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

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.


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

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.


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

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

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

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

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.