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Laughter in revolt: Race, ethnicity, and identity in the construction of stand-up comedy

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Matthew Daube
November 2009
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I certify that I have read this dissertation and that, in my opinion, it is fully adequate in
scope and quality as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
I certify that I have read this dissertation and that, in my opinion, it is fully adequate in
scope and quality as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
(Alice Rayner)
I certify that I have read this dissertation and that, in my opinion, it is fully adequate in
scope and quality as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
lelen Brooks)
Approved for the Stanford University Committee on Graduate Studies.
$ * - / "
Positing stand-up comedy as a comic performance structure which emerged in
the United States beginning in the 1950s, this dissertation employs performance
analyses and historical contextualization to argue that stand-up's style and subject
matter are inextricably linked to issues of race, ethnicity, and the production of
identity. The major comedians on whom I focus—Lenny Bruce, David Gregory, Bill
Cosby, and Richard Pryor—constituted a vanguard of comics who altered the older
traditions of joke-telling into an extended direct conversation with the audience. These
comics employed laughter to survive and understand pain; to explore obscenity,
taboos and stereotypes; and to construct a refashioned form of comedy as a
contemporary means for both the comedian and his or her audience to understand the
performance of personhood.
Introducing a dynamic that would become a major mode of operation for
stand-up comedy, Bruce presented ethnicity as a performative process which deserves
to operate openly in the public realm. In the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s, he
placed ethnicity in the United States within the larger framework of race and also
launched Jewishness as the fashionable forefront of stand-up comedy self-fashioning.
The state-instigated obscenity trials of Bruce shock in retrospect largely because of the
success of his legacy, which was the creation of stand-up as a free speech zone, in
which flirtation with the obscene is not only tolerated but expected.
Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby built on the approaches established by Bruce as
they introduced black comedy to the integrated main stage in the early 1960s, each of
them pioneering a model of how African American comics could intervene in a racial
discussion within comedy that had been initiated by non-blacks. Gregory blended
gentle generic jokes with sharp social critique, carefully calibrating humor and oneline structure to make some very pointed barbs under cover of congeniality, before his
anger channeled into direct political activism off-stage. Cosby quickly followed up as
stand-up's first superstar, successful in large part because he approached race by
eliminating direct references to it from his act. Gregory and Cosby began the process
of integrating comedy, breaking down the barrier live and in person and establishing
black humor as a serious matter.
Gregory and Cosby also paved the way for Richard Pryor. Driven by a
compulsion to examine sites of pain and motivated by an acute consciousness of being
a black man in the United States, Pryor revolutionized stand-up through
unprecedented attempts to co-opt traditional stereotypes and reverse the centuries-old
minstrel tradition, as his work managed to both entertain and instruct. With bravery
and bravado, from the late 1960s to early 1980s, Pryor called out the racism of the
United States from center stage, using stand-up comedy to turn the previous object of
comic discussion—the black man in particular—into the subject speaking on his own
behalf. Pryor dramatically expanded the options of what black performers and comics
could say and what white audiences would hear. Pryor also shifted the performance
movement back onto the track pioneered by Bruce, consisting of open explorations of
race and ethnicity, a testing ground of taboo language and topics, and confessions
involving an unusually intimate relationship with the audience.
Portions of this dissertation have been presented at the Modern Language
Association convention and at the joint national conference of the National Popular
Culture and American Culture Associations. Segments of my introduction and
conclusion will be incorporated into my upcoming article "The Stand-up as Stand-in:
Performer-Audience Intimacy and the Emergence of the Stand-up Comic in the United
States since the 1950s," due to be published by Parlor Press in the anthology Live
Comedy Audiences, edited by Judith Batalion.
At Stanford University I have had significant institutional support from the
Department of Drama, the Graduate Program in Humanities, and the Center for
Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. My dissertation committee provided
guidance that went above and beyond the call of duty. Harry Elam kept me on the
right track by asking the larger questions and pushing me to dig deeper. He also kept
his door open no matter how often the office itself changed locations. Alice Rayner's
invaluable insights helped bring clarity to some of my fog. (The remaining mist is my
responsibility alone.) Helen Brooks' thought-filled questions launched many a crucial
and fruitful conversation, and I am confident that our dialogue will continue. I have
also benefitted greatly from the patient tutelage of previous exam mentors, including
Jean-Marie Apostolides, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Cherrie Moraga.
The openness of my colleagues never fails to touch me. Their feedback has
been essential, starting with the dissertation workgroup "Interdisciplinarity and the
Academy," which included Ernesto Tlahuitollini Colin, Micaela Diaz-Sanchez, Doris
Texcallini Madrigal, Julie Minich, Rich Simpson, and the inimitable Zamora.
Graduate students in the Department of Drama offered similar support, quite often in
the coffee shops of San Francisco's Mission District. For insight, friendship, and
hand-crafted coffee by the cup, I thank Kyle Gillette, Rachel Joseph, Barry Kendall,
Florentina Mocanu-Schendel, and Daniel Sack. The advice and companionship of my
fellow fellows at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity this past
year breathed new life into body and soul; my gratitude goes out to Jocelyn Chua,
Jolene Hubbs, and Doris Texcallini Madrigal.
Friends such as Sean Cook, Deb Garfinkle, Todd Gutmann, and Kathleen
Vanden Heuvel were both adept at keeping me sane and forgiving when I had to spend
a Friday night dissertating. The students in my seminars on race and ethnicity in standup comedy never failed to impress me with their intellectual acuity, and always
stunned me with the power and facility of their stand-up performances.
Family has remained tolerant and loving throughout, and I remind my parents
Jonathan and Linda, my brother Andrew, my sister Katharine, her partner Michelle
and their children Esther, Noah, and Ari that I love them all, even if I do live in
California. Cousins Mike and Sue Austin have been particularly supportive of my
academic pursuits. The spirit and memory of my late grandfather David accompany
me through every stage of life. I have appreciated every opportunity to celebrate his
memory with his widow Helen and her daughter Tina.
This dissertation is dedicated to two extraordinary individuals without whose
luminous minds and hearts I might never have crossed the doctoral finish line: namely,
Micaela Diaz-Sanchez and Harry Elam.
Table of Contents
Identifying Stand-up Comedy
Stand-up Starter: Mort Sahl
Race and Comedy
Scholarly Precedents
Chapter Outline
Looking Ahead
Chapter One: "Lenny Bruce: The Outing of Ethnicity in Stand-up Comedy"
Imitating Others: Bruce's Vaudevillian Origins
Jewish American Humor and Assimilation
Outing Ethnicity: Bruce's Overt Jewishness
Complicating Ethnicity: Bruce's Jewishness as Performed
Comedy Cool: Race-ing Ethnicity
Chapter Two: "Utter Taboos: The Obscenity of Lenny Bruce"
Standing Trial: Obscenity in San Francisco
Vulgarity and the Vernacular: Bruce's Burlesque Background
Unmasking the Man: Speaking like the People
Blasphemy in Chicago
Performing Oneself
Epilogue: Sick Humor
Chapter Three: "Standing Up Black: Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby"
Setting the Stage: Before Gregory
Dick Gregory: Cracking the Color Line
Bill Cosby: Race Erasure?
Chapter Four: "Burning with Desire: Richard Pryor's Body of Pain"
Prior Pryor, Cosby Clone
Identity Crisis: Breaking Id Down
Pryor Desire
Pryor on Fire: Body of Pain
Chapter Five: "Bursting the Laughing Barrel: Richard Pryor's Performance of Race"
Back to Black: Re-claiming Roots
Loaded Language: The N-Word and Stereotype
Race as Performance: Revealing Whiteness
Bruce, Gregory, Cosby, Pryor: The Legacy
Stand-up Comedy's Glass Curtain: the Gender Gap
Standing Up
Sources Cited
The real geniuses of the comic are not those who make us laugh hardest
but those who reveal some unknown realm of the comic. History has
always been considered an exclusively serious territory. But there is the
undiscovered comic side to history.1
—Milan Kundera
Identifying Stand-up Comedy
The aim of this dissertation is to contextualize stand-up comedy as a comic
performance structure which emerged in the United States beginning in the 1950s. I
argue that stand-up's style and subject matter are inextricably linked to issues of race,
ethnicity and the production of identity. Arising in the midst of the Civil Rights Era,
the form lent itself to racial and ethnic minorities who queried the evolving
relationship between the individual and society-as-a-whole. Rooted in older forms of
comedy and vaudeville, stand-up pushes further into the realm of the topical,
extending the comic monologue into a full-length stage show based upon the public
presentation of the comedian's personal life. The comedians on whom I focus—Lenny
Bruce, David Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor—were the vanguard of those
who altered the older traditions of comic joke-telling into an extended direct
conversation with the audience, creating a space of extraordinary intimacy. These
comics employed laughter to survive and understand pain; to explore obscenity,
' Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 1988),
taboos and stereotypes; and to construct a refashioned form of comedy as a
contemporary means for both the comedian and his or her audience to understand the
performance of personhood. Subsequent stand-up comics continue to follow the
blueprint sketched by these performers in the first few decades following World War
One could, of course, apply the label of stand-up comic to any person who
stands before any audience at any time (or in any era) in order to tell jokes. Respected
humor scholar Lawrence Mintz does just this when he declares that "standup comedy
is arguably the oldest, most universal, basic, and deeply significant form of humorous
expression . . . It is the purest public comic communication, performing essentially the
same social and cultural roles in practically every known society, past and present."2
Such a broad-brushed approach may be driven by the desire to justify the significance
of a neglected art form, and casting a wide net can unfold stand-up's connections to
alternative modes of humor and performance. Explanations of the craft tend to center
on technique, and definitions lean toward the tautological or the opaque—note the
Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the stand-up comic as "a comedian whose
act consists of standing before an audience and telling a succession of jokes."3
Capacious definitions, however, run the risk of discounting the historical particularity
of those who have been most commonly labeled as stand-up comics, by both critics
and the public.
