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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

You Can’t Say That at Summerfest: The City of Milwaukee v. George Carlin

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“There are 400,000 words in the English language, but only seven of them that you

can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! 399,993 to 7. They must really be bad.”

—George Carlin, from Class Clown (1972).

 

These unmentionable seven words were at the heart of a razor-sharp routine that made George Carlin one of the hottest comics in the nation by the summer of 1972. He was booked as the top comedy act in that year’s Summerfest—Milwaukee’s fifth annual lakefront celebration. He was set to play on the festival’s eighth night with Arlo Guthrie and folk duo Brewer and Shipley.

The first week of Summerfest ’72 was something of a flop. Thunderstorms had drowned out most of the festivities, dropping so much rain on the grounds that the city had to dig emergency drainage ditches to avoid flooding. Rocker/bluesman Fats Domino was forced to cancel his appearance after suffering a mild heart attack. David Cassidy had to stop his set several times after being pelted with clumps of mud by his admirers. “Grow up,” he snarled at the crowd before stalking off stage.

By the time Carlin hit the lakefront on June 21, the newspapers were already calling that year’s event “Bummerfest.” About 35,000 people were on the grounds as Carlin took the stage. The place buzzed as Carlin took his digs at the war in Vietnam, drug laws and the church. A bottle of wine was tossed on stage and Carlin took a few swigs. With feel-good vibes rampant and the skies clear, it seemed like it would be the first problem-free night of the festival.

Then, he started to talk about words…the 399,993 that were OK for TV and the seven that were not. He made it far enough into the bit to rattle off the list of words twice before Milwaukee police officer Elmer Lenz—who was at the grounds for another show with his wife and nine-year-old child—left his family to find a payphone. “I couldn’t believe my ears. I couldn’t see why nobody was doing anything about it,” he later said. Lenz called his commanding officer and described the scene. Permission was granted to arrest Carlin upon the completion of his show.

Lenz assembled a small army of police officers and began to stake out the backstage area. Carlin was scheduled for 45 minutes, but as the MPD presence grew, his set dragged on. Twice during the extended portion of the show, Carlin’s wife, Brenda, dashed out on stage to update her husband on the situation. After running 30 minutes over his allotted time, Carlin thanked the audience and left to thunderous applause. He took an odd route off stage, dodging the cops just long enough to ditch a baggie of cocaine he had in his pants pocket. Moments later, he was placed under arrest, handcuffed and led through the festival grounds to a waiting police car. Downtown, Carlin was booked, fingerprinted and photographed. After a few hours in jail, he was freed on $150 bail.

The next morning, the Milwaukee Journal ran a photo of Carlin’s arrest on its front page. He was grinning and waving to onlookers as three stout cops led him away. Both the county and state refused to press charges against him, but the city attorney obliged the arresting officers and charged him with disorderly conduct. Summerfest Executive Director (and former Green Bay Packer) Henry Jordan agreed with the arrest and charge, saying that booking Carlin was “the first mistake Summerfest has made in three years of picking entertainers.”

As trial dates were set, postponed and reset, the case became something of a cause célèbre for Carlin. He began referring to the words as the “Milwaukee Seven” and refused to apologize for his conduct. As for the children in the audience—whose presence first prompted Officer Lenz to take action—he was equally defiant. “I wouldn't have changed anything I did if I had known there were children in the audience. I think children need to hear those words the most because they don't have the hang-ups (adults do).”

Finally, on Dec. 14, 1972, the case went to trial. Carlin was not in the courtroom, but a copy of Class Clown arrived in his stead. Both the prosecution and defense agreed that it was an acceptable approximation of his Summerfest show. There was audible laughter in the courtroom as the record played—even Judge Raymond Gieringer was observed chuckling. After the album played through, Gieringer said that since the show had caused no unrest among the crowd, no crime was committed. He dismissed the charges and set free the “Milwaukee Seven” for public utterance in the Cream City.

Carlin was obviously pleased with the result, even giving Gieringer a shout-out on “The Tonight Show,” calling him “the swingin’ judge from up north.” The arrest proved to be a landmark moment in both the history of Summerfest and the career of George Carlin. Decades later, reflecting upon the incident, Carlin kept the same demeanor that produced the sly grin he wore on the front page of the Journal the morning after the arrest. “In a way, I always felt kind of perversely proud of it,” he said. “It was like being sent to the big principal’s office.”

Matthew J. Prigge is a freelance writer and historian from Milwaukee. He knows all seven of Carlin’s dirty words by heart, but is still afraid to say them in front of his parents.

To hear more strange tales of Milwaukee's past, join Matthew J. Prigge for the Mondo Milwaukee Boat Tour on Thursday, June 27 at 9 p.m. See facebook.com/mondomke or mkeboat.com for details and tickets.