Jerry Seinfeld vs. George Carlin: The Case for Cursing in Comedy
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CONTENT WARNING: Because this story is about profanity in comedy, we will be using language that some may find offensive. If that’s you, here’s your chance to escape to a swear-free zone.
"I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. They're my work, they're my play, they're my passion. I like to think that yeah, the same words that hurt can heal, it's a matter of how you pick them.
There are some people that aren't into all the words. There are some that would have you not use certain words. There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are seven of them that you can't say on television. What a ratio that is!
399,993 … to seven. They must really be bad. They'd have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large.
All of you over here. You seven? Baaad words!"
Mic drop. With his Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television, George Carlin made the world safe for comedians to swear like sailors (apparently, that’s the branch of the military with the filthiest mouths).
Profanity and comedians have danced together for decades, but like a Footloose prom, dirty dancing invited damnation. Not that long ago, comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and even Carlin himself were arrested on obscenity charges, all for the crime of swearing during a comedy routine.
Go back a few years more. Show organizers gave comedians a blue envelope with a list of words and topics that were off-limits, according to Wayne Federman’s The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle. If you were a comic who didn’t edit out the offending material, you were edited out of the show. The blue envelopes are where the inside-comedy term “working blue” comes from.
Turn on most any Netflix special and you know that today, most comics work blue. The good news is Amy Schumer and Kevin Hart aren’t going to the pokey over dropping an F-bomb or two (hundred).
But just because today’s comedians can curse, should they? In other words, if we put morality and propriety aside, does cursing make comedy funnier? We’ll let the comics themselves make the arguments.
The Case Against Comedy Cursing
There’s an entire subculture of professional stand-ups who practice “clean comedy,” a brand of joke-telling that goes out of its way to avoid not only profanity but other topics that might be considered out of bounds for wholesome family fun.
Websites are devoted to booking comics who promise to keep it squeaky-clean. That makes sense if you’re in charge of entertainment for the dental hygienist convention, and you don’t want to lose your job over some stand-up riffing on varieties of prison sex.
Clean comedy has a reputation of being bland and watered down, a brand of humor practiced by the Morality Police. But a lot of mainstream comics have chosen to go the clean route as well -- not because they’re prudes but because they believe it makes the actual comedy better.
“It’s a style thing for me,” says Jerry Seinfeld, a comic who was known to drop a swear or two earlier in his career. “It’s not a question of not wanting to be offensive – it’s just my approach.”
But if he doesn’t have a problem with offending, why take all of the swearing out of his act all those years ago? “Even then bothered me because I felt like oh, I just got a laugh because I said ‘fuck’ in there,” Seinfeld told Marc Maron on his ironically titled podcast WTF. “That’s the only reason they laughed at that. It’s just you didn’t find the gold.”
“Personally, I’ve never done an outrageously raunchy joke onstage,” says Bob Newhart in his autobiography I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! “I just don’t feel comfortable with shock for shock’s sake. The trick is to come as close to that line as you can. That’s where the tension is.”
For Seinfeld, the math is simple: If a joke is solid, it should get a laugh without the F-word. If it doesn’t, then it’s the profanity that’s funny (or shocking or surprising), not the joke itself.
Jim Gaffigan, another comic who used to swear but now works clean, agrees with that equation. “When I did curse in my act,” he says, “it usually indicated that I wasn’t done writing the joke.
Get Seinfeld started on the subject and he can pull on his Old Man Cranky PantsTM. “I don’t like all the cursing in comedy,” Seinfeld told People. “It makes it too easy for the comedians. I think we should work harder.”
And for those who use profanity anyway? “Most of the time, when you hear the dirty words sprinkled in,” Seinfeld says, “it’s someone who’s lost and scared and uses swearing to save their tail.”
Gaffigan is less judgmental toward his colleagues “Comedians get way too much credit and way too much criticism for not cursing in their acts,” he says. “What, am I supposed to throw in an f-bomb when I’m talking about bacon? At the same time, David Cross shouldn’t get credit or criticism for swearing in his act. It’s just his style of comedy. It fits his personality.”
The Case for Comedy Cursing
George Carlin wasn’t necessarily an advocate for swearing in comedy. But he did want us to think about it, damn it!
He begins one stand-up routine by letting loose with a string of offensive terms -- not only curses but an equal opportunity onslaught of racial slurs and other expletives. After all, he argues, “there is nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves. They’re only words!”
“It’s the context that counts,” he continues. “It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent! I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit!”
