No matter how strenuously people claim to support free speech, hardly anyone believes we should get to say whatever we want, however we want, wherever we want. We all just draw the lines differently between speech we find tolerable and that we find beyond the pale. There are reasonable arguments for establishing legal boundaries, but comedy—goes one line of thought—should never be subject to constraints. Anything goes in stand-up, since the comic’s role is to say the unsayable, to shock and surprise, to speak truth to power, etc.
Rising comic John Early (“the left’s funniest comedian,” The Nation proclaims) finds all this gravitas a little absurd. “It’s just a weird, weird, time to be a comedian,” he says in a recent interview. “I feel there’s no greater testament to the fact that our public institutions have failed us than the fact that comedians are somehow moral authorities of this moment. We give so much power to comedians and their platforms, and I’m absolutely horrified by it.” To expect people who tell jokes for a living to have the best handle on what power needs to hear may be expecting too much. “Please don’t ever listen to me,” says Early.
Another argument goes that since comedians are just entertainers, they can say whatever they want, no matter how vicious or demeaning, because it’s “just a joke.” Whatever the merits of this position, when we look back to the greatest comics who shocked, surprised, spoke truths, etc., we see that they took jokes seriously—and that the targets of their humor were institutions that actually held power. This was maybe a prerequisite for how enduringly funny they still are, and how relevant, even if some specific references are lost on us now.
Before Early, Lenny Bruce went on TV to tell viewers of his 1959 jazz special that all entertainers, himself included, are liars. It’s just the nature of the business, he says, then goes through a bit where he shows—with real newspaper headlines all printed on the same day—how news media also exaggerates, embellishes, and lies to sensationalize crime. In under two minutes he rips through the cherished illusion of journalistic objectivity; just as Carlin, who also built a career on saying the unsayable, tears up the U.S.’s most cherished beliefs, above.
The American Dream is a scam, Carlin says. Argue over free speech all you like, but politics is a distraction. “Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t.” (One is reminded of Devo.) In a scathing rant, Carlin goes after the biggest game, the corporate owners who control the politicians, the land, and “all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear.” He delivers his most famous line: “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it,” and the audience applauds with recognition of a truth they already know.
Leave it to Richard Pryor, the comedy standard of speaking shocking truths to power, to bring these observations together in the interview clip above that takes digs at his own integrity as a TV entertainer, the slippery nature of television executives, and why they feared the kinds of truths he had to tell. “What do you think [they’re] afraid you’re going to do to America?” he’s asked (meaning specifically white America). He responds in all seriousness, “probably stop some racism.” If people can laugh at hard truths, they can recognize and talk about them. This is a problem for those in power.
“If people don’t hate each other, and start talking to each other, they find out who’s the problem,” Pryor says. “Greedy people.” Racism is a strategy, like sensationalist crime headlines or promises of a better life, to keep people distracted and divided. Those who promote it don’t need personal reasons to do so. “It’s part of capitalism to promote racism,” Pryor says. It’s how the system works. “That separates people. And if you keep people separated it keeps them from thinking about the real problem.” Maybe we are free to say what we want, but Pryor has a warning for those who emulate people in power, even if they think they have the best of intentions. The interview segment ends with the sounds of dueling cesspools.