Stand-Up! America’s Dissenting Tradition Part 2: Transformers George Carlin & Richard Pryor
Whereas Richard Pryor used autobiography for his comedy of social dissent, George Carlin aimed his critical lens outwards, to reflect upon a world of greed and self-delusion.
It was a night in November 1962, at the Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago, when the baton of stand-up dissent was (symbolically) passed between generations and epochs. Lenny Bruce had been performing his usual cocktail of incendiary material, delivering satirical riffs about God and the pope via his patented mélange of Yiddish slang, swear words, and hipster vernacular. Whether the Irish-Catholic cops in attendance had been irked by the “blasphemous” content or by the raw methods of delivery employed has been an issue of contention ever since, but the local law enforcement soon drew the show to a close, cuffing Bruce and leading him off to the paddy wagon awaiting outside.
Equally irked, though, was Lenny’s admiring audience, particularly one patron, the aspiring young comic George Carlin, who demonstrated his distaste for what had just gone down by refusing to show his ID at the request of one of the cops. “I don’t believe in ID,” George petulantly protested, aping Bruce’s libertarian rebellion like a child impersonating his hero. Forthwith, Carlin was likewise marched off to the same police van where he gleefully recounted his act of solidarity to his mentor. “Schmuck,” Lenny curtly responded.
This incident serves romance as much as reality, though, for although a passing of the torch is metaphorically implied, such a torch would merely flicker rather than truly burn for another eight years before Carlin and his cadre of fellow counter-culture comics would fully live out the legacy of anti-establishment dissent that Bruce had bequeathed them. By then, the era itself would be as responsible as any acting agents in sweeping stand-up comedy into its subsequent maelstrom of controversy, shock, and rebellion.
George Carlin and Richard Pryor, the two leading lights of this next generation stand-up, were as much acted upon as acting. Although both had been performing since the early '60s, it was not until the broader youth counter-culture fully emerged in the latter part of the decade that they shed their traditional styles and transformed in accordance with the tenor of the times. By then, audiences for new stand-up had also transformed; they had become younger, more urban(e), and more demanding of smart content, dissident themes, and hip (s)language.
Mainstream culture and its arbiters, too, had somewhat slackened their censorious inclinations, accommodating these generational shifts and the transformations of form and method that accompanied them. Mae West, in 1937, had been convicted and jailed for her burlesque innuendo, and Bruce had been arrested multiple times in the early '60s on obscenity charges. By 1970, though, the uptight culture had loosened its collar, and while language and content still had the power to shock, provoke, and enrage, controversial performers did not always face the same prosecutorial consequences.
A green light was thus given to comics to push the envelope, to test the limits of freedom of speech, to, as Tony Hendra calls it, “go too far”. Carlin recognized that the stakes for dissent were very different for him in the ‘70s than they had been for Bruce in the early ‘60s, commenting, “He was the first one to make language an issue and suffered from it. I was the first one to make language an issue and succeed from it” (qtd. in Laurence Maslon & Michael Kantor. Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America. New York: 12. p.356).
Accompanying transformations in the culture and in audience demographics were changes in the style of stand-up. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce had previously developed their techniques alongside the folk and jazz music popular in hipster circles, particularly at the clubs in which they performed. As a result, this musicality seeped into their rhythms of delivery and subject matter. Sahl’s topical issues and satirical approaches echoed much folk music of the time, and both he and Bruce used the technique of riffing, letting a line of humor spin off in unstructured and unaccounted for tangents like the improvisations of bebop jazz players.
By the end of the ‘60s these musical genres had taken a backseat to the surging styles of rock music, with its more concise riffs and voluminous chorus lines. These more contained and disciplined forms were reflected in stand-up developments of the time, for while riffing was still apparent in the character sketches of Pryor, Carlin and others, script, arrangement, and anecdotal arc became more significant features of their writing and performing process. In this regard, the free-form legacy of Sahl and Bruce is more apparent in the physical comics of the succeeding era, in the untamed spontaneity of the likes of Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and Robin Williams. For Carlin and Pryor, though, dissent was served up in more structured, bit(e)-size pieces.
Other significant transformations were also in effect as the Sahl/Bruce era was replaced by the Carlin/Pryor one. Although neither Sahl nor Bruce fit the stereotype of the dominant “Borscht Belt” comics that had ruled stand-up for decades, they were still part of this deep Jewish tradition and, in their own self-conscious and often self-effacing fashions, still integrated Jewish themes and vernacular into their material. By the mid-'60s this Jewish dominance that had brought us such comic notables as Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, the Marx Brothers, Elaine May, Woody Allen, Shelley Berman, Sahl and Bruce, receded as other ethnic groups emerged.
