Did you know that after the Watts Riot (aka the Watts Rebellion) of 1965, Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) started the Watts Writers Workshop, which mentored Harry Dolan, who wrote The Partridge Family’s 1971 episode “Soul Club”? In that episode, the bus breaks down in a black neighborhood, and the white family meets two Black Panthers (Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett Jr.) who make Danny Bonaduce an honorary Black Panther at the end of the episode. That’s a cultural chestnut lost to time for those of us who are not The Partridge Family completists.
What does this story, one of the hundreds of gems jammed into Kliph Nesteroff’s buzzy and binge-able Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars, really have to do with the history of cultural controversy? Not much at all. But it goes a long way to supporting what seems to be Nesteroff’s real thesis: American popular culture in all its forms has always been far messier, more contentious, stranger, and recycled than the canned histories we are normally given.
The story of American comedy is frequently passed down as a straight evolution. First, there was vaudeville, then the Marx brothers, Borscht Belt comics, Norman Lear sitcoms, the nightclub boom of the 1980s, shock comics, some nods to increased diversity, and so on. The progression is almost always seen as a linear march from buttoned-up (suits, ties, no cursing) to ever-greater freedom and experimentation. This change is often rendered positively. It is just as often seen as a negative, with complaints about how filthy comics are today or how modern comedy is too censorious and politically correct.
Either way, Nesteroff shows this story is largely not true. The reactions he gathers show that American comedy and show business have been mired in anger and pushback from the jump. Much of Outrageous echoes what we see today. That’s especially the case regarding anger about how you supposedly “can’t say anything anymore”. Nesteroff doesn’t make overt comparisons to cancel culture, even explaining in the introduction that he is not going to delve into “social media age” controversies (Dave Chappelle). He doesn’t have to make the comparison because it’s right there.
Frederick Douglass called blackface comics “the filthy scum of white society” in 1848 when minstrelsy was synonymous with entertainment. Many followed Douglass in a century-long fight against the stubborn attachment certain white audiences had to blackface. There were also fights against the Irish and Italian shtick (“intoxicated leprechauns and moronic organ grinders”), hateful antisemitic tropes, and mockery of many other minorities that comprised much of vaudeville.
This pushback ranged from snippy letters to bomb threats and sabotage, the latter specialized in by the Irish anti-defamation group Clan na Gael. Theater owners stopped booking performers who used those old tropes one by one. In 1915, Senator William E. Bauer of Ohio proposed making “impersonation[s] of Irish, German, Jewish and negro characters” illegal.
Vaudevillians flailed about trying to find fresh material. Uneasy editorials like this one from the Topeka Daily Capital in 1903 declared the end of comedy:
If the well-known and almost indispensable Irish policeman is to be abolished from the stage by decree of the Clan-na-gael, what is to hinder the ‘Afro-American’ societies from following suit and threatening dire consequences on the heads of players who represent the stage type of negro?
It says a lot about comedy in 1903 that some people could not imagine it without “the stage type of negro”. However, it wasn’t until the ’50s that Amos ‘n’ Andy started losing popularity, and it became NBC policy to delete blackface from old movies they had bought for broadcast. By then, such things had become bad for business.
In the postwar era, the controversies only heightened with the heated blare of coast-to-coast television foreshadowing our current nonstop churn of outrage. Instead of theater impresarios, network executives took flak from multiple angles. “Racist stereotypes were censored by the television networks,” Nesteroff writes. “But so was anti-racism.” Writers like Paul Gallico (having never heard of Clan na Gael or the NAACP) yearned for an imagined past where all ethnicities were “merrily and mercilessly lampooned and nobody got into a sweat about it.” The Saturday Evening Post declared, “the wellsprings of humor are drying up.” At the same time, the John Birch Society tried to censor well-known Communist stooges like Bob Newhart and Steve Allen. Often rendered today as a serene and cozy black-and-white montage of mild comics wearing suits, the 1950s was a combat zone.
Perhaps inevitably, Outrageous loses some of its zip the more it moves into the modern era, and the focus strays from comedy to show business writ large. This is largely not Nesteroff’s fault, simply due to culture war fights from the ’60s onward being better known. Working through more familiar material also highlights some of the book’s deficiencies. Primary among those is a freeform structure that goes from one thing to another with limited thematic connection. Still, though sections on ’80s and ‘90s shock comics can get bleak (a little late-period Sam Kinison goes a long way), there are fascinating similarities between the protests against Andrew Dice Clay’s homophobic material and those of earlier eras.
Nesteroff avoids weighing in on the merits of most of these controversies. He mentions but does not pass judgment on whether it would have been a good idea for San Francisco and Los Angeles to outlaw AIDS jokes, as was suggested they might in 1986. There is a clear preference here for free rather than restricted speech set alongside a simultaneous disgust with some of the uglier speech that has been restricted. But giving his take, as some readers might prefer, would lose the book some of its free jazz charm. More takes are not required on Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, and Joe Rogan. Though Nesteroff would probably point the more hysterical of that contingent’s die-hards to the many premature funerals for comedy he has previously written about.
Mores shift. Comedy morphs. Audiences today tend to be puzzled by the free-flowing punchline-lacking style of something like Lenny Bruce’s Carnegie Hall concert, just as crowds then would likely find something like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette to be just … not funny. Even in the post-George Carlin era, some of the biggest comics (Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan) rarely work blue. Forty years ago, Eddie Murphy was doing wildly homophobic material he would never perform today. Forty years from now, the most enlightened of today’s comics might be shunned for being offensive. Everything changes.
One of Buddy Hackett’s signature bits in the ’50s was his Chinese waiter routine. It involved using rubber bands to pull the skin around his eyes back – causing them to look “slanted” – and English language malapropisms. Eventually, he stopped doing the bit. In later years, audiences would yell out for the bit. But the comic had retired it. “Humor has changed,” he said.
Even Hackett got it.