Lawrence E. Mintz, "Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation," American Quarterly 37, no.
1(1985): 71.
"Stand-up, A. And N," The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press,
The term "stand-up" comedy, after all, entered the lexicon only in the 1950s.4
Before the latter half of the twentieth century, the United States lacked specialized
venues for the performance of comic monologues. Rather, there was an assortment of
forums, from vaudeville to burlesque, and solo joke-telling appeared on-stage
alongside songs, skits, dancing, juggling, magic, animal acts, and more. Jokesmiths
tended to ply multiple show business trades—e.g., Jack Benny played the violin,
Fanny Brice sang, and Sammy Davis, Jr., a prime example of a Chitlin' Circuit5
veteran, could sing, dance, play music, tell jokes and do comic impressions. Some
comedians toyed with a facade of the personal—think of the married couple George
Burns and Gracie Allen playing a married couple—but their jokes remained generic
and professional, lacking stand-up's affectation of non-professionalism and seeming
dependence upon the specifics of performers' daily lives off-stage.
The rise of stand-up comedy occurred within a larger questioning of the role of
the individual in a rapidly changing society post-World War II. As a solo performer,
the comic confronts what David Riesman's classic 1950 tome The Lonely Crowd
describes as an accelerating struggle to maintain individuality in a nation increasingly
dominated by large corporate and government structures. Approval from one's peers
became a more pressing goal, which helps contextualize the comedian's desire to win
over the audience's laughter. Riesman asserts that an escalation of conformity in the
1 have found use of the word in the New York Times as early as 1954. Sidney Lohman, "News and
Notes from the Television and Radio Studios," New York Times, April 18, 1954. The earliest Oxford
English Dictionary listing stems from the August 11, 1966 edition of The Listener, a weekly magazine
published by the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1929 until 1991: "Stand-up, A. AndN."
The Chitlin Circuit, founded in the 1920s, was a separate vaudeville circuit established for black
performers playing for black audiences in cities primarily in the Midwest and the South. The original
association folded by the end of the decade, but the term is used to this day to refer to a loose network
of venues providing live performance by blacks for blacks, usually in a working class milieu.
workplace sparked a greater need for leisure time pursuits, which could presumably
include nightclubs. These moments away from the office could generate space, in his
words, "for the would-be autonomous man to reclaim his individual character from the
pervasive demands of his social character."6 Comedy's response to these
characterological concerns has been to create stand-up as a site in which to probe the
Written in 1959—the same year that Lenny Bruce became nationally famous—
Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life plays off the same
uncertainty about the status of individuals when he argues for the performative quality
of playing social roles off the stage. The action of stand-up comedy echoes the "selfproduction" cited by Goffman, in which we attempt to regulate the impressions of
others in our everyday encounters.7 While Goffman is "not concerned with aspects of
theater that creep into everyday life," stand-up comedy is most definitely concerned
with aspects of everyday life that creep into the theater.8 Goffman differentiates theater
from everyday life by dividing it into players, characters, and an audience: "on the
stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by
other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction—one that is
essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there."9
One can recognize "real life" because "the three parties are compressed into two" by
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, 1961, 2001), 276.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Publishing Group, Inc., 1959), 253.
Ibid., 254.
Ibid., xi.
rejecting the audience.10 In stand-up comedy, compression occurs because the number
of players is reduced to one, who performs his or her own character, complete with
matching name and life history, speaking directly with the audience.11
The comedian is not engaged in identical performances on and off-stage, but
plays off the symbiotic relationship, using the stand-up act to replicate and comically
exaggerate the process of constructing a personal identity. By conceiving of identity as
a process rather than a stable entity, I follow the lead of Stuart Hall, who suggests that
"[p]erhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact... we should
think, instead, of identity as a 'production', which is never complete, always in
process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation."12 In the stand-up
spotlight, the audience watches a person present him or herself, not as a fully formed
or static individual, but as a person in process, expressing opinions and eliciting
feedback in the live. The presentation differs from traditional comedy and theater
insofar as the details and mannerisms of the character portrayed align closely with the
Antecedents to the stand-up comic's direct address to the audience include the English Renaissance
drama soliloquy. What is similar about the soliloquy and stand-up is the use of inner thoughts to
establish a more direct relationship with an audience. Marjorie Garber describes the soliloquies given to
Shakespearean tragic heroes as producing "a sense of interior consciousness rather like Romantic odes
and modern lyric poems" and argues that the focus on such characters in the early twentieth century
"inevitably led to a reaction that insisted upon their cultural specificity, upon categories of identity like
race and class, gender, ethnicity and religion." Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare after All (New York:
Anchor Books, 2004), 18. The impression of inner thoughts being spoken may lead the audience to.
ponder questions of identity formation, however, "Shakespeare's plays do not have a single voice, a
lyric 'I,' or a 'focalized' character through whom the audience or reader is tacitly expected to interpret
the play" and even with dramatic soliloquies, "the audience is given extensive evidence within the play
to judge and evaluate the truth claims and ethical assertions that are so eloquently set forth by these
charismatic speakers. We should remember that some of the most effective soliloquies, both in
Shakespeare and elsewhere in English Renaissance drama, are put in the mouths of, and at the service
of, Machiavellian characters." Garber, Shakespeare after All, 8. Whether or not one accepts the term
"Machiavellian" to connote evil machinations, the point stands that Hamlet is not Shakespeare any
more than Gertrude or Claudius are Shakespeare. There is not the same overlap of author, performer,
and character as we have in stand-up comedy.
Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora," in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed.
Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 222.
person behind the performance, and the text to be interpreted stems not from a
traditional playwright, but from the text of the comic's everyday life.
With the public performance dependent on material from the private life,
stand-up provides an uncommon opportunity to examine the performance of identity
as a process of negotiation. Stuart Hall argues further that "[precisely because
identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse, we need to understand them as
produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive
formations and practices, by specific enunciative strategies."13 This understanding
places further importance on investigating the historical formation of stand-up
comedy, asking why and how these comedians chose the enunciative strategy of standup comedy in order to query the practice of identity formation in the United States.
Stand-up Starter: Mort Sahl
Mort Sahl is the first nationally known comedian to undertake the stand-up
comedy model for his entire act. When Sahl premiered in December of 1953 at the
San Francisco nightclub "the hungry i," his casual dress and conversational style
signaled a sharp break from the traditional tuxedoed nightclub comedian. Donning a
sweater, Sahl consciously evoked the guise of a young Intellectual, still dressing as he
had when studying city management and traffic engineering at the University of
Southern California. The conspicuous newspaper tucked under his arm indicated an
intent to occupy the audience with news of the day, and he embraced a colloquial tone
, "Introduction: Who Needs 'Identity'?," in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and
Paul du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996), 4.
more suited to that of a family seated around the kitchen table than that of a
professional entertainer and his middle class audience. Sahl substituted jokes about
current events and ostensibly private experiences for the then standard target of
Rather than interacting with other professionals on-stage, Sahl directly
addresses the audience, which serves as the silent partner in a comic dialogue. This
allows for a closer relationship between entertainer and audience, predicated on a
conversation in the present, and topical enough to include events of the moment.
Sahl's first album, The Future Lies Ahead (1958), recorded live, opens with references
to the low ratings received by the press conference held by President Eisenhower just
a day before the performance. Teasing both the president and the taste of the nation,
Sahl tells his audience: "and, uh, he made a speech last night, which got a '7' on NBC,
that says.. .right? And uh.. .and Zorro got an ' 18'?"14 Public sentiment in the television
age, as measured by market share, has become more important than either Eisenhower
or Zorro, and an era which measures opinions so meticulously conjures comedians
who do the same.
Sahl's focus on a performer's personal opinions and life leads to a shift away
from the transposable joke-telling of vaudevillian comics, whose material could be
delivered by any comedian with the requisite technical skill, to humor contingent on
the revelations of the comic's stream of thought. As can be seen in the extended
opening from side two of The Future Lies Ahead, Sahl simulates the concatenation of
free association: Within a few scant minutes, Sahl's stream-of-consciousness approach
Mort Sahl, The Future Lies Ahead (Verve, 1958).
accommodates the Cold War, leading political figures, his own service in the national
guard, his time at college, and a meta-commentary on the use of English. The closest
Sahl gets to a traditional joke is the pun on "standard deviation":
I have a lot of offbeat non-commercial jokes about a course I took at
Cal once called Statistical Analysis. And there was a guy in the course
who used to make up all his computations and he never used sigma. He
used to use his own initials, be—right, cause he was a standard
deviation, that's all I was going to say...15
after which he goes on to discuss his radio show, his apartment, touring with jazz
pianist Dave Brubeck, the NAACP, the AMA, a recent bank robbery committed by
veterans, and more. More than an anonymous jokester, Sahl shares his interior
monologue with all onlookers. By adopting colloquial speech and mimicking the
mannerisms of an audience member, with his speech full of hems and haws and
stuttered repeating phrases, Sahl both plays the part of a man on the street speaking his
mind and is that man, in that the opinions expressed are his own.
With the possible exception of the trick rope artist, star satirist, and Hollywood
actor Will Rogers (1879-1935), no American comic monologist had cut such an
intimate figure on stage. Both men spoke as outsiders, closer to the crowd than one
might expect from a celebrity. Rogers, while undoubtedly an influence, nonetheless
did not weave his personal life into public material to the degree done by Sahl, who
includes anecdotes about his dating life alongside opinions on Vice President Nixon's
foreign travels. This is a bold move for an era when, as Gerard Nachman attests, "the
mere idea of a stand-up comic talking about the real world was in itself
revolutionary."16 Even more radical and influential is Sahl's situating of himself front
and center, calling into question whether the so-called "real world" ends at the stage's
edge. With Sahl, the comedian becomes an individual, not in the sense of an abstract
everyman, but as an actual next-door neighbor. As Joan Rivers puts it, "Audiences
nowadays want to know their comedian. Can you please tell me one thing about Bob
Hope? If you only listened to his material, would you know the man? His comedy is
another America, an America that is not coming back."17 Sahl's attempt to take his
performance of self to the stage has been adopted by the entire medium, as stand-up
comics continue to highlight the contiguity between their on and off-stage personas,
deliberately and consciously projecting an aura of casual non-performance, building
comedic characters that purport to reflect the persons behind the personas.