That was the message of Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words routine, argues the Atlantic.
It was a rant against a controlling entertainment industry, but even more, it was aimed at “the sterile society that refused to rethink its own attitudes and values toward language.”
It’s the routine that got Carlin arrested in 1972 at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, although it wasn’t the first time he’d been thrown into jail for saying the wrong words. And if kids were in the audience? So be it, says Carlin. "I think children need to hear those words the most because as yet they don't have the hang-ups. It's adults who are locked into certain thought patterns,” he says. "I find it kind of funny to be hassled for using (“bad” words) when my intention is to free us from hassling people for using them."
Other comedians argue that cursing does improve comedy. "(George) kind of took the door that (Lenny) Bruce opened and basically put a door-jam in it," says comedian Lewis Black, a comedian heavily influenced by Carlin. "(Profanity) allows comedy to go further. For me, he provided a comfort zone."
Chris Rock splits the difference. In HBO’s roundtable "Talking Funny," he argues that cursing can work as decoration, but you still need walls to hold up the house. In other words, swearing can punctuate a joke but it still needs to work on its own merits.
Rock certainly isn’t shy about painting his patter with profanity. Does he go too far? Not according to Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker.
“On the HBO special ”Bigger & Blacker,” comedian Chris Rock phrases Freud’s famous complaint profanely — ”What the f— do women want?” — and proceeds to answer it with typically outrageous bluntness I won’t (and can’t) quote here,” he says. “Did the F-word need to enter his question? I believe it did: It carries all the anger and frustration Rock feels toward the riddle of womanhood, expressed with comic concision and suggesting the degree of anger he sometimes feels about the subject.”
“Profanity definitely has legitimate uses, especially in comedy,” Tucker concludes. “If used in combination with solid ideas and punchlines, it’s more than just shock-value punctuation.”
Ken Jennings, author of Planet Funny, takes exception to Seinfeld’s argument that swearing is “a crutch, it makes it too easy to get flat material over.”
Jennings points to the moment in Seinfeld’s career when he stopped cursing. It was a bit about the George Reeves Superman TV show. (In case you haven’t heard, Seinfeld is a fan.)
The joke went like this: “The Daily Planet, supposedly the largest-circulation newspaper in the entire city, they got three reporters. And each week two of them are stuck in a cave!” Supposedly, Seinfeld only got laughs when he added, “Two of them are stuck in a fucking cave!”
“Personally, I never bought into the comedy principle behind this objection,” says Jennings. “There are lots of phrasing changes you could make to a punch line to help put it across. Why is this particular kind a cheat?”
That seems like an argument Seinfeld could get behind. In a New York Times video profile, Seinfeld explains his joke-writing process, which includes an obsession with finding exactly the right words for maximum hilarity. In his analysis of his bit on Pop-Tarts, he recounts coming up with this line:
“The Pop-Tart suddenly appeared in the super-market. And we just stared at it like an alien spacecraft. And we were like chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.”
Chimps. Dirt. Playing. Sticks. Seven words and four are funny, says Seinfeld. He especially likes chimps.
Word choice is crucial, Seinfeld argues. “If it’s just a split second too long, you’ll shave letters off words. It’s more like songwriting.”
If that’s the case, then why would Jerry eliminate seven dirty crayons from his comedy color box? Like “chimps,” is the F-word just funny? Jennings’ argument is compelling: He’s not saying comedians have to swear to be funny, but if a curse word makes it funnier -- well, isn’t that the point?
Their different takes on profanity make the stand-up acts of Carlin and Seinfeld seem different on the surface, but both men have an intense love of language -- its strangeness and hypocrisies, the ways in which words can be manipulated, the mysterious algorithms that make a specific combination of sounds achieve laughter.
Which doesn’t answer the question: Is profanity funny?
When George’s Seven Words routine just broke through, his mother came to see his show, remembers Tony Hendra, co-writer of Carlin’s autobiography Last Words. His mother reacted the way your mother would probably react -- she was mortified. Soon after, she ran into some local nuns, who told her “Isn't it great about George? You know, he's so famous now and doing all this wonderful stuff.” His mother replied that the fame part was great, but isn't it terrible, these things he's saying?
“And the nuns said: But no, you don't understand. He's talking about hypocrisy, and you know, this is such a great routine because it really explores what language means to us.”
“And his mother was absolutely delighted,” says Hendra, “because now she had the imprimatur of the Catholic Church on The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”
As Carlin says, “it’s the context that counts.”
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Top image: Carlin Productions, Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon