Comedians Speaking Truth to Power: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin & Richard Pryor (NSFW)

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.

Related Content:

George Carlin Performs His “Seven Dirty Words” Routine: Historic and Completely NSFW

New Digital Archive, “Richard Pryor’s Peoria,” Takes You Inside the Dark, Lively World That Shaped the Pioneering Comedian

Lenny Bruce: Hear the Performances That Got Him Arrested (NSFW)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks’ Timeless Comedy Sketch: The 2000-Year-Old-Man

I read the obits. If I’m not in it I’ll have breakfast. —Carl Reiner

Up until this week week, it seemed as if Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner could keep their 2000-Year-Old Man routine going forever.

The premise was simpleReiner as the serious minded announcer, interviewing Brooks as an elder with a Middle European Yiddish accent about some of the historic moments, trends, and celebrities he’d had personal contact with over the years.

The idea originated with Reiner, who, as a young staff writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, thought there was comic gold to be mined from We the Peoplea weekly news program that dramatized important current eventsnotably a plumber who claimed to have overheard some toe curling plans while repairing a faucet in Stalin’s bathroom.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, no one else in the writers room had caught the show, so he drafted coworker Brooks to play along, interviewing him as if he were the host of We the People, and Brooks were an average Joe who’d been at the Crucifixion:

Mel, aging before our eyes, sighed and allowed a sad “Oooooh, boy” to escape from the depths of his soul…

I pressured the Old Man and asked, “You knew Jesus?”

“Jesus … yes, yes,” he said, straining to remember, “thin lad … wore sandals … always walked around with twelve other guys … yes, yes, they used to come into the store a lot … never bought anything … they came in for water … I gave it to them … nice boys, well-behaved… .”

For a good part of an hour Mel had us all laughing and appreciating his total recall of life in the year 1 A.D. I called upon Mel that morning because I knew that one of the characters in his comedy arsenal would emerge. The one that did was similar to one he did whenever he felt we needed a laugh break. It was a Yiddish pirate captain who had an accent not unlike the 2,000-Year-Old Man.

The durable, always unscripted 2000-Year-Old Man made an instant splash with friends and family, but his accentwhich came quite naturally to the Brooklyn-born Brookscaused the duo to question the wisdom of trotting him out before a wider audience.

In the 20’s and 30’s Yiddish accents had been a comic staple on the radio, and in Broadway, vaudeville, and burlesque houses, but that changed when the Nazis came to power, as Reiner recalled in his 2003 memoir, My Anecdotal Life:

…when Adolf Hitler came along and decreed that all Jews were dirty, vile, dangerous, subhuman animals and must be put to death, Jewish and non-Jewish writers, producers, and performers started to question the Yiddish accent’s acceptability as a tool of comedy. The accent had a self-deprecating and demeaning quality that gave aid and comfort to the Nazis, who were quite capable of demeaning and deprecating Jews without our help. From 1941 on, the Yiddish accent was slowly, and for the most part, voluntarily, phased out of show business.

Eventually, however, the character found his way onto their 1961 LP 2000 Years with Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks.

They buttressed his 12-minute appearance with sketches involving astronauts, teen heartthrob Fabian, and Method actors, hedging their bets lest the accent flop with both reference-challenged WASPs and fellow Jews nervous about reinforcing problematic stereotypes.

One wonders what the 2000-Year-Old Manwho as a caveman had trouble determining “who was a lady”would have had to say about the movements for Trans Equality#MeToo, and Black Lives Matter.

A quote on Brooks’ website may provide a hint:

It’s OK not to hurt the feelings of various tribes and groups, however, it’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It’s the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behavior.

Brooks delighted by putting imminently quotable, off-the-cuff punchlines in the mouth of the 2000-Year-Old Man, hooking many young listeners, like veteran comedian and stand up comedy teacher Rick Crom:

The 2000-Year-Old Man was the first comedy album I ever listened to. I was quoting it at 10. I told my Sunday school teacher that before God, people worshipped "a guy...Phil.”

But it was Reinerwho maintained a wish list of questions for the 2000-Year-Old Man and who left us earlier this week at the not-too-shabby age of 98who steered the act, often by pressing his subject to substantiate his wild claims.

As Anne Libera, Director of Comedy Studies at The Second City and Columbia College Chicago, notes:

Carl Reiner was a master of the underrated art of the setup. Most "straight men" are known for their responses that release the laugh. Carl did that too, but even more brilliantly, he subtly puts all of the pieces into play for Mel Brooks to push off of into the comedy stratosphere. You see it in the Dick Van Dyke Show as well —he knew how to create the exact space for a comic character to do their best work.

Copies of the Complete 2000 Year Old Man can be purchased on Amazon.

Related Content: 

Hear 30 of the Greatest Standup Comedy Albums: A Playlist Chosen by Open Culture Readers

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is an animation and a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Listen to Medieval Covers of “Creep,” “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Bad Romance” & More by Hildegard von Blingin’

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots 

Best ye go, best ye go

Outrun my bow

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots

Best ye go, best ye go, faster than mine arrow

If bardcore is a thing—and trust us, it is right now—Hildegard von Blingin’ is the brightest star in its firmament.

