Stand-Up! America’s Dissenting Tradition: George Carlin and Richard Pryor

Outsider stand-up comedians George Carlin and Richard Pryor – the two leading lights of next-generation stand-up – were as much acted upon as acting.

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 “give up something”. The camera then pans out and down, “revealing” a naked Richard with his genitalia obscured. Not surprisingly, NBC censored this grand entrance and the scene was never shown on the air.

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).

Pain and Pleasure

Pryor’s means of dissent was not through protest, but dramatization. By crafting a series of characters based on the kinds of people he had grown up around in the ghetto districts of Peoria, Illinois, he found ways to humanize black and educate white America. For example, Mudbone, his street corner sage, was a caricature made real by Pryor’s evocative use of tone, accent, and language (both verbal and body). He and other “types” were imaginatively dramatized within sketches that highlighted such inner-city issues as poverty, addictions, and police harassment.

Although never a mouth-piece for the Black Panther party or the black power movement, Pryor echoed their tone and topics of concern, just as James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gil Scott-Heron were doing within the music world. And for white audiences unwilling (or too fearful) to attend a Richard Pryor concert, albums like That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) captured his subaltern world on wax in all its profanity-laced and (em)pathetic glory. Yet, as “black” as this comedy was, white audiences were also drawn into his world, thanks to the transcendent humanity and universal hilarity he infused within it.

Many marveled at the naturalism Pryor brought to his cast of pimps, hookers, and pushers; but these were the very people he grew up with. With his mother a prostitute, his father a part-time pimp, and his grandmother a Madam in a number of neighborhood brothels, Pryor’s was hardly the conventional upbringing and the comic often shared its pains, underscoring the cliché that great comedy is often born(e) of hardship. As Laurie Stone opines, “The most stirring comedy mixes pain with pleasure, its pleasures in part deriving from its pain” (Laurie Stone. Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1997. p.xv).

Pain and pleasure would prove to be themes Pryor would oscillate between throughout his career, as he developed into the premiere confessional comic of his generation. And no hurt was off-limits, be it from his tough childhood or from the even more bizarre adulthood he was living out and simultaneously sharing on stage. Seven marriages (to both white and black women), an out-of-control cocaine addiction, and a self-immolation suicide attempt (while high) were all grist for the mill as Pryor ground the pains of his real life into the pleasures of bare—though far from castrated—comedy.

Whereas Pryor used autobiography as the basis to launch his comedy of social dissent, the other spokes-comedian of the day, George Carlin, aimed his critical lens outwards to reflect upon a world of hypocrisy, greed, phoniness, and self-delusion. Carlin’s interests were two-fold: to zoom in on the minutia of the culture (the micro-world that has been Jerry Seinfeld’s stock-in-trade), but also to pan outwards, surveying big issues and eternal verities like religion, war, the environment, social hierarchy, and human nature. Mixing observational humor with straight-talk philosophy, Carlin side-stepped the political and topical concerns of the day (which inevitably have a short shelf-life) to tackle larger trends and developments in his culture and beyond. Although the personal was not absent from his material, unlike Pryor it rarely served as the basis for his bits.

In his big picture comedy, too, Carlin was less drawn than Pryor to geographical or ethnic specificity. Instead, using dumbed-down voices to parody the exploiters and the exploited, he examined how social institutions like the media infect the entire nation with their ideology of greed and consumption.

Like the semiotic scholars of post-structuralism, Carlin sought to understand the world through language, examining its usage and misuses, its “common” sense and its nonsense, its power and its potential effects. Sometimes his linguistic wit came in short jabs with an oxymoron like “military intelligence”; sometimes it was playfully shocking with hooks like “you can prick your finger, but don’t finger your prick” (qtd. in Make ‘Em Laugh. p.355). Other times, though, as revealed in his infamous“Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” bit, he cornered us, pressuring us to recognize the social weight of language, and, more significantly, the ever-present watch-dog of censorship.

Released on his 1972 album, Class Clown, Carlin informs us that “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits” are words the FCC deems—though never states—are off-limits to TV. When the sketch was aired in 1972 on a New York radio show, only one listener complained; yet, this led to sanctions on the station and a subsequent trial that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. There, vague terms like “obscenity”, “indecency”, “average person”, and “community values” were batted around by the judges with indeterminacy in a courtroom melodrama worthy of a Lenny Bruce satirical sketch. Today, it might be noted, “shit”, “piss”, and “tits” have graduated from the pack and are now commonly accepted across the public airwaves.

Unlike Pryor, whose career faded in the ’80s due to illness and his self-destructive lifestyle, Carlin’s candle burned long and, some would argue, increasingly brighter. One sees a raging against the dying of the light as his material grows darker and his voice more militant from the ‘80s to his death in 2008. Part of this was practical, keeping up with the increasingly voluminous styles of newcomers like Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, and Chris Rock. But there was a sense of a man on a mission in his final decades, too, as he committed himself with greater intensity not only to his craft but also to assaulting the very baby boomer constituency he had once aligned himself to. It was they, he felt, not he, who had changed.

There are few dissenting stand-up comics operating today that have not been influenced by either Pryor or Carlin. Seeing someone like Dave Chappelle inhabiting his pimp, hustler, and junkie characters immediately evokes the memory of Pryor, and anytime one sees a comic deconstructing language in the name of cultural critique one is reminded of Carlin (as well as his mentor, Lenny Bruce). Sometimes successors have adopted the more stylistic features of these comics while missing the larger points, merely reveling in the easy shock humor of raw vernacular or offensive postures but applying them without purpose, empathy, or real dissent.

What Pryor and Carlin brought to the stand-up form was a new diligence of craft. They used language, gesture, and social critique in ways that spoke to their times, in ways that inspired and educated, and always in honest voices for and of the people. Since the fools and court jesters of old, such has been the ultimate calling of a comedy of dissent.