Creator/Producer  []

We did a “Maude [1974] which had to do with the possibility of Walter's infidelity. We wrote with Maude looking at Walter and saying at the very end, “You son of a bitch,” and they embraced. [CBS head of Program Practices William] Tankersley said, “you're kidding about the last line, you can't use that language.”

 I said, “Bill, it's the only line we could think of that fit the situation that was as funny as it had every right to be and it was clearly something Maude would say. Nothing in the least gratuitous about it.”

After a considerable talk… I said, “if you can come up with a line for Maude, I don't even have to agree with you, but if you can look me in the eye and say, Norman, this is every bit as good as saying son of a bitch, every bit as right, as effective, I'll do it. But the condition is, that you have to look at me in all honesty and say. I think it's every bit as good, and I'll do it.”

He  called back a couple of days later and he says, “Son of a bitch, I can't think of anything - but you can't….”  I said, “Bill, I'm taking you at your word.”  The show went on the air, there wasn't one state that seceded from the union, there was no big deal, no fuss, it was dead-right. [See a portion of that episode here. The line is at the very end.]


No labia. No G-spot.

Alan Ball, Creator/Producer []

We did a really funny “Cybill” Valentine’s Day episode about how the heart is actually a symbol of labia, and if you turned it upside down…it was hilarious. We weren’t allowed to say “labia,” because I guess CBS felt it was too offensive, although people said “penis” all the time… I really thought, well, that’s bullshit. We had to cut some really funny stuff, just because at the time, it wasn’t appropriate for CBS. Later when I created my own show for ABC, which [was] kind of [a stupid frat-boy show, I had to fight to allow a character to say “G-spot.”  On “Grace Under Fire we did a story about a where Grace fell on some ice and she went to a chiropractor and we were not allowed to say what he did in any way, which I think had more to do with advertiser craziness.


What’s wrong with sex?

Alfred Schneider, Standards and Practices Executive

There was one scene in “Soap”, a feminist kind of scene where the women sat around the table talking about their sex -- much before “Sex and the City” -- and dealing [with] their enjoyment and pleasure. [Watch a clip here ] The editor felt it was inappropriate and eliminated some lines. [Creator] Susan Harris came in and said, "What's wrong with sex? If it was men sitting around the table you'd let them talk that way." And we did let that scene in. We had difficulties with some of the stations about it, but it played and it was the first time that the subject matter was dealt with that way….  So, the balance between permitting the creative community to do what they do best, keeping advertisers within the programs, keeping the affiliated stations accepting the program material, was the standards and practices balancing role that we exercised.


Lower, no, no, there, stop!

Tom Fontana, Writer/Producer []

On “St. Elsewhere,” we were dealing with things like mastectomies where the networks freaked out. We did an episode about testicular cancer, and the word "testicle” had never been said on television before, ever, in any form. You couldn’t use the euphemism…. We were like, “How does the doctor give the diagnosis if he can’t say ‘testicle’? What’s he going to do? ‘Just go, you know, down there, you know, no, no, lower, no, no, there, stop, stop!’”  So Bruce [Paltrow] went to bat and fought for that one. ….I think you have an obligation to get in trouble with the censors.


Just, do it.

Anne Beatts, Writer/Creator []

Censors at “Saturday Night Live” were always on the lookout for obscenity and dirty words. It seems very funny and antiquated now, but we had a big fight with them about the expression “do it.” They didn’t want us to say that, they wanted us to say “have sex with.” So you could say things like penis, but you couldn’t say schmuck. They were upset by slang expressions, That was very disturbing to them, so we had to fight to say “do it.”


Everybody wants to keep their FCC license

Jonathan Murray, Creator/Producer []

When the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident happened, there was a lot of attention on MTV, so we got some concerns about what we were showing and what we shouldn't show. “The Real World” is not an island, and depending on who's in Congress, who's in control, it can influence the decisions that are made. Everybody wants to keep their FCC license. And it's never to the point where we can't tell a story we want to tell… When you're dealing with a racial issue, can you use the “N-word”? Sometimes… we talk with MTV and we say, “OK, we'll use it the first time because we have to hear it in order to understand why it offended.”  And from then on, we just won't hear the word.  So there are those kinds of decisions that you have to make. 

Click here for more interviews on the topic of censorship.

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