The unknown vocalist, pure of throat, pays heed to the fascinating 12th-century abbess and composer Saint Hildegard of Bingen by choice of pseudonym, while demonstrating a similar flair for poetic language.

Von Blingin’s nimble lyrical reworking of Foster the People’s 2010 monster hit, "Pumped Up Kicks," makes deft use of fellow bardcore practioner Cornelius Link’s copyright-free instrumental score and the closest medieval synonyms available.

For the record, Webster’s 1913 dictionary defines a "bully-rook" as a bully, but the term could also be used in a joshing, chops-busting sort of way, such as when The Merry Wives of Windsor’s innkeeper trots it out to greet lovable reprobate, Sir John Falstaff.

And as any fan of Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games can attest, an arrow can prove as lethal as a gun.

Songwriter Mark Foster told Billboard’s Xander Zellner last December that he had been thinking of retiring "Pumped Up Kicks," as listeners are now convinced it's a bouncy-sounding take on school shootings, rather than a more generalized attempt to get inside the head of a troubled—and fictional—youngster.

With school out of session since March, it's an excellent time for von Blingin’ to pick up the torch and bear this song back to the past.

Ditto the timing of von Blingin’s ode to Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance":

I want thine ugly, I want thy disease

Take aught from thee shall I if it can be free

No Celtic harp, wooden recorders, or adjustment of possessive pronouns can disguise the jolt those opening lyrics assume in the middle of a global pandemic.

(St. Hildegard escaped the medieval period’s best known plague, the Black Death, by virtue of having been born some 250 years before it struck.)

Von Blingin’s latest release is an extremely faithful take on Radiohead’s "Creep", with just a few minor tweaks to pull it into medieval lyrical alignment:

Thou float’st like a feather

In a beautiful world

The comments section suggest that the peasants are eager to get in on the act.

Some are expressing their enthusiasm in approximate olde English...

Others question why smygel, eldrich, wyrden or wastrel were not pressed into service as replacements for creep and weirdo..

To borrow a phrase from one such jester, best get your requests in “before the tiktoks come for it.”

Listen to Hildegard Von Blingin’ on Sound Cloud and check out the bardcore sub-reddit for more examples of the form.

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1200 Years of Women Composers: A Free 78-Hour Music Playlist That Takes You From Medieval Times to Now

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Help contain the plague spread with her series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public settings. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self: A Dark, Comedic Reflection on the Last Few Months

What would happen if I tried to explain what's happening now to the January 2020 version of myself? That's the question that Julie Nolke asked and answered in early April.

Now she's back with a sequel where she tries to explain the events of June to her April self.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Are There Limits for a Sitcom Premise? A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#47) Discussion and Quiz

Sitcoms provide a form of escapism that doesn't take one to a magical world of possibility, but instead to a basically unchanging, cozy environment with relatable characters engaged in low-stakes conflicts.

So what are the limits on the type of premise that can ground a sitcom? While most of the longest lasting sitcoms have simple set-ups involving friends or co-workers, streaming has led to more serialization and hence wider plot possibilities.

Does this mean that the era of sitcoms has come to an end? Or has the genre just broadened to admit entries like Ricky Gervais' After Life and Derek, Harmon & Roiland's Rick & Morty, Greg Daniels' Upload and Space Force, and Armando Iannucci's Avenue 5?

In this low-stakes, feel-good discussion, Mark, Erica, and Brian also touch on the Parks & Recreation reunion special, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Community, Modern Family, Red Oaks, The Simpsons, Last Man on Earth, WOOPS!, the stain of Chuck Lorre, and more. Plus a quiz to guess which weird sitcom premises are real and which Mark made up.

Incorporate these articles into your situation:

If you enjoy this discussion, check out our previous episodes on Friends and The Good Place.

Learn more at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Al Jaffee, Iconic Mad Magazine Cartoonist, Retires at Age 99 … and Leaves Behind Advice About Living the Creative Life

Apart from Alfred E. Neuman, there is no Al more closely identified with Mad magazine than Al Jaffee. Born in 1921, he was around for more than 30 years before the launch of that satirical magazine turned American cultural phenomenon — and now, at age 99, he's on track to outlive it. Just this week, the longest-working cartoonist in history and inventor of the Fold-In announced his retirement, and "to mark his farewell," writes the Washington Post's Michael Cavna, "Mad’s 'Usual Gang of Idiots' will salute Jaffee with a tribute issue next week. It will be the magazine’s final regular issue to offer new material, including Jaffee’s final Fold-In, 65 years after he made his Mad debut."

Over these past six and a half decades, Jaffee has drawn praise for his wit and versatility. But all throughout his career, he's also managed to combine those qualities with seemingly unstoppable productivity. "I am essentially a commercial artist," Jaffee says in this brief two-part interview from OnCreativity. "I will not try to save time, ever, on my work by going through it quickly and just getting it done. I have to be as satisfied with it as the person who's going to buy it from me."

