Laughter is a serious business, and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy which is why tyrants treat it with caution.
The world is sick, and I'm the doctor. I'm a surgeon with a scalpel for false values.
All humor is rooted in pain.
Photo: public domain
In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.
Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference.
In these troubled times when bigotry is political orthodoxy and, paradoxically, political correctness is used as a weapon to constrain freedom of speech, it seems to me that we are in urgent need of the power of comedy. Throughout our history, comedians, satirists and humorists have pricked the balloons of prejudice and self-righteous pomposity, exposed idiocy and cruelty to ridicule. Offending orthodoxy is a moral obligation in outrageous times. Two figures, the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and Mr. Schneider of New York, separated by almost 250 years and 6,000 miles, demonstrate the power of humor and ridicule; our openness to these voices is some measure of moral health. Comedy is, as these two figures demonstrate, a political scalpel cutting through the flesh of corruption, cruelty, idiocy and indifference.
Photo: public domain
The Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) illustrates this proposition perfectly. He was an Irish writer, satirist and churchman, best known for Gulliver's Travels (1726). He became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713 where he served until his death. Swift observed the intense suffering and poverty of the Catholic citizens of the city and the cruel indifference of largely Protestant politicians, landlords and upper classes to this intense and unrelieved suffering. In A Modest Proposal: For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick (1729), he observed that in Ireland:
It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. … whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…
His solution, proposed in a tone of reasoned argument, was that these impoverished children should be “harvested”:
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection…I have been assured … that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust….I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children … I desire those politicians who dislike my overture … that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather…
The consumption of the poor by the rich serves a dual purpose; the children would be both a source of income to their impoverished parents and of nourishment for the rich. The suffering of the poor is alleviated not by political action but by eradication. Swift uses the word “devour” in two senses: as a metaphor for exploitation and, then, literally, to eat voraciously. Combining this outrageous proposition with a tone of formal moderation intensifies the satirical impact through grotesque conjunction of idea and expression (“I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection …”). The anger and compassion of Dean Swift is expressed in a satire intended to expose the inhumanity and indifference of the powerful to the suffering of the dispossessed, to bring into focus that which was hidden by moral blindness.
Photo: public domain
Leonard Alfred Schneider
Schneider’s stage name was Lenny Bruce (1925 -1966). He occupied ambiguous space, a stand-up comedian and prophet-philosopher. Swift’s pulpit was in St Patrick’s Cathedral; Bruce’s was in the night club. Together they demonstrate that comedy is more than a form of amusement; it disrupts and disturbs, and pushes boundaries between teaching, preaching, protest, and laughter. It may be simultaneously funny and paradoxically profoundly serious. The languages of comedy shock the reader-audience into moral consciousness.
Lenny Bruce was powerful and vulnerable, a controversial moralist, and ultimately tragic figure, little known I suspect to the younger generation. Bruce’s period of most fame and notoriety corresponded to the early years of the 1960s, a period of heightened crisis and change in the U.S. that challenged national identity. The early years of that troubled decade, as indicated by this small sample, witnessed events that reflected dramatic tensions and fractures: the Greensboro sit-ins when four African-American college students refused to move from a segregated lunch counter (1960); the Berlin Crisis of 1961; the beginning of the U.S.–Vietnam war (1961); the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962); the assassination of President Kennedy (1963); the Civil Rights Act and the first Beatles Tour of the USA (1964); the assassination of Malcolm X and riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (1965); in 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed and Muhammad Ali became a conscientious objector; the summer of 1967 reflected a paradoxical conjunction of the Detroit race riot with what became known as “the Summer of Love," the hippie movement encapsulated in Scott McKenzie's San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Even without any detailed knowledge of these events, it is possible to discern a period of tension and accelerated change. The connection between Swift’s world and Bruce’s environment is that they both functioned in complex space marked by division, fragmentation, and social and political contradictions.
The civil rights movements in race and gender coincided with urban riots and an emerging hippie ethos in the paradoxical decade of the 1960s. There were also radical challenges to the norms in the arts in many parts of the world. Boundaries of taste were being pushed further and the line defining obscenity blurred. In literature, victories over archaic notions of obscenity were illustrated by two legal challenges. The cases involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were critical. Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934 but was banned in the U.S. until 1964 when the Supreme Court ruled that it was not obscene. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published in 1928 but only became legally available in the U.K. after another obscenity trial in 1960.
