There aren’t many comedians whose stand-up specials prompt a whole U.S. Supreme Court case, so George Carlin was just special in that regard. Known for his dark sense of humor, Carlin was a controversial funnyman throughout his whole career, but it wasn’t until the 1970s and his “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine —which lists off “the seven words you can never say on television”—that he really became historic and, more or less, changed the entire landscape of broadcast radio and television.
If you’re not privy to how Carlin did this, here’s a mini-history lesson: In 1973, a father filed a complaint with the FCC stating that he’d turned on the radio with his young son present in the afternoon, and they’d been subject to Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine, which included such curse words as “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits.” The FCC sent a letter of censure to the company that owned the radio station, Pacifica Foundation, and the case —known as FCC v. Pacifica Foundation—went to court. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the routine was “indecent but not obscene,” and gave the FCC the power to prohibit any broadcasts they deemed indecent during hours when children could possibly be watching or listening—specifically, between the hours of 6 AM and 10 PM local time. The rest of the time is known as the “safe harbor” hours, and the FCC won’t take action against any indecent material aired during that time. Generally speaking, though, networks won’t air anything anyway, regardless of this rule.
In short, the fact that there’s no curse words or nudity on network television is all because of Carlin.