The waning of Jewish-American comedic ubiquity was accompanied by changes in comedic techniques, which also coincided with broader institutional changes that perpetuated these trends. Whereas traditional joke-telling had been the trademark of the Borscht Belt stage comics, the arrival of television as a medium for comedy brought with it demands for other more visual skills. The model of the static monologist telling jokes was not conducive to a TV medium that required action to light up the screen; thus, gesticulation and physicality became essential ingredients of even the most conventional comedians.
Carlin and Pryor, both schooled in traditional stand-up stage-craft, were sometimes resistant to changing their styles to fit TV; indeed, they were largely dismissive of the medium itself, seeing it as institutionally delimiting and just a means of marketing to enable the more significant end of playing night club stages. As Tony Hendra comments of these purists, “[Stand-up] defined itself against television” (Tony Hendra. Going Too Far. New York: Doubleday, 1987. p.19).
These attitudes began to change in the '70s, though, when TV itself started to loosen its censorious ways, thus allowing space for the more radical material theretofore deemed inappropriate. Both Carlin and Pryor were guest hosts during the first season of the upstart alternative variety show, Saturday Night Live, in 1974/75, and both were instrumental in nudging the show in more subversive and outrageous directions. SNL made televisual demands on Carlin and Pryor, too, forcing them to integrate more physical and improvisational elements into their work. Before long, these comics were as omnipresent on TV screens as they had been on club stages around the country. In 1977 Pryor even starred in his own—though short-lived—TV show (The Richard Pryor Show, while Carlin filmed the first of what would be 12 specials (On Location for a new cable channel called HBO.
One should not underestimate the effects that TV—and changes in TV itself—had on the stand-up genre. For some comics a TV presence spelled compromise and sell-out; for others, it brought a financial security that enabled more experimentation and daring on stages. However, as transforming as the medium was for the careers of both Pryor and Carlin, their most significant shape-shifting came courtesy of two on-stage epiphanies.
Television had made Pryor a known mainstream comic by the mid-'60s and he was welcomed on many primetime talk and variety shows, largely accepted by the establishment as an unthreatening crowd-pleaser who could be groomed to succeed (his then hero) Bill Cosby. However, what audiences were unaware of was that Pryor felt that he had been living a lie and wearing a mask, and he was suffering from it; in reality, the comic was far more in-tune with the street energies and psychic outrage of the emerging black power movement than with the integrationist “please whitey” comedy he had been practicing.
His internal tensions came to a head in a performance at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas in 1967. Greeted with a packed house and a front row filled with celebrities, something snapped and Pryor froze, his sham persona crashing down around him. Before exiting the stage he uttered just one line: “What the fuck am I doing here?” The Richard that emerged a few years later was one wholly unrecognizable to the “pryor” one.
Carlin had his own “born again” experience in 1970 while performing one of a series of nights at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. The comic, aware of the mercenary nature of this residency, had been growing increasingly weary and feeling increasingly guilty over living a double life. By day he was living the life of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll typical of any counter-culture adherent; by night, though, Carlin sublimated that lifestyle and belief system, replacing it with a comedy routine of innocuous humor for old and old school audiences.
Frustrated and ashamed, like Pryor he snapped one night, straying from his rote patter into a pun-filled barrage in which he listed the various usages of the word “shit”—concluding with the admission that he also liked to smoke it! Leaving the horrified crowd aghast, Carlin was immediately fired and escorted from the premises—before he could even get his “shit” together! Critic Richard Zoglin calls this night “the defining event of the stand-up comedy revolution that began in the late '60s” (Richard Zoglin. Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. New York: MacMillan, 2008. p.18). Carlin himself reflected, “I’m entertaining the enemy. I had to get in touch with the comedian who says ‘fuck you’” (qtd. in Make ‘Em Laugh. p.355).
What materialized from these acts of career self-destruction were career re-births, re-inventions, and re-definitions of what it meant (to them) to be stand-up comedians living in '70s America.
The opening to the first episode of The Richard Pryor Show was illustrative of the kind of make-over that the comic brought not only to himself but to the media within which he operated. The camera shows a close-up of Richard’s face as he explains to his TV audience that he would not be compromising his outrageous persona for the little screen, that he would not be forced to
Such brazen testing of limits, with its metaphoric suggestion that here was a new comic emperor who neither needed nor wanted any distance between life and art, was pointedly ironic for no comedian in the modern era has shown more “balls” in both self-revelation and cultural candor than Richard Pryor. By stripping himself (and his characters) bare, Pryor stripped America bare, too, unveiling the black “other” America the white establishment preferred kept hidden. As such, Pryor showed himself to have more in common with marginal African-American comedians—like Moms Mobley and Redd Foxx—than with the mainstream ones—like Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge—he was often compared to. Richard Zoglin explains the distinction: “The black comics who reached out to white audiences before [Pryor] tried to foster racial understanding by stressing how much alike we are. Pryor rubbed our noses in the differences” (p.63).