Race and Comedy
In retrospect, it seems fitting that stand-up comedy, with its emphasis on the
performer's personal life, would become a place for the expression of ethnic
experiences. Mort Sahl, however, expressly denied that being Jewish had an impact on
his comedy, claiming that "I don't have any kinship with a Jewish background.... If
the role of the Jew is to rock the boat and to be inquisitive—intellectually curious that
is—fine. Classic role."18 Whatever his motivation, Sahl's decision to downplay his
Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (New York:
Pantheon Books, 2003), 51.
Ibid., 22.
Quoted in Ibid., 69. Sahl continues to dismiss his Judaism. In an interview on National Public Radio's
Fresh Air, Terri Gross asked Sahl whether Borscht Belt dialect comedians impacted his work, to which
Sahl replied "No. I never had an orthodox taste—you should forgive the expression, but you know, I
spent an awful lot of my years around jazz." "Interview: Mort Sahl discusses the role of the political
Jewishness may have been vital for success as stand-up's first nationally known act; it
was risky enough for Sahl to criticize mainstream Protestant white America without
accenting his ethnicity.
Sahl's omission of ethnicity was anomalous for such a topical art form. After
all, the historical period encompassing the emergence of stand-up comedy overlaps
with that of the Civil Rights Movement. From the 1955-6 Montgomery Bus Boycott,
to the Voting Rights Act of 1966, to the Black Power movements of the late 1960s and
early 1970s, the decades covered in this dissertation were ones in which race was
publicly queried. As discussed in Chapter One, Lenny Bruce, not Sahl, was to be the
crucial pioneer in connecting stand-up comedy explicitly to race and ethnicity.
My placement of Bruce's ethnicity inside the framework of race sets me apart
from the predominant approach to ethnic humor, which is to regard ethnicity as a
temporary stage along the process of Americanization.19 Richard Perry distinguishes
ethnicity as a method of cultural differentiation related to (but not synonymous with)
culture and heritage, adding that it is a paradigm which tends to be viewed in terms
that are contingent and layered.20 Ethnicity is a more mutable social category than race,
and not as directly linked to the history of European colonialism. According to
Michael Omi and Howard Winant, "Americans have come to view race as a variety of
ethnicity" but I adhere to the converse conception that, within the United States,
ethnicity is a differentiation mediated within the framework of race, most often
satirist and his career as a comedian." Fresh Air. National Public Radio: December 23, 2003.While
Bruce would use jazz cool to bestow hipness upon his Jewishness, Sahl never exhibited a similar effort
to publicly examine his own ethnic roots.
1 mention specific cases of this inclination below, in my review of the scholarship.
Richard Perry, "Race" And Racism: The Development of Modern Racism in America (New York and
Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 62.
employed to distinguish between fluctuating sub-categories of whiteness.21 The ethnic
paradigm can be useful for examining difference within the non-black community, and
I use it for these purposes with the belief that the larger context in the United States is
(and always has been) that of race. I agree with the criticism that some proponents of
the ethnicity school "fail to grasp the extent to which U.S. society is racially structured
from top to bottom," and attempt to place my discussion of Brace's ethnicity in
conversation with that very racial structure.22
I align this dissertation with the conceptualization of race set forth by Michael
Omi and Howard Winant which "emphasizes the social nature of race, the absence of
any essential racial characteristics, the historical flexibility of racial meanings and
categories, the conflictual character of race at both the 'micro-' and 'macro-social'
levels, and the irreducible political aspect of racial dynamics."23 Race is, as George
Lipsitz attests, "a cultural construct," understood differently depending on the
historical situation.24 Race incurs paradox as, in the words of Winant, "[r]ace is not
only real, but also illusory. Not only is it common sense; it is also common nonsense.
Not only does it establish our identity; it also denies us our identity."25 Race is unreal
in that it has no basis in biology, but the practice of racism has a very real and material
impact. It can be helpful to consider race as an on-going process or "doing." As Harry
Elam explains, "Conceiving race as a doing enables us to examine how subjects repeat
Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the
1990s (New York: Routledge, 1994), 4.
Ibid., 50.
Ibid., 4.
George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment of Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
2006), 3.
Howard Winant, "Racial Dualism at Century's End," in The House That Race Built, ed. Wahneema
or perhaps even subvert established gestures, behaviors, linguistic patterns, cultural
attitudes, and social expectations associated with race."26 Deeply entwined with the
performance of race, spotlighting individuals querying their identity within broad
social categories, stand-up comedy provides an excellent opportunity for just such an
It should come as no surprise that some of the most cutting-edge questions
concerning race, ethnicity, and identity arise within comedy given the frequent
invocation of a "comic license" to deal with issues considered taboo and/or troubling.
Indeed, the lack of serious regard granted to comedy allows it to deal with thorny and
paradoxical issues. Many humor theorists suggest that humor is actually built on
paradox, in that it relies upon the co-existence of two contradictory narratives. For
example, Arthur Koestler writes that humor stems from "the clash of the two mutually
incompatible codes, or associative contexts,"27 while Victor Raskin's influential
Semantic Mechanisms of Humor refers to the phenomenon in terms of incompatible
linguistic scripts.28 The troubling paradox of race, an unreal concept with horrifyingly
real consequences, makes perfect fodder for comedy. Stand-up comedy, with its
further emphasis on identity, becomes a central site for the conversation on race in the
United States as the tragic dynamic of race fits all too well into the comic structure of
Harry Elam, "Towards a New Territory in 'Multicultural' Theater," in The Color of Theater: Race,
Culture, and Contemporary Performance, ed. Roberto Uno (Continuum, 2002).
Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (Reading: Arkana, 1964, 1989), 35.
Victor Raskin, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1985).
Scholarly Precedents
The most notable academic precedent for locating stand-up in this post-war era
is John Limon's impressive Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America.20
Limon employs a psychoanalytic framework to examine stand-up's role as a force
operating in the margins, focusing on abjection and the account of Jewish integration
into mainstream white middle-class America. Limon writes on Richard Pryor but does
not account for the strong presence of African American comedians such as Dick
Gregory and Bill Cosby and their successors. He is less concerned with the historical
development of stand-up than with providing a psychoanalytic geometry for the form.
Limon also defines stand-up far more broadly than I, venturing beyond the live solo
figure into comedy teams (such as Nichols & May and Reiner & Brooks); television
hosts (David Letterman); and performers who could be considered comic actors rather
than practitioners of a genre in which one performs one's self (again, the duos Nichols
& May and Reiner & Brooks). While many stand-up comics have had great success
and impact performing in alternate media, my primary concern is with stand-ups
performing stand-up per se—that is, with individual performers engaging live
audiences with a conversational performance of self. While Limon declares that he is
not "trying to locate and analyze the most influential post-World War II American
stand-up comedians.. .or the funniest ones," I am quite specifically attempting the
John Limon, Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or Abjection in America (Durham and London: Duke
University Press, 2000).
Ibid., 3.
There is a dearth of work on stand-up comedy qua stand-up comedy. Among a
handful of shorter articles theorizing stand-up, Philip Auslander's work stands out.
Auslander has written about Roseanne Barr and Andy Kaufman through the lens of
performance theory, conceiving of stand-up as a postmodern performance mode and
"fellow traveler of rock music."31 He does not, however, discuss the racial politics
undergirding both stand-up comedy and rock music, or the issue of comedy as a
distinct performance tradition.
Select books investigate the specific cultural influence of these artists, most
notably Bruce and Pryor, but the form of stand-up remains peripheral to their major
points. For example, Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover's The Trials of Lenny
Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon promotes the image of Bruce as a free
speech patriot, focusing on the legal aspects of his life.32 John. A. Williams and Dennis
A. Williams wrote a biography of Pryor, If I Stop I'll Die: the Comedy and Tragedy of
Richard Pryor, which goes beyond the merely personal to historicize Pryor within the
Civil Rights and Black Power movement.33 Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny: The
Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s34 is valuable for biographical data, but
remains exposition rather than theory.
In addition to reviews or biographies of stand-up comics, many artist wrote (or
collaborated on) their own autobiographies. Desperate for money when his court costs
Philip Auslander, "Comedy About the Failure of Comedy: Stand-up Comedy and Postmodernism," in
Critical Theory and Performance (University of Michigan Press, 1992), 199.
Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an
American Icon (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002).
John A. Williams and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard
Pryor (New York, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991, 1993).
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.
soared, Lenny Bruce serialized the story of his life in Playboy in 1964-5, and later
released the factually suspect collection as How to Talk Dirty and Influence Peopled
Dick Gregory wrote several autobiographies, starting with nigger: an autobiography?6
Pryor has served as the subject of multiple biographies and published his own in 1995,
entitled Pryor Convictions, and other Life Sentences?1 Most of the works on stand-up
comics take the form of life stories, of how the stand-up comic went from humble
beginnings to being a superstar, rather than an analysis of how their performances
A few scholars have looked at the intersection of comedy and ethnicity. Joseph
Boskin and Joseph Dorinson's "Ethnic Humor: Subversion and Survival" contends
that "[ejthnic humor in the United States originated as a function of social class
feelings of superiority and white racial antagonisms"38 while John Lowe's brief survey
"Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing" maintains that "[ejthnic
comedians, especially blacks and Jews, have in many ways created the national sense
of humor."39 All three of these authors portray ethnic humor as part of an
Americanization, in which the end goal is to maintain superficial ethnic differences
while joining the American mainstream. I believe that Bruce and Pryor capitalize on
the traditional space of ethnic humor, but attempt to trouble the process of
Americanization, making stand-up a distinct form of ethnic humor.