When an assignment comes in, he continues, "I will not deliver it until I am satisfied that I would buy it." This requires a clear understanding of the client's needs — "you are there to solve their problems," he emphasizes — as well as the willingness to turn down not-quite-suitable jobs.

Of course Jaffee said all this in his younger days, back when he was only 96. Perhaps it isn't surprising that a man in his hundredth year would decide to step back from his workaday schedule (his Fold-Ins alone number nearly 500) and focus on the projects from which commercial exigencies might have distracted him. "I do fine art for my own amusement," he say in this interview. "We should all feel free to amuse ourselves that way and just hang everything we do up on the refrigerator." But he also expresses the wish to "create a couple more things before I kick the bucket." This after, as he puts it to Cavna, "living the life I wanted all along, which was to make people think and laugh." Now Jaffee's younger readers have the chance to think hard and laugh harder as they catch up on era upon era of his past work — not that, strictly speaking, he has any older readers.

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A Gallery of Mad Magazine’s Rollicking Fake Advertisements from the 1960s

When Mad Magazine Ruffled the Feathers of the FBI, Not Once But Three Times

Watch Mad Magazine’s Edgy, Never-Aired TV Special (1974)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Lucy Lawless Impersonated Stevie Nicks & Imagined Her as the Owner of a Bad Tex-Mex Restaurant: A Cult Classic SNL Skit

What we wouldn’t give to travel back in time to Sedona, Arizona for a non-socially-distanced $2.99 Tuesday night burrito special at Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup, the hundredth best restaurant in this 161-restaurant town according to one ratings site.

Alas, the closest this Fleetwood Mac-flavored Tex-Mex establishment has ever come to physical existence was in October 1998 when actor Lucy Lawless, famous then as now for playing Xena the Warrior Princess, was hosting Saturday Night Live.

The day before the Wednesday table read to determine which sketches will make it on air, writer Hugh Fink got wind of Lawless’ Stevie Nicks impersonation (she also does a mean Chrissie Hynde…)

Fink thought this was something to build on, inspired by his dad’s Fleetwood Mac fandom, and the fact that Nicks’ star had dimmed a bit since the band’s 70’s heyday, when its members’ interpersonal relations were a hot topic and Rumours, still the 8th best selling album of all time, dominated.

He joined forces with fellow staff writer, Nicks fan Scott Wainio, tarrying ’til the wee hours of Wednesday morning to begin casting about for comic ideas of how the sexy, shawl-draped fairy godmother of rock ‘n’ roll might spend her off duty hours, now that “Lindsay Buckingham and cocaine” were in the rear view.

They decided that having her own a bargain-priced local eatery similar to the ones Fink remembered dining in as a touring stand up was their best bet…and what more fitting locale than New Age mecca Sedona?

Plot-driven SNL skits often peter out en route from a strong opening premise to the ending.

As a commercial parody, Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup has no such trouble.

As Fink recently recalled in an interview with The Ringer’s Dan Devine:

I wanted this commercial to come off as not a classy, nationally produced ad, but clearly a cheap, locally produced commercial for a shitty restaurant and that’s why, even in the script, at the time, I put in those cutaways of, like, really unappealing, bad-looking food with the price, and advertising specials. Comedically, I thought it’d be even funnier if the restaurant was cheap. The research department had to get me photos of the Mexican food, which I would approve. I would tell them, ‘No, I want it to look shittier than that. That looks too good.

The research department definitely delivered. As did New Zealander Lawless, though she lacked the cultural reference points to get the joke, and game as she was, discreetly tried to get producer Lorne Michaels to pull the skit, worried that it was a lead balloon.

It came by its laughs honestly in performance, the audience eating up retooled Fleetwood Mac hits promoting burritos and nachos, but with Youtube some 8 years away, Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Round Up faded into obscurity….

It took a man with vision and a long memory to bring it back.

In 2012, Matthew Amador truffled up the fondly remembered clip and started a Facebook page for the hypothetical restaurant, largely so he could claim it had catered the end-of-year intern-appreciation buffet at the casting agency where he was working.

The first likes came from the dutiful interns, but eventually the page attracted other likeminded fans, who’d caught the original performance over a decade before.

It has since migrated to Twitter, where “Stevie”—the first female double inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame —is eagerly awaiting reopening while reminding her followers that the Roundup’s tables “have always been a MINIMUM of 6’ apart, giving you a safer dining experience you’ll never forget and giving me plenty of room to twirl depending on the length of my fringe.”

View the full transcript here. And yes, you are correct, that's Jimmy Fallon at the piano, in his 3rd SNL appearance.

via The Ringer and Metafilter

Related Content:

Stevie Nicks “Shows Us How to Kick Ass in High-Heeled Boots” in a 1983 Women’s Self Defense Manual

How Fleetwood Mac Makes A Song: A Video Essay Exploring the “Sonic Paintings” on the Classic Album, Rumours

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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