Want to Know What's Really Going on? Ask a Comic

The reemergence of confrontational political humor

| September / October 2006

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.'

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