It has long been the case, from the day of the court jesters until today, that comedians serve a vital societal purpose. That purpose is to poke fun at authority and use humor to say what normally can’t be said. For example, the court jester could lampoon the royal personage in a way that would get the sincere killed.
Comic dissent serves the same purpose in the United States and in the early days of the counter-culture revolution, comics lampooned the mainstream American culture with élan and impunity. Those early comedians pushed back the boundaries of what was acceptable to say in the same way that today’s comics are pushing back against the now-dominate culture which was yesterday’s counter-culture.
One of the early boundary breaking comics was Lenny Bruce. Bruce was born in the upper mid-west and served in the Navy during World War 2, but after a few comedic performances shipboard dressed as a woman, he claimed to be having homosexual feelings and had himself discharged. In the years that followed, he gravitated to comedy and thrived as a stand up. He pushed the boundaries of acceptability and was arrested in San Francisco, of all places, for using the word ‘cocksucker’ in a routine.
Bruce was arrested a few additional times and his later stand-up routines were comic takes on his arrests and his vigorous defense of free speech and even vulgar speech. He died of a drug overdose in 1966 but lived long enough to cement his reputation as an innovative comic and he has been awarded many times after death. The counter-culture revered Lenny Bruce for pushing the boundaries of free speech in his day and afterward.
I don’t find Lenny Bruce to be particularly funny, but he was ground breaking and important:
Lenny Bruce and his “blad blah blah” routine:
Richard Pryor was another comic from the high hippy days who is rightly revered as one of the more gifted stand-up comics of all times. He made several movies and provided trenchant and interesting observations about the differences between white and black Americans that were laughed at and accepted by both peoples. He was in a movie that played theaters in the 1970s and I snuck in with a friend and we went back and saw it more times, surely without our parents knowing.
Pryor was another Army veteran with a troubled background. He grew up in a brothel run by his Grandmother in Peoria. IL. He spent much of his time in the Army in prison, and later gravitated to New York City where he struggled to develop a comedy routine but finally developed a profane style that suited both he and his background well. His use of various profanities was prolific (as I recall from the movie), but he was a gifted comic actor and made several movies with Gene Wilder that were box offices successes.
His troubled life included an incident where he set himself on fire while doing drugs and he died of a heart attack at age 65
Here, Richard Pryor discusses the need for prisons:
George Carlin was yet another counter-culture comic from the same era. Carlin was from a well-to-do family in New York City and he had a solid education, as opposed to Pryor and Bruce. He was masterful in his observations about words and culture. Carlin’s use of foul language was captured in one of his most famous routines called “The 7 Dirty Words That You Can’t Say on Television” and he did a portion of that routine on the radio in 1973. The seven dirty (or ‘filthy’ as it was also said) words that you can’t say on television are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. A listener to that broadcast filed a suit which went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the ruling, call F.C.C. v Pacifica Foundation, which determined that the words in question were “indecent but not obscene” and that the Federal Communications Commission had the right to regulate them and protect children from exposure to them.
Here is Carlin on the words in a stand up act from the period:
By the 1980s, the counter-culturists had gone underground, but the comics of the day entered a new phase of boundary pushing glee. The era was known for far more patriotic expressions and it was inhabited by sunny Ronald Reagan, but the comics were there to point out and lampoon the parts of the culture that were vulnerable.
Once such comic was Sam Kenison:
Few comics took advantage of the use of foul language more than Andrew Dice Clay. His perversion of nursery rhymes was so popular that people knew his jokes and would recite them with him as one might do for a band. Here he is at his most outrageous:
Comedy in the 1990s was funny but had often had no edge or political spin because after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the American moment of cultural triumph had arrived and there really were no more boundaries to break, for the moment.
A comic that thrived during this period was Jim Carrey:
But the wheel of cultural change never stays still for long as first Chris Rock and then Dave Chapelle taught us.
Black comedians from Redd Foxx through Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock have played a crucial role in American life including saying things that others couldn’t say. None did this more effectively than this routine from Chris Rick in the 1990s. Note that YouTube has put a warning on the routine because of the liberal use of the ‘n-word’ which has been present in comedy routines for decades, and is still in use by black comics. It is the most popular word in rap music today, but still, YouTube has a trigger warning on this routine.
Which brings us full circle to Dave Chapelle
The heir to Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock, is, without question, Dave Chapelle. Chapelle was on the TV network Comedy Central for years with a very funny show called “The Chapelle Show” and it was not particularly controversial, though it was very funny. He walked away from the show at the peak of its popularity and has focused on stand up since then.
But as Chapelle has gotten more successful, he has been willing to talk about the things that we’re not supposed to talk about. With Chapelle, cutting edge comedy is still doing what it does; provide a way to dissent from the majority opinion or allow people to say what must be said.
Dave Chapelle on cancel culture
Chapelle on the Jussie Smollett fake race attack incident:
There are calls now for Dave Chapelle to have his material struck from Netflix, which is a sure sign that he’s saying what has to be said:
Dave Chapelle on Gender: