Performing Arts

Stand-Up! America’s Dissenting Tradition Part 1: Trailblazers Mort Sahl & Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce

Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce were more than just maverick dissenters; they were the founding fathers of what would later coalesce under the umbrella of the “counter-culture”.

Despite the hoopla that invariably surrounds controversial incidents within popular culture—Lady Gaga wears raw meat dress! Muppet movie spreads anti-corporate message!—social dissent is largely absent from our film, TV, music, and radio output. Moreover, where critical voices do exist, they mostly come from the margins, put out by independent companies with limited audience reach. Thus, for those thirsting for alternative perspectives to the reigning ideological persuasion, one must seek left of the dial, in the outposts of cable TV or indie record labels and film companies.

Beyond corporate control, (self-)censorship, and/or accommodation largely prevail, leaving us with a mainstream culture subservient—or at least inoffensive and inconsequential—to the interests of the ruling classes. A notable exception within this bleak landscape is stand-up comedy. Contemporary history has shown us that while other popular arts have been controlled or manufactured to echo our various social status quos, certain comics have refused to kowtow, eschewing conformity and affirming dissent. This contrarian bent says as much about the critical inclinations of humor itself as it does about the distinctions of the stand-up form and its practitioners.

This three-part installment of "Wit Attitude" investigates the outsider yet often mainstream world of stand-up comedy by examining six performers—Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Bill Maher—whose work spans the past six decades. These populist artists have shown us that stand-up, more than any other popular form, is America’s premier modern site for free thought, free speech, and critical cultural dissent.

Is there a more pressure-packed, fear-inducing, and courage-demanding performance art than stand-up comedy? Like a tight-rope walker negotiating the wire ahead, the stand-up comic precariously walks the line; to fall is to fail, but to remain standing brings the thrills of instant ovation, gratification, and validation. Bruce articulated this “high” when recalling the sensation of experiencing his first laughs on stage: “It was like the flash that I have heard morphine addicts describe, a warm sensual blanket that comes after a cold, sick rejection” (How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. New York: Fireside, 1965. p.30). British comic Oliver Double describes such adulation as “a surprise party in my honour”, but also recognizes the low of “bombing” through the following simile: “My jokes are like a list of casualties after a horrific terrorist bombing” (Stand-Up! On Being a Comedian. London: Methuen, 1997. p.3).

Such dramatic rhetoric indicates the intensity of the stand-up experience, where risk, vulnerability, and bravery converge as components in a high-stakes entertainment. Alone on the stage, no one can help you, and unlike in other art forms, there is no shield to hide behind—no book, no instrument, no fellow performers. “Ma; I’m in trouble, Ma; I’m alone, help me, Ma”, Bruce mocks, dramatizing the child-like fear and naked isolation of the experience (p.29). Jerry Seinfeld concurs, calling stand-up “going to work in your underwear” (qtd. in Gerald Nachman. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York: Pantheon, 2003. p.36).

And if such a semi-naked public exhibition is not sufficiently stress-filled, the stand-up comic is also then expected, indeed required—his gig depends on it!—to procure laughter from an often skeptical audience. Clearly not a profession for the faint-hearted, stand-up is as much a calling as a craft, a forum for those bold and brave enough to say something they see as worth saying, perhaps suffering the indignities of rejection and/or heckling in the process.

There are no rules, regulations, or guidelines to what is worthy of saying in a stand-up routine, and for every scathing satirical sketch from a George Carlin-type, there are a hundred inane Carrot Top or Dane Cook-like performances. That said, the genre still boasts a rich and deep-rooted history of dissent. Within the US, antecedents to its verbal prowess can be found in the monologues and lectures of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, while many of its physical gestures hearken back to old vaudeville routines and to the filmic performances of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.

Critic Laurie Stone sees an even broader backdrop of inspirations, citing: “Inside stand-up are Shakespeare’s confidential asides, Dickens’s hamming, Wilde’s camping, Twain’s ironies, Ruth Draper’s character studies, Noel Coward’s talk stories, Will Rogers’s political takes, and Lord Buckley’s jazz riffs” (Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1997. p.3). From this large and diverse tool box, modern stand-up comics have often drawn and derived the methods, modes, and means of their subversive endeavors.