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1967, 1992).
Dick Gregory, Nigger (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964).
Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995).
Joseph Boskin and Joseph Dorinson, "Ethnic Humor: Subversion and Survival," American Quarterly
37, no. 1(1985): 81.
John Lowe, "Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing," American Quarterly 38, no. 3
(1986): 452-3.
The most prominent book on African American humor is Mel Watkins On The
Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock (1999).
Watkins presents African American humor as an inheritance from West Africa and a
response to slavery, segregation, and their successors, a humor which recognizes the
irrationality and pain of race in America and uses satire to both express and affect the
situation, while taking advantage of comedy's capacity to conceal a community's
conversation. He also argues that "it is the expressive manner of African American
humor that, second to music, has most influenced mainstream America's popular
culture."40 Watkins outlines how Pryor brought along a larger cultural tradition when
entering into stand-up comedy. Glenda Carpio also puts Pryor into a wider context in
her chapter "The Conjurer Recoils: Slavery in Richard Pryor's Performances and
Chappelle 's Show" from her book Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions
of Slavery, articulating the ways in which Pryor "gives an extraordinary range of
voices and gestures to the psychological and physical injury and pain" incurred by the
legacy of slavery.411 do not disagree with Watkins and Carpio so much as address the
particularities unique to stand-up comedy that help explain much of his path and
An acknowledgment of Jewish influence on American humor has become
commonplace over the past fifty years. In 1962, Theodor Reik, a former student of
Freud's and an emigre to America, made a self-proclaimed attempt to continue
Freud's work on humor by psychoanalyzing the phenomenon of Jewish humor. Reik's
Mel Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy (Chicago, Illinois: Lawrence
Hill Books, 1994, 1999), 47-8.
Glenda R. Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (New York City:
Oxford University Press, 2008), 103.
Jewish Wit simultaneously celebrated Jewish jokes and professed hope that Jews
would abandon the masochistic and paranoid aspects apparent in their jokes, so that
one would not be able to tell Jews from gentiles via their humor. Sara Blacher Cohen
traces Jewish joking back to the Yiddish humor of nineteenth century Europe,
reminding us that "Freud attributed the Jews' excessive ridicule of themselves to the
excessive aggression that they had to conceal to survive in such an inimical society,"42
to which one might suggest that the lingering use of this humor through the twentieth
century would indicate that Jewish awareness of their marginal position was not left
behind in Europe. Common wisdom is, however, that rather than Jewish Americans
surrendering their characteristic humor, Jewish humor has instead spread to the rest of
America, and it was only three years after the publication of Jewish Wit that Esquire
ran an article entitled "The Yiddishization of American Humor." By now, the
prevailing view accords with Joseph Dorinson's conceptualization of Jewish American
humor as both a defense mechanism and a manner of cultural affirmation. As Jews
face fewer obstacles in America and their humor becomes common property, Reik
may be getting his wish; signally, Jerry Seinfeld's television persona is the athletic
womanizer Woody Allen was in his private life but felt compelled to conceal. It may
be that the discovery and partial appropriation of stand-up comedy by the deep pockets
of television has drained the field of some of its power to decenter and disrupt
established hierarchies.
Time and again, what these texts do not address is the distinctive nature of
stand-up comedy as a performance mode, including the specifics of its historical
Sara Blacher Cohen, "The Varieties of Jewish Humor," in Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, ed.
Sara Blacher Cohen (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 4.
emergence and capacity to perform identity. There remains a scholarly need to look at
the stand-up careers of the performers who shaped the medium, to investigate their
acts and ask what their particular performances reveal about the performance of race,
ethnicity, and identity in the United States.
Chapter Outline
Chapter One, "Lenny Bruce: The Outing of Ethnicity in Stand-up Comedy,"
explores Bruce's performance of his Jewish identity in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Assimilation was still the norm in the field of entertainment and I argue that his overt
Jewishness operated as a challenge to the establishment norm of Christian whiteness.
Pushing the boundaries of accepted behavior, Bruce framed his ethnicity in relation to
race, in part by appropriating elements of jazz cool. His public construction of identity
points to the performativity of race and also raises questions regarding whether Bruce
revealed or reiterated the stereotypes he interrogated. Heavily influencing the nascent
art form, Bruce set the precedent for subsequent expressions of ethnicity within standup.
Chapter Two, "Utter Taboos: The Obscenity of Lenny Bruce," investigates
Bruce's use of taboo words, arguing that the particular terms uttered were less
threatening than the concepts of non-normative race, ethnicity, sexuality that lay
embedded inside the context of their use. The state acted threatened by Bruce's speech
acts, as evidenced by obscenity trials in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and
New York. Bruce's work developed what the performance mode could achieve in
terms of articulating heterodox identities and established stand-up as a central free
speech zone in the United States.
Chapter Three, "Standing Up Black: Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby," probes the
impact of the first two major African American stand-up comedians, examining their
divergent strategies for tackling issues of race once stand-up opened its main stage to
non-white performers. I argue that their approaches provide the primary options for
the African American comedians who later came to dominate the field, such as Eddie
Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle. Dick Gregory refashions black comedy's
capacity to deal with the pain of racism in order to broach the loaded subject in front
of largely white audiences. The first superstar in stand-up, Cosby attempts to elide
race and erase stereotype by providing substitute images, rather than employing direct
performative analysis. Their withdrawal from stand-up in the mid-1960s—Gregory to
social activism; Cosby to television stardom—left stand-up in suspension, uncertain
whether or not race would play a central role in its future.
Chapter Four, "Burning with Desire: Richard Pryor's Body of Pain," delineates
the manner in which Richard Pryor reinvented stand-up comedy by reinventing his
performance of self. I trace how he evolves from a Bill Cosby copycat in the early-tomid 1960s into a 1970s comedian who speaks with unprecedented frankness in front
of integrated audiences about issues of black identity and language. Pryor revives
stand-up when it looks as if it could fade back into the less personalized performance
form of vaudevillian joke-telling. Filling the void left by Gregory and Cosby, Pryor
modeled personal pain and desire as twin engines with which the stand-up propels his
or her comedy.
Chapter Five, "Bursting the Laughing Barrel: Richard Pry or's Performance of
Whiteness," explores the significance of Pryor's revelation of previously segregated
black humor in front of white audiences. Pryor introduces the heritage of centuries of
African American humor into the racial and ethnic aspects of stand-up already fleshed
out by Bruce. Pryor tests the bounds of speech acts by attempting to rehabilitate the Nword, performing blackness with explanation but without apology. Pryor turns the
tables, calling out white power and privilege. I argue that his performance of
whiteness is particularly revolutionary in its repudiation of centuries of minstrelsy
within the popular culture of the United States. After Pryor, there was no uncertainty
that stand-up would remain a central arena for the expression and exploration of race
in the United States.
Looking Ahead
Standing in front of the crowd, proclaiming their sins and opinions, stand-up
comics serve as primers on how to mark oneself as an individual through opinions and
quirks, even while their action can provide an excuse for the majority of the crowd to
remain seated and silent. For their part, the stand-up audience sits in judgment,
representing both themselves and society-at-large, gathered to pass judgment on the
individual and the society. Of course, the process is circular, for to judge one's
representation is to judge oneself, if only in comparison. Stand-up comedy reflects the
Zeitgeist and its audience-participants, who help fashion the comedian's narrative
identity via feedback mechanisms such as laughter, applause, attendance, and the
occasional heckling.
The work and struggles of Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and
Richard Pryor were both personal and public, and this tension fueled the creation of a
new comic performance mode. They found laughter in revolt by plumbing the comic
potential of that which is considered distasteful and usually kept behind closed doors.
They also used laughter to revolt, to question social absurdities and interrogate the
process of identity construction. Both on their own and by influencing others, these
four forged the structure of stand-up comedy, extending its dimensions into a
prominent vehicle for social critique which continues to impact our society, often
unrecognized despite its ubiquity, and frequently giving expression to those who
previously lacked a public voice. Stand-up comedy has not, of course, extended its
spotlight to everyone, with women noticeably absent from stand-up stardom in these
early decades and the comedians themselves, as I will show, struggling with the
expression of their non-heteronormative inclinations.
From the 1950s through the present, stand-up comedy has operated as a major
forum for the performance of the production of self, with a series of personal
confessions and accusations all focused on a single body. This dissertation presents
stand-up comedy as a performance tradition rather than a thing or an abstract form. I
do not attempt to cement a definition, although stand-up comedy has its tendencies: a
propensity to involve the humorous public self-fashioning of a persona which draws
upon events and details from the performer's off-stage life; a conversational quality to
the delivery; a humorous style; the appearance of improvisation; and the questioning
of social identities, most notably those surrounding race and ethnicity. As we will see
within, the investigation of these four comics opens up an understanding of stand-up
comedy's initial emergence as a major arts movement in the United States, one which
has subsequently begun to spread across the world and influence a variety of other
media forms.
Chapter One: "Lenny Bruce: The Outing of Ethnicity in Stand-up
"[Cartoonist and writer Jules] Feiffer was struck by Bruce's candor
about his Jewishness: 'It frightened me, because when I grew up, you
didn't wear your Jewishness on your sleeve, because you were
essentially among enemies.'"43
"I am a Jew before this court. I would like to set the record straight, that
the Jew is not remorseful."
