The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter,” Mark Twain once remarked, and we’re all clearly at the moment when we need that weapon.
The shrill political atmosphere calls for a rebirth of the sort of anarchic humor of the late ’50s — the epoch of Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and George Carlin.
In his new biography of Carlin, James Sullivan reminds us that every gifted comedian is basically a “scofflaw who could be charged with breaking and entering — breaking society’s rules and entering people’s psyches.”
Alas, we confront a true shortage of comic scofflaws today. With Sarah Palin framing the rhetoric of the right, society needs a depth of wit beyond Jay Leno’s standup jibes or dick jokes from “The Hangover.”
Comics used to fascinate us all as we waited to see how far they would go. Carlin went after the Catholic Church, the sanctity of children, our sense of entitlement and, of course, built a famous routine around the “seven words you can never say on television.” All seven are now staples of cable TV and three are OK on network.
Today’s latenight humor is a lot blander. Witness: Last week Letterman observed that U.S. Treasury Notes might lose their triple-A rating, then asked, “Who cares what the auto club thinks?” Leno questioned the need for an immigration bill, noting that “we already have a path to citizenship — the San Diego Freeway.” That’s OK stuff, but it ain’t Lenny Bruce or even Jack Paar.
In the early ’60s, Paar conducted a constant war with NBC’s standards and practices overseers. One night he walked out in the middle of the show after the network bleeped out a joke it said might offend cemetery owners. “There must be a better way of making a living,” Paar snorted. He returned two weeks later.
Indeed, the current style of humor should make us all grateful for Bill Maher, who once observed, “What can I say about George Carlin that hasn’t already been argued in front of the Supreme Court?”
Cable TV should provide a perfect playpen for edgy young comics, but instead we have almost a clinical dependency on very few bastions of wit — Jon Stewart and Maher.
Both have been feasting on the health-care debate. Stewart has faithfully and frequently reminded Rush Limbaugh that he’d promised to leave the country if the health bill passed. Maher compared the debate to “one of those John Hughes movies in which the nerdy kids defeat the rich kids in their Izod shirts.”
Having been raised Catholic, Maher also denounced those who suggest that the church’s molestation problems could be resolved if priests were allowed to get married. “There are not enough 8-year-old boys around to solve the problem,” Maher cracked.
Lenny Bruce would have loved this sort of political landscape.