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

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