—Lenny Bruce, testifying before the New York Criminal Court44
One of Lenny Bruce's routines in the late 1950s was a commentary on the life
of touring performers playing out-of-the-way towns in middle America. The bit
"Lima, Ohio" laments the lot of a sophisticated urban comedian forced to spend time
apart from the active life of civilization, in a land of inertia. Patrons pack the shows,
meaning that business is good. Most are repeat customers more interested in getting
drunk—Bruce states that "they're depressed because they're there"—than they are in
the act.45 According to Bruce, places like Lima have "one Chinese restaurant that
serves bread and butter" and he bemoans the fact that there are only two other people
staying in the show business hotel, one of whom runs the local movie projector.46
Bruce is adrift without the ethnic markers of the city. He presents middle America as
isolated due to an absence of minorities and entertainers; it's a bland white-washed
Quoted in Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 397.
Henry Paul, "Final Performance Nets Four Months at Hard Labor," Village Voice, December 24,
Lenny Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce., ed. John Michael Cohen (New York: Ballantine Books,
1967), 126.
, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware (Shout! Factory, 2004).
world without diversity. A second generation citizen of the United States who belongs
in part to the majority culture and in part to his parents' Jewish heritage, Bruce sets
himself up in contrast to that whiteness, with his indeterminate ethnic status meaning
that whiteness could attack or assimilate him—or both.
Bruce continues his tale of Lima, describing how a couple in their 50s or 60s
emerges from out of the audience after the show, asking for Bruce. The husband is
from New York and has the following exchange with the comedian, as related by
So the guy stops, you know and all of a sudden he looks at me and I see
sort of a searching hope in his eyes and he looks at me and he goes [in
a hushed voice]: You Jewish?.. .1 say: Yeah. He says: You a Jewish
boy, what are you doing in a place like this? I say [in a matter-of-fact
voice]: I'm passing.47
Bruce's brief phrase—I'm passing—constitutes a double entendre, encompassing both
the performer passing through a town he cannot wait to exit and the Jew passing as
white in middle America.48 Bruce exhibits distaste for both Lima and the process of
The joke's tension reverberates with Bruce's discordant relationship to
ethnicity. On the one hand, he makes Jewishness a status symbol, wedded to his urban
hipness. On the other hand, he exhibits a significant discomfort with mainstream
American Jews. The butt of the joke shifts from the bland (and white) middle
American to the Jewish patron who wants to bond with Bruce over their shared
religious roots. This man becomes an object of ridicule, an accented outsider whose
The Essential Lenny Bruce considers the show business aspects of the routine more significant than
any ethnic considerations and thus files the bit under "On Performing and the Art of Comedy" rather
than "Jews."
wife is a "real yentcT only noticeable due to her lack of beauty: "she's got one of those
crinkly dresses, you know, the kind you can see through and you don't wanna."m The
source of Bruce's disgust is unclear. Does it lie in the older Jews' abandonment of
urbanity in favor of the provinces? Is it generational, the embarrassment of the son
who can pass for white when he realizes that his parents' generation cannot?
The recording from Bruce's delivery of this routine circa 1959 at the Den in
New York City lets us know that the audience did indeed laugh, but the response rings
less like the guttural laugh of those who have shared similar experiences than the
knowing laugh of a crowd which recognizes an inside joke and fears being left on the
outside. Their laughter confirms their hipness even while affirming the centrality of
Bruce's identity crisis, and existential quandaries power stand-up comedy. The comic
requires a live audience in order to create the act and Bruce simultaneously forms his
own audience, educating them on the ways of performance and Judaism, even while
being shaped by them and their confirmatory laughter. An early example of stand-up
comedy as a site for the exploration of personal and social identity, "Lima, Ohio"
epitomizes Bruce's negotiation with his own Jewishness. Introducing a dynamic that
would become a major mode of operation for stand-up comedy, Bruce posits ethnicity
as a performative process which deserves to operate openly in the public realm.
Imitating Others: Bruce's Vaudevillian Origins
Prior to Lenny Bruce, ethnic comics in the United States tended towards
assimilation when playing in front of mainstream audiences—that is, when not playing
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
to audiences primarily constituted by others sharing the entertainer's cultural
background. Jewish comedians had been prevalent in American entertainment since
the turn of the twentieth century, but prominent Jewish vaudevillians such as
Benjamin Kubelsky, Nathan Birnbaum, and Milton Berlinger were compelled to
present themselves as the more Anglo-Saxon-sounding Jack Benny, George Burns,
and Milton Berle. Furthermore, their stage personas rarely foregrounded Judaism as
either a religion or an ethnicity. That is why it comes as no surprise when the Museum
of Broadcast Communications claims that the Jack Benny character which "he and his
writers sustained on the airwaves for four decades had no ethnicity or religion."5" This
tradition of disguise and the evasion of ethnic fixity was the one in which Bruce
himself grew up and began his career. Starting out in the last days of vaudeville after
World War Two, "Lenny Bruce" was, after all, the show business role created by the
erstwhile Leonard Schneider.
Considering that he would come to fashion much of his professional material
from the substance of his personal life, the biographical details of Bruce's pre-fame
days are remarkably hazy. We know that he was born on October 13, 1925 in Mineola,
Long Island, and that his parents divorced when he was five. It appears that Bruce
grew up an only child in relative suburban comfort, given the constraints of the Great
Depression. His father, Myron (Mickey) Schneider, was a podiatrist born in Britain,
characterized by principal biographer Albert Goldman as a caring if occasionally cold
father who raised Lenny on his own.51 Sadie Kitchenberg, on the other hand, comes
Tinky Weisblat, "Benny, Jack," The Museum of Broadcast Communications,
Albert Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (New York: Random House, 1974).
across as a neglectful mother unable to take care of Bruce for more than one or two
weeks at a time. At one point, her negligence reportedly required Mickey and his new
fiancee, Dorothy Cohen, to come and rescue an unwashed and neglected Bruce from
Kitchenberg's home. Bruce himself tells a very different tale. His own autobiography
does not mention either his childhood or father in depth, stating that Schneider tended
to be absent, working during the day and going to college at night, while Kitchenberg
worked as a waitress and a maid in Long Beach, Long Island.52
More significantly, Kitchenberg's forays into a variety of professions included
many connected to the entertainment industry, most notably her stints as dancer and
dance instructor. As was the tradition, she adopted a less ethnic-sounding stage name
(Sally Marr) and was by all accounts the initial inspiration behind Bruce's career. As a
stage mother, Marr led by example, sharing an association with the ribald with her son
from an early age. Gerald Nachman writes that Marr took the twelve-year-old Bruce
along with her to gigs at burlesque houses, where she worked as an emcee.53 Marr was
at ease with the world of show business in a way that Bruce never was. Much of his
originality resided in the manner by which he uses discomfort to propel his
Bruce began his own attempts to break into mainstream vaudeville in the late
1940s. He displayed no indication of wanting to change the face of American comedy
or engage in any rebellion grander than that of drinking heavily and sleeping around.
Goldman has Bruce discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1945; following his father West
to Arcadia, California; utilizing the G.I. Bill to take classes at the Geller Dramatic
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1992), 8.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 398.
Workshop in Hollywood; and then deciding to move back to the East and try for fame
on the Broadway stage. In New York, Bruce competed against hundreds of other
young men in a drama contest, winning a prize for "a comical rendering of a Hamlet
soliloquy," and finding work in rigged amateur contests through his mother's agent,
Buddy Friar.54
Writing in his autobiography about his debut, Bruce portrays himself as an
accidental comedian, thrust into the spotlight while performing under a false identity.
In 1947, Marr was performing as part of a dance team at the Victory Club in Ocean
Parkway, Brooklyn.55 When the regular master of ceremonies failed to show and Marr
declined the job in fright, the twenty-year-old Bruce volunteered for the job.
According to Bruce, he was introduced as "Lenny Marsalle, a famous comic in his
own town to do the Ed Sullivan Show."56 Bruce is most likely dramatizing
the story. It's particularly unlikely that Marr would have declined the emcee job out of
shyness, given that she had also worked as a comedienne and was reputed to be
fearless in public and in private. Regardless, Bruce writes that he confronted hecklers
and then got hooked on the very first laugh he procured, deriving satisfaction out of
wresting acceptance from an initially hostile audience. This was a struggle which
Bruce would repeat throughout his career in stand-up, with varying degrees of success.
Bruce's first hint of commercial success came in 1948 on the television show
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Talent Scouts featured unknown entertainers
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! ,116.
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People does not date this incident. Bruce's daughter Kitty runs a
web site which lists the year as 1947. "The Official Lenny Bruce Website: The Only Website Approved
by Lenny Bruce's Daughter Kitty,"
Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 28.
competing for the audience's favor, a precursor to today's game shows in disguise, the
so-called "reality shows."57 At this point, Bruce was mainly an impressionist, which
ranked low on the hierarchy of comedians. Stand-up would eventually merge both the
meta presentation of self and the joke-telling, but here the presentation of self remains
present mainly as a framing device. Bruce is introduced to the audience, but there's no
expectation that his material will be based on facts from his personal life. In any case,
the information dispensed in the introduction is artifice. Bruce posed as a more
experienced performer than he actually was, and the "talent scout" who brought Bruce
to Godfrey's attention was none other than Sally Marr. Marr was clearly in on the
manufactured nature of the amateur show; Robert B. Weide's 1998 documentary
Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth shows her laughing and mouthing "lies, lies,
lies" while listening to her old introduction extolling her son's show business
Bruce's impressions were of film stars such as James Cagney, Peter Lorre, and
Bette Davis. That someone attempting success as a live performer chose to idolize the
movies reflected the ongoing ascendance of Hollywood. Vaudeville had come to
prominence in the United States in the 1880s as family entertainment, forbidding
coarse language on-stage and frequently prohibiting alcohol sales to the audience. The
entertainment consisted of an assortment of smaller acts performing on the same bill,
with entrants including acrobats, animal acts, comedians, dancers, magicians, mimes,
1 am referring to shows such as Survivor (CBS, 2000-) and American Idol (Fox, 2002-). Twenty-first
century production values are higher, but the blueprint remains the same. A second strand of reality
shows along the lines of The Osbournes (MTV, 2002-5) and The Hills (MTV, 2006-) are semi-scripted
faux documentaries which play off of a similar juxtaposition of private and public personalities
explored by stand-up comedy.
