Legendary comedian Lenny Bruce went on trial 54 years ago for obscenity. It wasn’t the first time he was arrested for obscenity either. Bruce was willing to repeatedly risk arrest because he thought his right to free speech was more important than the feelings of a bunch of humorless authoritarians.
Lenny didn’t seem like the crying type but he’s probably weeping in his grave over the state of stand-up today.
The slide began when Barack Obama became president and ninety percent of the comics in America became advocates rather than cultural critics. Eighty percent of that ninety percent were still doing the same Sarah Palin joke during Obama’s last year in office because the poor dears just couldn’t find anything about the president to mock.
In 2012, the Huffington Post did a recap of a comedy panel at South by Southwest. It was a bunch of liberal comics and writers examining why conservatives couldn’t be funny. It was like having an island of people who are all four feet tall and have never traveled discussing why there are no people who are five feet tall in the world.
I wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to the post at a website that shall not now be named or linked to. You’ll just have to trust me that it was good.
One of the points HuffPo made was that liberals are funnier because they are willing to speak truth to power. They were writing this with straight faces (smiling is forbidden at HuffPo) over three years into Obama’s first term. At that point the aforementioned ninety percent were all wearing Lightbringer cheerleader outfits. Gaudy, awful outfits they were.
It was bad enough having one subject taboo for that eight-year-long yawnfest. Today, the Politically Correct Speech Police are engaged in a very intense attempt to proscribe a host of topics for comedians.
Unlike the Lenny Bruce days, today’s authoritarians aren’t humorless elders of the village. Now they’re humorless, perpetually-aggrieved millennials who make the shrews of yesteryear seem like a free-wheeling frat party. To be sure, the original sin in this downfall from fun is the participation trophy era that cranked out a generation of emotional jellyfish, and that can be blamed on academics. Still, it’s the twenty- and thirty-somethings who are driving the insanity now.
On Thursday, the culture website Vulture posted a lengthy piece titled “The Joke I Most Regret.” The subtitle is “Comedians reflect on old material, evolution, and accountability.” The site says that it’s spending the week “exploring the many ways modern comedy has tapped into its serious side.”
It may not state it explicitly, but that last part heavily implies that this is new territory for comedy. That can only be true in the mind of someone who hasn’t watched any stand-up from the pre-Netflix era. Vulture is examining all comedy but I’m just dealing with stand-up here.
Most comics are dark. I spend half my day recoiling in horror from things I think. People not named Jerry Seinfeld who have happy childhoods rarely go into comedy. It wasn’t always this way, but it has been ever since Richard Pryor decided to go deep.
What we do is take all of that dark garbage from our childhoods and, rather than becoming serial killers, we turn it into jokes. We get some catharsis and the audience gets to laugh.
It’s a system that doesn’t need to be fixed.
Stand-up is very subjective. Everyone in the audience isn’t supposed to like what the comedian says. Getting offended is part of the experience. If you want affirmation and a feel-good time, shell out a few grand on a Tony Robbins seminar. If you paid $20 for a ticket to a comedy club, your feelings don’t get any kind of insurance.
The PC crowd wants insurance.
As the Vulture post shows, if they can’t find anything to be offended about that day they’ll ask comedians to retroactively shame themselves. The most pathetic thing here is that the comedians went along with it.
The only time I’ve ever regretted an old joke was because it was poorly written. But I won’t apologize for that, not even to myself. I certainly don’t regret any of it.
Oddly, Richard Pryor did once express regret over his use of the “n” word. That, however, was based on a rather moving experience that he had. He wasn’t shamed into regretting it, which is what’s being done today. He also still had zero you-know-whats to give about anything else he said on stage.
Stand-up will cease to exist if it’s reduced to being nothing but a bunch of insipid poltroons bowing and scraping on stage for the approval of some mommy issues-laden editor at HuffPo. Or Vulture. Or wherever.
The most satisfying routines are the ones that make the audience uncomfortable but laugh anyway, probably questioning what that says about them. Hey, let somebody else deal with some neuroses for a while.
I truly believe that if the PC crowd succeeds in neutering the ability for comedians to say whatever we want on stage the real slippery slope for free speech will ensue. We were one of the last protected species, if you will.
In Lenny Bruce’s day it was undercover cops lurking in the audience, waiting to ruin his career.
Today, it’s some constipated-looking twenty-eight-year-old who couldn’t find any suitable outrage at work that day so went looking for it in a comedy club.
Let’s get this kid some fiber.