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The reemergence of confrontational political humor

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If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic schoolchildren would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.
-Lenny Bruce

Before dying of a morphine overdose in 1966, Lenny Bruce exhausted what remained of his waning fame to fight obscenity charges. In between the stand-up routines that made him a target of public censors, Bruce gave lectures on the First Amendment and fumed about his persecutors. Eventually, he took to reading trial transcripts on stage.

The black and white, spotlit image of a disheveled Bruce courageously flailing in front of increasingly unresponsive crowds is iconic. Out of context, however, this snapshot memory threatens to eclipse both the groundbreaking nature of the comedian's early improvisational approach and the confluence of outside circumstances that led to his unlikely rise and tragic fall.

In a thorough treatise on liberal satire in post-World War II America, Revel with a Cause (University of Chicago, 2006), author Stephen E. Kercher writes that if the 'dominant mood . . . particularly among America's expanding, suburban-dwelling middle class, reflected the era's affluence, stability, peace, and prosperity, it was continually disrupted by feelings of anxiety, alienation, and what sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959 described as the 'misery of vague uneasiness.' '

This disquiet, observes Kercher, an assistant history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, coupled with a level of social conformity that was all but government sponsored, fueled a counterculture movement that thrived on unpredictability and nonconformity. Like the era's bebop musicians and Beat poets, Bruce was heralded for riffing, or improvising on a theme. Instead of telling jokes with quick setups and easy punch lines, which had long been the status quo, his hepcat shtick revolved around profane stories, over-the-top imitations, and cutting commentary that revealed society's hypocrisies.

'All my humor is based upon destruction and despair,' Bruce said. 'If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.'

While there have been a handful of memorable topical comics and writers over the years, biting, issue-driven social satire that doesn't just poke fun at power but challenges it head-on has appeared only sporadically since Bruce's time.

During President George W. Bush's second term, however, entertainers from late-night provocateurs Jon Stewart and Bill Maher to stand-ups Margaret Cho and Dave Chappelle have hopped on the cultural waves churning around them and gambled that-in a society governed by spin and overrun with blowhard politicians and opportunistic pundits-those who dare speak the truth will ultimately get the last laugh.

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In April, Stephen Colbert, host of the The Colbert Report, was invited to speak at the annual White ????? House Correspondents' Association dinner. Playing the role of an arrogant, ill-informed neoconservative with no patience for liberals or their media (think Bill O'Reilly), he stood in front of President Bush and the Washington press corps and delivered a searing critique of both their cozy relationship and the administration's failed policies.

Extra! Update (June 2006), a newsletter for the media watchdog group FAIR, surveyed press coverage of the event and noted that the mainstream media ignored the story until video of the bravura stunt flooded the Internet. Then, on cue, established columnists, like the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, lambasted Colbert not so much for failing to amuse (although that was a common complaint) as for being 'rude' and a 'bully.' Interesting, Extra! Update observed, since 'millions of nonjournalists saw the Colbert routine not merely as pointed humor, but as a remarkable event where a sharp political satirist punctured the elite bubble that normally insulates the White House from direct criticism.'

A similarly illustrative incident, which passed with barely a notice, took place a few weeks later, when Colbert appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and made the host as uncomfortable as he had the president's apologists.

Letterman, once considered the cutting-edge comic to beat, made a name salting the traditional approach to late-night humor, perfected by Johnny Carson in the '70s? and '80s, with elements of absurdity that can be attributed directly to Bruce's ilk. The difference-which, with few exceptions, has defined the most commercially viable comedians of the past 30 years-is that Letterman's purpose is not to inform or criticize. His ultimate goal is to entertain, mostly with hip observations about our harmless hang-ups and our leaders' equally innocuous personal foibles.

Maybe Letterman was simply off his game with Colbert, or perhaps he sensed that Colbert represented a new era that was sneaking past him. It might also have been that Letterman just wasn't sure whether Colbert would show up as himself or come out in character and trade jibes-dangerous ground, since The Colbert Report thrives on divisive political barbs. Regardless, Letterman didn't ever seem to 'get' Colbert (who played it straight) and failed to find a rhythm.

Of course, satirists like Colbert, Dennis Miller, and Chris Rock have been plying their politically charged trade on cable networks like Comedy Central since the Clinton presidency, and the cynical irony for irony's sake that Letterman has trafficked in for decades has been on life support since George, Elaine, and Jerry Seinfeld waved farewell in 1998. Still, Letterman's clumsiness, not to mention Colbert's meteoric rise and accompanying self-assuredness, signals that political satire without a net is the new cool.

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Asked why tough, topical comedy is experiencing a resurgence among audiences, Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College and author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict (University of Chicago, 2006), says the phenomenon 'is partly explained by an ever deepening ideological divide and a growing cynicism and discontent with politicians of all stripes.' As for the material: Today's almost surreal state of affairs, which conjures visions of the ennui and McCarthyism of the '50s, screams out for comic relief. As Lewis Black deadpans during The Carnegie Hall Performance (Comedy Central Records, 2006): 'Every headline over the past year seems to be a punch line.'

When Black and his contemporaries compose their work, it is often more profane than Bruce's and, in many cases, as politically incorrect. The audiences they're speaking to, however, have been weaned on comics from the late Sam Kinison to Sarah Silverman and are all but immune to being shocked, making it hard to imagine a scenario in which a performer would be muzzled for obscenity.

Of course, Bruce was gagged not because he used the Lord's name in vain, for example, but because of what he dared to say about organized religion. And today's censors and naysayers, including those who lambasted Colbert for being impolite, ultimately have similar agendas. The mass media have become so specialized, though, that it's easier to find small, loyal audiences and harder for critics to gin up enough outrage to have a commercial impact.

Consider Bill Maher, who was essentially blackballed at ABC for daring to question the Bush administration in the immediate wake of 9/11. Not long after, he found a time slot on HBO and is more outspoken and popular than ever. The same immunity is enjoyed by firebrands on the right, including Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who have learned that the more outrageous they are, the larger their audience.

Accompanying this satiric proliferation is the sense among politicians that it's better to take the slings and arrows than appear defensive or, worse yet, humorless. So pseudo news personalities like Stewart, Colbert, and Senate hopeful Al Franken can sit face to face with the butts of their jokes and ask leading questions.

Regardless of this growing mainstream prestige (or perhaps because of it), it's doubtful that the reemergence of confrontational political humor will ultimately affect public policy. Not only because there are comics throwing barbs back and forth across the political spectrum, but also because there's no hard evidence that a jokester has ever really changed the world.

As Kercher writes, though, satire is meaningful and effective when it operates cathartically, giving people a breather from the day's trials and reminding them that they are not alone in their disappointment or anger or fear.

And no matter what causes a citizenry's vague uneasiness, irreverence delivered underground or in full view of the president is a healthy reminder that raging against the machine is not only a lot of fun, it's a fundamental right-a right for which Lenny Bruce gave the last days of his life.


Sometimes laughing helps us block out the blackening white noise, or swells our chests with feelings of solidarity, or even inspires us to get up from our collective whoopee cushion to reengage with the outside world. And lately, as the Fourth Estate turns the word journalism into a joke, we've come to wonder whether those who make us laugh aren't the better watchdogs.

On the following pages you'll read about the modern-day legacy of 'Dirty' Lenny Bruce, meet a controversial columnist who twists a stereotype to challenge cultural assumptions, and learn about the incredible shrinking editorial cartoon. On the way, we hope you disagree vehemently, agree violently, and occasionally find yourself wandering outside your comfort zone with a smart smile onyour face.
-The Editors