Robert B. Weide, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, 1998.
minstrels, musicians, singers, and ventriloquists. By the time Bruce entered show
business, the electronic mass media had hit vaudeville in several waves, first in the
form of cinema (incorporated in vaudeville by the late 1920s), followed by radio, and
then by television. In November 1932, New York City's famous Palace Theatre
converted from vaudeville to a film-only establishment. Their audiences reduced, live
comedians sought work at nightclubs, in burlesque, and in other media.
Bruce acknowledges vaudeville's decline in his set-up. After an obligatory
"Good evening, everyone," the first words out of his mouth consist of an attempt to
spin the rise of mass electronic entertainment into a positive: Bruce proclaims how
"It's great to see that television is coming in so strong in vaudeville."59 {Talent Scouts
itself had just transitioned onto television.) We know that Bruce's choice of subjects
wasn't forced by the forum, because his fascination with film images and their blend
of character and caricature would continue throughout his comedy career. His
autobiography states that Bruce went to "Hollywood High" as "the motion picture
industry [was] the strongest environmental factor in molding the children of [his]
day."60 While his art depended upon the immediate energy and feedback of a live
audience, it could never be divorced from the mass media. On the contrary, it suggests
that stark liveness of the stand-up comic arose against a backdrop of increased
mediatization, particularly in the proliferation of television.
Intriguingly, Bruce introduces the concept of impressionism as if he were not
one himself, launching into the routine after first saying "You know, the action I get
the biggest kick out of are the impersonators. I love it when they come out and
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware. "Lenny on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts."
, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 7.
say...."61 The power stemmed less from the accuracy (or lack thereof) than from his
creation of a meta-narrative. Rather than providing his audience with carbon copies,
he gestures towards the operating principles behind the characters played by each
Hollywood star—e.g., that Cagney plays mobsters known more for toughness than for
thinking, while Loire's characters are ruled by their desperation and distinctive accent.
His choices of subject are uninspired; a common refrain among comedians of the time
was "When in trouble, do Cagney."62 His technical mimicry skills are merely
adequate, and the witticisms themselves are weak; a typical line of attack has Bruce,
as Loire, pleading: "Please, get out of here! I hate you! I hate you, I hate you, I hate
you!!! [Pause] And besides that, I don't like you."63 Without noting it, Bruce has
become an impersonator of impersonators.
As a mimic of mimics, Bruce's main effect is not the illustration of physical or
verbal similarities to the film characters, but a revelation of the process of imitation
itself. Bruce does this by interrupting his mimicry to tell the audience that when he
was in the Navy in Bavaria, he used to go to a local Bavarian vaudeville house: "And
the act that I got the biggest kick out of was the Bavarian Mimic!"64 In Revel with a
Cause, Stephen Kercher writes that Bruce's "winning performance" comes due to "his
impressions of a Bavarian Humphrey Bogart and Peter Loire," but it is more accurate
to say that Bruce is actually imitating a Bavarian impressionist.65 In this guise, Bruce
revisits his initial impressions, using mock-German to play off of Germany's
, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
Phil Berger, The Last Laugh: The World of the Stand-up Comics (New York: Limelight Editions,
1985), 25.
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
Stephen E. Kercher, Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (Chicago & London: The
University of Chicago Press, 2006), 398.
subordinate status in matters military and cultural and makes strange66 the
impressionist's process of isolating catch phrases and patterns of speech. The mimicry
is multi-layered, with Bruce presenting a Bavarian mimic who mangles English while
mocking the strong German accent of Lorre, himself born in Austro-Hungary.
Bruce surveys the image-making apparatus of entertainment. He does this from
within, as an entertainer imitating other entertainers. He also mocks it from a remove,
his Bavarian mimic both mocking the defeated Germans and, largely due to his
clumsiness at impersonation, demonstrating the ludicrous nature of comedy. This
foreshadows his later critiques of American society and remains a predominant
approach of stand-up comics. (Comedy Central's The Daily Show increasingly
popularized this approach on television once the stand-up comedian Jon Stewart
became its host in 1999.) Bruce is again making strange—not just ridiculing the
foreigner, but parodying how one performs the Other, which he needs in order to talk
about himself.
Often inadvertently, Bruce's constant commentary about the performative
process comprises steps toward undermining the fixed nature of stereotypes. Homi
Bhabha advises just that when he writes that "the point of intervention should shift
from the identification of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the
processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical
My use of this term invokes Viktor Shklovsky's ostranenie, the argument that "[t]he technique of art
is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of
perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged." I do
not intend to suggest that Bruce was aware of Shklovsky's work. Viktor Shklovsky, "Art as
Technique," in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Maiden; Oxford;
Carlton: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 16.
discourse." That is, it matters less whether or not Bruce creates progressive or
regressive representations, but what those representations reveal about the subjectmaking process. Emphasizing the processes of subjectification becomes one of standup strengths.
It may be that working as an impressionist early on gave Bruce an extra layer
of presentation behind which to conceal his personal life, diametrically opposed to the
process of unveiling which would become endemic to stand-up comedy. The former
approach may have helped protect his budding comedy skills at a time when he still
relied on cribbed material. Goldman writes that the Godfrey "bit was a variation on a
variation, adapted from Red Buttons's6S routine called The Jewish Mimic. Red actually
complained to mimic Will Jordan that Lenny's German was his Yiddish."69 Bruce's
dialect comedy may have also been a nod to the talents of Sid Caesar,70 whom Bruce
had seen while ushering at New York's Roxy Theater. Some critics feel he was
actually impersonating his "burlesque-comedian mother's routine—virtually the same
act that Sally Marr did in a 1942 USO show for sailors (with seventeen-year-old
Lenny sitting among the uniformed members of the audience)."71 While Bruce's
motivation for performing had much to do with his mother, she displayed none of the
ironic commentary that constituted the core of his act, and the reality is that comics in
the era of vaudeville routinely appropriated each other's material.
Homi Bhabha, "The Other Question...Homi K Bhabha Reconsiders the Stereotype and Colonial
Discourse," Screen: the journal of the Society for Education in Film and Television 24, no. 6 (1983):
Bruce's appearance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts came after Buttons (who was born Aaron
Chwatt) succeeded in the Borscht Belt and on Broadway, but before Buttons became known on
television and in film.
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 124.
Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows debuted on NBC two years later, running 1950-1954.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 15.
Authorship of jokes was of lesser concern prior to the stand-up era Bruce
helped inaugurate. Indeed, stand-up's emphasis on the unique world views of
individual performers can be used to discriminate stand-up as its own performance
structure. Milton Berle was dubbed the "Thief of Bad Gags" by columnist Walter
Winchell and incorporated this reputation into his act with lines such as his high praise
for a fellow comedian: "I laughed so hard I nearly dropped my pencil and paper."'72
Top acts regularly bought jokes, and Phil Berger writes of a "British comic who got
hold of Bob Orben's one-liners from the States [and] was known to deliver them in
England precisely the way they were written—even leaving references like Brooklyn
and Jackson Heights in."73 As stand-up Ralphie May74 explains it:
Everybody was doing it to a degree. Even Buddy Hackett said, oh,
yeah, if I were someplace and I had to do a joke and I know that, you
know, somebody else had one that fit, I would do it but I would call
him and say, hi, I used your joke, you killed in Pittsburgh. You know,
you got to, you know—and he would tell them, hey, you can do any of
my jokes and stuff like that.75
Hackett puts a congenial face on a common practice, but embedded in his account and
Berle's defensiveness is the acknowledgement that there was a code of conduct
surrounding the appropriation of someone else's joke, and that it was proper etiquette
to keep the original author informed and receive nominal approval. The challenge
became how well one could perform the material. Today's accusations of joke
thievery against comics Robin Williams and Carlos Mencia76 are taken much more
Lawrence Van Gelder, "Milton Berle, TV's First Star as 'Uncle Miltie,' Dies at 93," The New York
Times, March 28,.
Berger, The Last Laugh: The World of the Stand-up Comics, 33.
Born 1972.
"Joke Stealing is No Laughing Matter, Comedians Say." Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio:
November 8, 2007.
NB Larry Getlen, "Take the Funny and Run," Radar, February 2, 2007.
seriously, in large part due to the emphasis on originality introduced by Mort Sahl in
the mid 1950s and before Bruce helped make one's personal history and particular
cultural background the central playing field for stand-up comedy. Judging the early
Bruce harshly on originality is to apply retroactively standards he helped create later in
his career.
The path towards stand-up comedy as a construction of originality was not
premeditated. Bruce, like his mother, prized success in the entertainment industry over
any particular platform or agenda. The means were secondary, even though Bruce was
to become famous precisely because of his stylistic innovations. He was marked more
by his persistence than any particular aptitude, and attempted both singing and comedy
as he cultivated the image of the professional entertainer. In 1950, when he met his
future wife, the stripper Honey Harlow, her first impression was that "he was sort of
Mr. Show Business, with the Max Factor pancake tan No. 2, and the tuxedo, and the
tuxedo shirt, and one of those bows that tie beneath the collar."77 The make-up and
tuxedo was 180 degrees removed from the casual dress of stand-up comics, with its
hard-won air of intimacy. Bruce was trying to fit into vaudeville, not upend it. The
distancing effect of his impressions was not consciously constructed, and it looked like
he might succeed on their terms, as his first place Talent Scouts finish78 provided
suitable fodder for marquees and brought him better bookings.
After marrying in 1951, Bruce and Harlow began working as a duo. According
to Harlow, "He was the comic, I was the singer. Actually, in those days he was more
an impressionist than a comic. He would do fifteen minutes of Leo Gorcey, Jimmy
Quoted in Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 67.
Bruce tied for first place with vocalist John Connolly.
Cagney, and Peter Loire: then he'd go to his singing impressions of Vaughn Monroe,
Billy Eckstein, and Maurice Chevalier, complete with the straw hat!"79 Bruce tackled
key cultural images but the effect was benign because he lacked the technical chops to
make the mimicry memorable and because the icons he engaged were too well-known
and well-traversed to make for cutting humor without commentary. When it came to
performing the role of professional comedian, Bruce was marginally successful and
seemed destined to be kept away from the main stages, relegated to minor gigs and
less respected establishments. All of this began to change in the mid-1950s as a new
wave of comedians, led by Mort Sahl, began to accrue the license to play themselves
on stage.
Jewish American Humor and Assimilation
As mentioned in my introduction, Sahl distanced himself from his Jewishness,
perhaps with cause, considering that stand-up arose in a risky era for dissent. In the
years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, most notably from the late
1940s to the late 1950s, Congress scrutinized Jews in entertainment as possible
subversives. Speaking about the signatures against the inquiry in 1947, Mississippi
Representative John Rankin implied that assimilation was a cover for Communist
One of the names is June Havoc. We found out from the motion picture
almanac that her real name is June Hovick. Another one was Danny
Kaye, and we found out that his real name is David Daniel
Kaminsky... .Another one is Eddie Cantor, whose real name is Edward
Honey Bruce, Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady (Chicago, Illinois: Playboy Press,
Iskowitz... .They are attacking the Committee for doing its duty to
protect this country and save the American people from the horrible
fate the Communists have meted out to the unfortunate Christian
people of Europe.80
Rankin's harangue attests how performance, which was a path towards mainstream
acceptance for American Jews, was also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the
very moves made to mimic the dominant Christian culture, which included changing
one's given name, became evidence of duplicity. On the other hand, any working class
consciousness born out of Jewish experiences as a minority became signs of antiAmerican sympathies.
Of course, attenuating the significance of one's ethnicity is a common survival
technique for minorities attempting to achieve success amongst a broad public,
particularly in the field of entertainment. When, in 1961, the Jewish writer-performer
Carl Reiner created a sitcom based on his days writing for Sid Caesar's Your Show of
Shows, the character based on Reiner was named "Rob Petrie" and played by the
decidedly non-ethnic Dick Van Dyke. As late as 1989, NBC executive Brandon
Tartikoff nearly rejected the subsequent mega-hit sitcom Seinfeld because he deemed
it "too Jewish."81 One can retrospectively critique Tartikoff, who is himself Jewish, for
underestimating the American audience, but it is frequently the minority subject who
is most sensitive to the prejudices of the majority culture.
Michael Korda expounds on the typical business climate for Jews in the 1950s,
describing how publishing "was being run, for the most part, by men in suits or
Quoted in Stefan Kanfer, A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from
the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux,
1989), 202.
Jake Tapper, "Too Jewish?,", August 9, 2000.
donnish tweeds, with pipes, who were either Ivy League WASPs or Jews whose
highest ambition was to be mistaken for WASPs."82 Norman Kleeblatt echoes this
depiction, articulating his belief that "[t]he Jewish community thus achieved visible
success while its individual members were becoming invisible." That is, Jews could
gain entrance into the mainstream by suppressing their religious and ethnic heritage.
Mort Sahl exemplified the Jewish American who became famous as an individual, but
was mostly read as unconnected to ethnicity.
Assimilation was not totalizing and mainstream audiences were often aware of
the Jewish background of prominent comedians, whose roots could not be completely
whitewashed, so to speak. Goldman's biography claims that Rodney Dangerfield
mocked Bruce's stage name, opining that "All you guys who try to get away from
. being Jewish by changing your last name always give away the secret by forgetting to
change your first name. What kinda goy has a first name Lenny?"83 (Dangerfield's
own birth name was Jacob Cohen.) The larger project of amalgamating with a
dominant white society required ethnic references to be implicit rather than explicit. A
partial performance of assimilation was sufficient because the audience played along,
accepting the alliance of Jews with whiteness while maintaining unspoken Jewish
stereotypes. Jack Benny's radio character may have lacked overt ethnic markers, but
the running joke concerning his supposed tightfistedness has to be read as a variation
on the stereotype of Jewish thrift. The most famous Benny exchange has him respond
to a mugger's pronouncement of "Your money or your life!" with a lengthy silence,
Michael Korda, The New Yorker, August 14, 1994.
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 45. No date is given for these comments, which
are attributed to "Jack Roy," a stage name employed by Cohen before his later adoption of the name
Rodney Dangerfield.
followed by: "I'm thinking it over."84 Not coincidentally, Milton Berle's rapid fall
from his initial heady days as "Mr. Television" coincided with the spread of television
away from its original base in ethnically diverse cities.
There was a split between the insider humor of the Catskills and the integrated
urban climes of the nightclub audiences in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. As
Kanfer puts it,
Urban audiences tended to be young and impatient with mother jokes.
They wanted hip comedy, with its ring of recognition and its use of the
absurd and outrageous—material popularized by the new favorite
Lenny Bruce. (Few of his enthusiasts knew that Bruce himself had tried
to be funny in the Mountains. The only amusement he ever recalled
from those failed summers was the words of his mother, Sally. As she
watched her son climbing into a car headed west, she thought of the
girls in the Catskills. 'Make sure my son gets some,' she told the
driver.) For traditional stand-up comedians that left only one place to
learn their craft: the Borscht Belt.85
Strictly speaking, traditional vaudevillian comedians were not stand-ups in the sense
of belonging to the movement launched by Sahl and Bruce which gave rise to the
Off the main stage, insider jokes about Jews were openly told by Jews to
majority Jewish audiences in places such as the Borscht Belt. Humor often revolved
around the topic of assimilation. According to Stefan Kanfer's book on the Catskills,
professional comedy in those Jewish resorts began with the story of the Americanized
Jew—in this case, Sam the peddler, who speaks only English and has unlearned
German—and continued always with "the striving for acceptance even at the cost of
Joe Garner, Made You Laugh: The Funniest Moments in Comedy (U.S.A.: Andrews McMeel
Publishing, 2004), 10.
Kanfer, A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the
Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt, 228.
identity; the account of dizzying ascent coupled with a mockery of the climber."86
Self-critique abounded, as in the joking about a competition between progressive Jews
in which the Jew who announces "At Yom Kippur we serve.. .ham sandwiches" is
topped by the Jew who states that "We are so progressive that we are closed on the
High Holy Days."87 There is also the little girl who asks her mother, "Mommy, do the
Gentiles have Christmas trees, too?"88 The humor expresses acute anxiety over the
dominant culture and the threat of the erosion of their subaltern culture. The brashness
with which they spoke behind closed doors contrasted heavily with the absence of
Jewish referents once the comedians played before integrated audiences.
Did this censorious Catskills comedy indicate any strand of self-hatred in
Jewish American humor? Such thinking matches the speculation by Sigmund Freud on
the connection between Jews and jokes, made in the early twentieth century. John
Carey, in his introduction to Freud's The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious,
notes that "Jokes about Jews were, in a sense, the origin of Freud's book" and that
these jokes "represent Jews as filthy and parsimonious."89 Freud himself theorizes that
"these pessimistic stories [allude to] the manifold and hopeless misery of the Jews,"
and therefore humor becomes a survival mechanism for a minority living among an
often hostile majority.90 It comes as no surprise that Freud posits a psychoanalytic
cause for the cause and content of a subgroup's humor. Whether or not one accepts the
specifics of Freud's assessment of Austrian and German Jewish humor, he makes a
Ibid., 30.
Ibid., 108.
John Carey, "Introduction," in The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (2002), xxv.
Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, trans. Joyce Crick (United States of
America: Penguin Books (U.K.), 2002), 109.
case in favor of the examination of humor in order to understand cultures and their
Dan Ben-Amos disagrees with this now common opinion that Jewish humor is
a unique entity and that it tends towards the self-critical. Ben-Amos argues that
joking in Jewish society does not involve mocking of self either
directly or indirectly. Rather, invariably the object of ridicule is a group
with which the raconteur disassociates himself. Joke-telling is a verbal
expression which manifests social differentiation. The fact that Jews
tell jokes about each other demonstrates not so much self-hatred as
perhaps the internal segmentation of their society.91
That is, the negative jokes are not about one's own Jewishness, but that of other
people such as rabbis, whose status as authority figure is more important than their
categorization as Jews. Ben-Amos correctly cautions us against over-emphasizing the
uniqueness of Jewish humor, but his conclusions give short shrift to the power of
metaphor. Is it not possible that the mother asked about Christmas trees by her child
stands in for other Jewish parents?
Ben-Amos sees a progressive possibility in Jewish humor about Jews, stating
that: "[t]his Jewish party jester did not display hatred for his own characteristics, but
his ability to disassociate himself from his traditional past. For him, mocking was a
proclamation of social distance rather than affinity, of sadism, if you like, rather than
masochism."92 In this sense, Bruce's mockery of an Jewish generation in "Lima,
Ohio," aligns himself with the assimilated audience and against his ancestors. BenAmos, however, fails to acknowledge that one's history is part of one's self. It is not a
large leap to say that a critique of one's family history of assimilation can be a
Dan Ben-Amos, "The "Myth" Of Jewish Humor," Western Folklore 32, no. 2 (1973): 129.
Ibid.: 130.
questioning of one's own identity. When Bruce exaggerates the Jewish accents of his
older relatives into his act, he teases, but he also acknowledges their story as his own.