Bruce was part of a social and political dynamic in the 1960s. The geographic center was in the U.S. Conventions were under assault on many fronts—in books, theaters, universities, concerts, festivals, on the streets, but those challenges did not go unanswered by establishment forces. Bruce, repeatedly arrested and harassed, was subject to a debilitating series of obscenity trials that, ultimately, eroded his strength.
Photo: public domain
The weapons used to fight reactionary authority were laughter and ridicule. There were other significant comedians involved in the struggle to redefine a moral landscape; George Carlin (1937–2008) and Mort Sahl (born 1927) were among the most notable; the young Black comedian Richard Pryor began a career that for over 50 years exposed racism and prejudice:
I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now; relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren't coming after me.
Dick Gregory (1932–2017) similarly used the stage as a place in which to confront the traumas of discrimination in America: “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”
These comedians were engaged in a challenge to conservatism and racism in the U.S. from a liberal, radical position. The purpose of comedy was redefined as political, moral, and iconoclastic. Comedy had divided into two schools: traditional comedy (Bob Hope, by way of example) used laughter to relieve the audience’s anxieties. At the other end of a spectrum, these radical comedians expressed and embodied those anxieties; used uneasy laughter as a lance tilted at social, political and sexual convention, prejudice at many levels and in many contexts. Thus, Bruce on the nature of sex and obscenity:
You can't do anything with anybody's body to make it dirty to me. Six people, eight people, one person—you can do only one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty.
Bruce was not telling jokes in the conventional sense. His remarkable 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, of almost 3 hours’ duration, contained only one recognisable joke with a traditional punch line. His purpose was to expose his own disruptive, angst-ridden consciousness; dangerous; and subversive, reverberating beyond the confines of theater and night club. The function of the stage moved closer to lecture theatre, pulpit, or court of justice: a place in which to bear witness to hypocrisy, corruption and moral decay: a political space.
Lenny Bruce was worn down by harassment, oppressive legal persecution, anger, frustration and ultimately self-destructive retreat into drugs. That defeat does not diminish his moral authority. He was by no means a saint; his personal life was riddled with drug-dependency and disruptive social behaviors, but he was brave and consistent, and his historical influence is not insignificant. He belonged within an emerging ideological challenge to social and political norms which included some towering figures: the poet Alan Ginsberg, novelist Jack Kerouac, artist Andy Warhol—a group of moral revolutionaries, activists, artists, writers and musicians, committed to alteration and disruption. They represented a conjunction of individuals who, though not a movement, collectively confronted what they felt to be the sickness at the center of contemporary experience. The challenge of a poetic Ginsberg or an angry Bruce would enrich our current reality.
Photo: Poetry in Shikumen
The respect we have for protesters, objectors, the naysayers is a measure of the health of our society. Those are voices we need in these fractured days when lies become news; truth conditional, illusions and reality melded. We may not choose to believe in absolute truth – but we need always to question, doubt, analyze, and be skeptical of what are presented as verifiable realities. Bruce was part of a legacy of moral protest that is vital to counter the destructive power of closed minds. We need the comedians, poets, and prophets to fracture the veneer of hypocrisy that overlays complacency. We have an obligation as moral beings, let alone as educators, to say that we may not be sure of the truth, but we are aware when it is corrupted or missing.
In these troubled times, we have an obligation to study and respect the satirists and comedians who wield the weapon of ridicule and carry the lantern of skepticism. They belong to a noble history of dissent: a source of creative challenge to poverties of convention and unchallenged orthodoxies of right and left. The startling honesty of Lenny Bruce exposes layers of illusion and contradiction. This is a perspective without self-delusion:
I was just thinking this morning that I'd never slept over at a colored person's house. I've never had dinner in a Negro home. There's a big foreign country in my country that I know very little about. And more than that, when whites talk about riots, we really lose our perspective completely. A man from Mars could see what's really happening—convicts rioting in a corrupt prison.
The legacy of satire and comedy, exemplified by the Dean and Mr. Schneider, demonstrates that this is ultimately no laughing matter.