Dissenting stand-up, as we know it today, emerged during the '50s and developed into the ‘60s; Sahl can be credited as the initial instigator, while Bruce carried the baton as radical successor into the age of the counter-culture. Sahl and Bruce, though both trailblazers of a new type of stand-up, were themselves products of as well as innovators in their day, and they drew inspiration from the pockets of dissent around them just as others would do later from them.

Mort Sahl

Humor historian Gerald Nachman has pointed out the perennial misrepresentation of '50s America as a period of uniform conservatism surrounded by the “heroic '40s” and the “histrionic '60s” (3). Yet this was the decade that brought us the birth of rock 'n' roll, not to mention such seminal rebels as Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, Pete Seeger, and James Dean.Thus, just as teenagers signaled their boredom with pop music standards by embracing Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, so did young adults show their craving for a more relevant comedy by seeking out vibrant young comics like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Jonathan Winters—and the ultimate revolutionaries of the era, Sahl and Bruce.

At the start of the decade, stand-up was dominated by the so-called “Borscht Belt” or “Catskill” comics and by old guard craftsmen like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle; but by the end of the ‘50s, stand-up had shifted from vacation resorts to urban clubs in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, where the new upstarts played to a new generation demanding new forms and new content germane to them and their times.

The contemporaneous vibe also filtered in from other innovators working in other forms, such that now we can look back at a trailblazer like Bruce and identify not unadulterated uniqueness, but the staccato rhythms of the era’s bebop jazz, the social satire of its folk music, and the un-harnessed spontaneity of its beat writers. Furthermore, in his yearning for authenticity in a world of phoniness, for justice and innocence in an age of institutional hypocrisy, one can even hear the voice of J.D. Salinger’s anti-hero Holden Caulfield in Bruce's often desperate personal anecdotes.

Influences came from other less obvious sources, too, like comic books, where Harvey Kurtzman challenged kids to be critical thinkers by serving them what his MAD magazine called “humor in the jugular vein” in the form of anti-war absurdist sketches and domestic satire; or from pop art, where Warhol et al were holding up for scrutiny the common detritus images and icons of modern America—much like Bruce did.

Soon new, younger, more literate audiences began to attend stand-up shows; for them, Sahl and Bruce were more than just maverick dissenters; they were representatives of a larger movement of artistic innovation and social rebellion, founding fathers of what would later coalesce under the umbrella of the “counter-culture”.

Within stand-up, Sahl and Bruce made an almost complete departure from the genre’s established past—from its content, style, form, attitude, look, language, and audience. This severing was both aesthetic and generational in nature, what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls “a sign of the yearning for youth, irreverence, trenchancy, satire, a clean break with the past” (qtd. in Tony Hendra. Going Too Far. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987. p.37). Out were the carefully crafted jokes, the ingratiating patter, the thinly-veiled racist stereotypes, and the patriotic validation of traditional family, religious, and institutional values. In were new topics—or at least new angles on old topics. Suddenly, family values were under the satirical sword, organized religion was reassessed as analogous to show business, and whites rather than blacks became the butt of the humor.

Industry standard Mother-in-law one-liners became passé, too, as “jokes” of that ilk were replaced with “riffs” that were improvised like John Coltrane sax solos. As had been happening in jazz, comedy became about comedy as old forms were deconstructed by new structures, and expectations were usurped through shock tactics that might emanate from the language, the topics, or the methods of delivery. An embrace of black humor and absurdist perspectives pushed stand-up into the realms of the avant-garde, such that Sahl and Bruce’s improvisational workouts seemed like centuries rather than just years away from the traditional comedy of the old school joke-tellers.

Yet as abstract as stand-up often became in their hands, a new honesty—theretofore not witnessed—also entered the form. It had always been apparent that Bob Hope was putting on an act, depersonalizing the process, but Sahl and Bruce spoke raw truths in real voices. For Sahl this candor was politically and socially oriented and emanated from the mind; for Bruce, it was more personal—though with social implications—and came from the heart.

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