George Carlin Dies at 71

Comedian’s ‘Seven Words’ Routine Remains Touchstone of Current Broadcast-Indecency Debate

George Carlin, the countercultural comedian whose routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” remains a touchstone in the ongoing debate over broadcast indecency, died of heart failure Sunday, according to published reports. He was 71.

George Carlin

Carlin's stand-up comedy routines -- the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, baseball vs. football -- had become TV staples by Octoboer 1973, when Carlin traded his suit and tie for tie-dyed shirts and a ponytail. That was the year his "filthy words" comedy routine put him center stage in the issue of broadcast-content regulation.

Carlin was also the first host of NBC's Saturday Night Live.

It was Carlin’s Seven Words routine, from his Occupation Foole album -- a meditation on certain words that can be alternately acceptable or offensive, depending on their context -- that touched off a regulatory debate in the 1970s when the New York radio station WBAI broadcast it the following year.

The Federal Communications Commission fined the station and, in 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation (the station’s owner) that the broadcast was “indecent” and that FCC had the authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be in the audience.

The Pacifica case was at issue as recently as Friday, when ABC and its affiliates challenged the FCC fine for a 2003 broadcast of NYPD Blue.

Carlin also recently was named to pick up the Mark Twain prize for humor from the Kennedy Center. The award was to be given out Nov. 10.