Stand-Up! America’s Dissenting Tradition Part 1

Trailblazers Mort Sahl & Lenny Bruce

by Iain Ellis

19 January 2012

Lenny Bruce 

Aiming for the Brain and the Soul, not the Gut and the Groin

Although never close friends and often sniping rivals to the same throne, Sahl and Bruce had much in common. Both were Jewish comics who had deliberately distanced themselves from that comedic tradition and identity; both were World War II veterans who, like other post-war Jewish writers—Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Norman Mailer etc.—committed themselves to social justice concerns; both brought an attitude of combat, a free-wheeling delivery style, and an “anything goes” open-mindedness to often taboo topics that resonated loudly with young urban audiences; and while some of their material might now appear quite innocuous from a 2012 point-of-view (which, in itself, is a testament to their legacy of loosening uptight minds and morals), both were seen and regarded as shocking and outrageous in their day.

Industry standard Mother-in-law one-liners became passé, as “jokes” of that ilk were replaced with “riffs” that were improvised like John Coltrane sax solos.

For their efforts, Time magazine tagged the pair—amongst others—with the sobriquet “sick comics” in 1959, a term that they and their acolyte successors have endured and/or embraced ever since.

Sahl’s comedy career took off in 1953, thanks to his popular performances at San Francisco’s hungry i club. Sporting casual student cardigans rather than the standard suit and tie, Sahl delivered conversation rather than jokes, invariably using his only prop—that day’s newspaper—as the prompt for his meandering musings and politically astute observations. With gesticulations that amounted to little more than an occasional wry smile or chuckle, Sahl fed the real world back to audiences in recognizable but absurd forms, as if he were a reporter whose cynicism had got the better of him.

For audiences accustomed to jesters playing the fool, the image of an educated comedian offering intellectual and socially-attuned content must have been quite a shock to the senses and expectations. Yet, as dry as his delivery was, Sahl spiced up his “riffs” by integrating the vernacular of jazz and beat-speak into his alternative reportage. Street youth slang like “chick”, “cool”, “drag”, and “dig it” added hip to his shtick—as it did later for Bruce—and the growing demographic of young bohemians and student types lapped it up.

Conversely, Sahl refused to pander to his audiences, an attitude, again, aberrant to the schmoozing conventions of Borscht Belt stand-up. Doggedly non-partisan, he was an equal opportunity offender, renowned for his go-to line when performing: “Are there any groups out there I haven’t offended tonight?” Indeed, as his audiences grew more liberal into the late ‘60s, Sahl began to craft humor focused on ruffling the feathers of his bread-and-butter constituencies of student protesters, feminists, and civil rights activists.

Similarly, Sahl assaulted any and all political figures of the day with rapier wit and sinister glee. As early as the early ‘50s, when political humor was not only taboo but barely existent, he took on the likes of President Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover. In one skit about Eisenhower’s curious taste in jackets, Sahl suggested that one should be tailor-made for Senator McCarthy with a zip across the mouth.

Even his beloved Kennedys, who he had campaigned for, were not exempt from his cutting quips. On Bobby’s wire-tapping practices, Sahl told us “Little Brother is watching” (qtd. in Nachman p.65). Nor were the suspicions of voting fraud during the 1960 Presidential campaign off-limits, on which he joked, “Joe Kennedy told Jack he was putting him on an allowance, saying, ‘You’re not allowed one more cent than you need to buy a landslide’” (qtd. in Nachman p.81).

Teasing the champions of liberalism did little to hurt the popularity of Sahl, though, as his celebrated mug landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1960. By 1966, however, he was all but washed-up, a victim of his own obsessions over the official findings on JFK’s assassination. Just as Bruce’s later routines largely consisted of him reading aloud the court transcripts of his own obscenity trials, so Sahl, post-1963, took to sharing the minutia of the Warren Report with audiences that found such an “act” neither funny nor appropriate.

The decline and fall of Bruce, on the other hand, proved to be rather more costly. Dissent had been the essence of his making, but the systematic institutional backlash to that dissent (from the police and the legal system) ultimately beat him down and, arguably, drove him to an early grave, dead from a (possibly suicidal) morphine overdose at the age of 41.

As a member of the “live fast, die young” faction of his era—alongside the likes of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift—Bruce’s myth-symbol stock has since risen, such that it is difficult today to objectively assess the comic’s artistic contributions without being distracted by the baggage such legendary status brings. And for every supporter of the day (like Steve Allen and Hugh Hefner) that regarded him as the greatest comedic innovator of his age, there are other on-the-spot insiders (like Woody Allen) that saw him as grossly over-rated, or, in Allen’s words, “talented but pretentious” and a “panderer” (qtd. in Nachman p.433).

One can only, therefore, assess the body of work itself, and though thin, it is clearly startling in its daring and originality. Indeed, if performed today, much of Bruce’s material would still be seen as shocking and radical—though also intellectually provocative—in both content and form. At the core of his oeuvre was semiotics, particularly the study of how language and its uses reflect hierarchies of power. One favorite skit started with Bruce asking his audience, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” It’s hard to imagine many comedians today venturing down such a contentious path, but Bruce used this line as a springboard to analyzing the power that we accord the offending word and other ethnic slurs.

He gives a more light-hearted, if similarly deconstructive treatment to the word “come” in another of his more renowned sketches. Like Roland Barthes’ practices of de-familiarization in his book Mythologies, Bruce scrutinizes everyday expressions in order to penetrate beyond their apparent “common sense” usage, first by parading them, then by unmasking and ultimately recharging them with fresh contexts.

Abuses of power may pervade language usage, but for Bruce, they are also apparent in revered social institutions like organized religion. On this topic Bruce is brutal in his satire, exposing hypocrisy, greed, and deceit with (perhaps ironic) messianic zeal. “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to god”, he would often quip. Bruce’s anti-theism was largely institutional rather than theological in nature, the church but a symbol of his perception that corruption inevitably follows from power fronted by respectability.

He found his analogous metaphor for this in show business, an arena where he witnessed first-hand how smiling hucksters fleece the innocent and inattentive. In his legendary “Religions, Inc.” sketch, Bruce envisions a Madison Avenue gathering of agents conversing with their religious leader clients about how best to market the latest religious “product”. As he recollects in his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, Bruce even tested the scam-potential of religion in person in 1951, when he dressed up as a priest and attempted to solicit funds for an (imaginary) leper colony. Although his caper was thwarted and Bruce duly arrested, the larger point was, as he later noted, “that any man who calls himself a religious leader and owns more than one suit is a hustler as long as there is someone in the world who has no suit at all” (58).

Whether his topics were religion, race, sex, business, or the entertainment industry, Bruce’s concern was always with the false values we are indoctrinated with and how those values perpetuate injustice, conformity, and hypocrisy. Tony Hendra observes of this unremitting and penetrative critical comedy that Bruce “saw the reality underneath the Norman Rockwell America” (117).

The legacy of Sahl and Bruce, while enormous, has not been wholly positive regarding developments in the stand-up form, according to Gerald Nachman. He bemoans the fact that while the pair’s greatest contribution may have been to rid stand-up of the kind of infantilism and anti-intellectualism that pervaded the form before them, most of their immediate successors were ultimately more drawn to the shock than the social dissent aspects of their work. Of “clowns” like Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Andy Kaufman, Nachman says they “mostly aimed for the gut and the groin, not for the brain and the soul” (42).

Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce

Furthermore, although the examination of language had encouraged Bruce to employ slang, swearing, and taboo words in his act, this vernacular amounted to little more than shock for shock’s sake in the hands of later “sick” comics like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. “Bruce freed comics’ tongues, but not their minds”, Nachman argues of those who inherited the freedom of speech Bruce had fought for, but squandered it by failing to address the very institutions responsible for censorship and control (435).

Still, the legacy of these trailblazers is far-reaching and vast, spanning oceans as well as historical epochs. Brit wits were quick to embrace the daring innovations of Sahl and Bruce in the early ‘60s, creating a spark in their own dissenting comedy that would culminate in the Alternative Comedy revolution of the early ‘80s. Youth culture has been influenced over time, too, the hippy counter-culture adopting Sahl and Bruce’s mission to “question authority”, and later, the punk movement echoing that spirit while also employing the kind of confrontational style, combative voice, and socio-political conscience that Sahl and Bruce are justifiably remembered and revered for today.

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