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

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.

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

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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