Ben-Amos accurately ascertains, however, that the fundamental operating
principles of humor do not change in the Jewish world. When Freud's former student
Theodor Reik states, in his book Jewish Wit, that Jewish humor adds up to "a singular
ability of self-assertion and self-preservation in spite of an overwhelming world of
identities," he is basically stating that the values he perceives in the Jewish people also
inhabit their humor. n Every ethnic group has a unique history; American Jews are not
alone in having their humor reflect their narrative. The particulars of humor reflect
their context and this context, in turn, changes the meaning and intent of the humor.
Stand-up comedy points out that one must always ask: Who is the speaker? And to
whom is he or she speaking?
Outing Ethnicity: Bruce's Overt Jewishness
The late 1950s saw some expansion of the open discussion of Jewishness, both
worldwide and in the United States. The most prominent example may be The Diary
of Anne Frank, published in 1952, with a dramatization that debuted near the end of
1955. Nonetheless, the 1959 film emblematized a continued resistance to the crucial
ethnic specificity of the narrative. According to Cynthia Ozick, the movie "erased
nearly all particular Jewish references in favor of more generic, universal ones, thus
erasing the true meaning of the diary."94 In the world of humor, Shelley Berman's
Theodor Reik, Jewish Wit (New York City: Gamut Press, 1962), 242.
Cynthia Ozick, "Who Owns Anne Frank?," The New Yorker, October 6, 1997, 76.
1959 album Inside Shelly Berman, which references his Jewish upbringing, won the
first spoken word Best Comedy Album at the 1960 Grammys. The story spun by
Berman, however, is the decidedly assimilationist tale of the the immigrant's son
leaving his parents to make it big in entertainment, where he abandons the ways of the
old world. It is basically the same story as The Jazz Singer (1927) in which one's
ethnic roots are referenced as evidence of what is left behind as the Jewish entertainer
heads into the realm of mainstream acceptance, into whiteness.
In comparison to other representations of Jews in popular culture, Bruce's
Jewishness became particularly aggressive. He developed this provocative style in the
mid-1950s while working in the relatively permissive forums of burlesque and minor
night clubs, as described further in Chapter Two. Rejecting the assimilationist
tendencies of his vaudevillian forbears, Bruce chose to portray his Jewishness as a
challenge to his audience and a subject not to be ignored. One of Bruce's most famous
bits was "Jewish vs. Goyish," an adversarial routine in which every item and idea in
the world can be categorized as either Jewish or Not Jewish. Bruce placed Jewishness
at the center of a world in which ethnicity comes to signify authenticity, while nonJews (that is, gentiles) become defined by artificial products such as Kool-Aid, white
bread, and instant potatoes. The label "Goyish" becomes a way of reconfiguring race
and ethnicity.
Dig: I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie
Cantor's goyish. B'Nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine
corps—heavy goyim, dangerous. Koolaid is goyish. All Drake's Cakes
are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is
very goyish. Instant potatoes—goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish,
Macaroons are very Jewish—very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish.
Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish. Trailer parks are so
goyish that Jews won't go near them.95
Bruce marks and exposes whiteness here, posing it as inauthentic and rootless as he
does Lima, Ohio. In Bruce's world, even though ethnicity is performative, to perform
with authenticity meant accepting one's heritage. Therefore, he separates Jewishness
from whiteness, reversing assimilation so that the more mainstream B'Nai Brith is cast
out of Jewishness into whiteness while the explicitly Zionist Hadassah remains
Bruce not only claims his ethnicity, but boldly confronts the most dire negative
associations and images ascribed to it. This includes the age-old accusations that Jews
were the original anti-Christians:
Now I'll say 'a Jew' and just the word Jew sounds like a dirty
word, and people don't know whether to laugh or not... .So there's just
silence until they know I'm kidding, and then they'll break through.
A Jew.
In the dictionary, a Jew is one who is descended from the
ancient tribe of Judea, but—I'll say to an audience—you and I know
what a Jew is: one who killed our Lord. Now there's dead silence there
after that.%
Bruce accepts the slur and then makes it ridiculous by making the grand claim
mundane, telling his audiences that yes, his family had killed Christ, and he
found a note in [my] basement. It said: "We killed him.
Having drawn in the audience, Bruce then amplifies the aggression, doubling the slur,
stating "Not only did we kill him, but we're gonna kill him again when he comes
Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce., 41 -42.
, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 155.
, The Essential Lenny Bruce., 40.
back."98 Sander Gilman construes stereotypes as images created in anxious response to
the perceived threat of the Other." By simultaneously ridiculing and inhabiting the
stereotype, Bruce became threatening, and deploys stand-up comedy as a means by
which the stereotyped can challenge widely disseminated images and attempt to
reshape them by creating a new site of cultural production.
Bruce would have been a controversial enough figure had he only addressed
Jewishness, but he also addressed other religions. One of his favorite line of attacks
was to impugn the economic motivations of religious institutions and their leaders. In
one bit Bruce proclaims that the Catholic church was like Howard Johnson's,
dispensing franchises around the world, which could be locally adapted and controlled
so long as they "pay the bread to the main office."100 One of his most-requested
routines was the infamous "Religions, Inc.," which was the last track on the 1958
album The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce. Bruce again takes aim at what he perceives to
be the hypocrisy of religious leaders by equating them with marketing executives, for
whom economics matter more than ethics and religions can be assessed like stocks.
"Religions, Inc." is harder-hitting, however, because Bruce embodies the Christians,
portraying the evangelist Oral Roberts crassly talking up his religious practice, then
enacting a call between Roberts and the Pope.
Given the severity with which Bruce's comedy judged the establishment, it is
unsurprising that mainstream bastions, such as television's The Ed Sullivan Show,
declined to allow Bruce a forum. He did make a couple of appearances on The Steve
, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 155.
Sander L. Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca
and London: Cornell University Press, 1985).
Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce., 54.
Allen Show because Allen was a big fan and a bit of an iconoclast, but even there the
network censors were worried about how Bruce would perform—would he dare to
improvise?—and what he would talk about. Allen's introduction for the comedian was
basically an extended warning to the viewing audience:
there is just about no joke or sketch, particularly of a satirical sort, that
will not offend somebody. ... We've decided that once a month we will
book a comedian who will offend everybody. ... A man who will
disturb a great many social groups watching right now, because—as
I'm serious—his satirical comments refer to many things not ordinarily
discussed on television... a very shocking comedian, the most shocking
comedian of our time, a young man who is skyrocketing to fame—
Lenny Bruce!101
By seeking to calm the audience ahead of time, Allen also stokes the excitement level
and raises expectations for Bruce's ribaldry. He speaks in favor of the comedian's
license to test taboos, while simultaneously covering himself in case Bruce does go
beyond the pale.
Bruce did indeed veer off-topic at the very top of his routine, briefly tapping
into the improvisatory capacity of stand-up comedy and demonstrate the potential
danger he posed to the mass medium of television. Film star Elizabeth Taylor had wed
the (Jewish) singer Eddie Fisher the month before, causing a tabloid uproar because
Fisher divorced his first wife, Debbie Reynolds, in order to marry the recently
widowed Taylor. Bruce sits on a stool, looks around mischievously, and in a
newsman's voice asks, "Will Elizabeth Taylor become Bar Mitzvahed?"102 Bruce then
gestures off-camera, pointing and smiling in Allen's direction as if to say "gotcha."
Bruce was testing the boundaries of ethnic humor on network television. On this
The Steve Allen Show. April 5, 1959.
occasion, he stepped up to the line but apparently did not cross over. Audio of the
exchange reveals that an off-stage voice (probably Allen) responds to Bruce, who
quickly gets back in line, averring "No, I promised continuity103 I'd behave myself. I'll
do all the lines that we rehearsed."104 As a form, stand-up encourages variation, and
there is no private rehearsal, only repeated performance in front of a live audience.
Recorded live, Bruce's 1959 album Togetherness contains a track detailing the
comedian's behind-the-scenes tussle with network censors. Bruce was already chafing
at the requirement to preview his material, which cut against his attachment to artistic
freedom as well as stand-up comedy's promise of spontaneity, which is often fulfilled
through the depiction of improvisation rather than an engagement in actual
extemporization. Forced to preview his jokes word-for-word and in order of intended
performance, Bruce encountered resistance to a routine about a tattoo he acquired
when in the Merchant Marines. Once again presenting to his audience (in the club) a
performance he gave to another (the network censors), Bruce explains:
I've got a tattoo here. It's not a cockamamie105 or anything, it doesn't
rub off. Because of this tattoo, I never can be buried in a Jewish
cemetery. That's the Orthodox scene. You have to go out of the world
in the way you came in, no marks, no changes.. .1 got back from Malta.
So I'm over my aunt's house in Jamaica, Long Island.... she looks and
she flips, you know. She: 'Faaaa. Faaaaahhh.' She's a real Jewish
Seagull. 'Look what you did! You ruined your arm! You can't be
buried in a Jewish cemetery.' I says, 'Mema, what are you nudging me?
They'll cut this [arm] off, they'll bury it in a gentile cemetery.'106
The internal network censors.
The Steve Allen Show.
Cockamamies were "painted strips of paper which the kids applied to their wrists and rubbed with
spit until the image was transferred to their hands." "Cockamamie, N. And A.," The Oxford English
Dictionary, Oxford University Press,
Lenny Bruce, Togetherness (1959).
The joke is a comical exchange without an obvious target. Is Bruce showing off his
insider status when it comes to the Merchant Marines or his religion? Is he mocking
his aunt? The Orthodox Jewish concerns about bodily purity? All of the above?
The television executives proffer a conclusion without an explanation,
declaring to Bruce that the routine is "definitely offensive to the Jewish people."107
Having made a decision, they then have to backwards engineer a reasoning, which
provides the punch line to Bruce's re-telling of the encounter, when he is informed
that "it's definitely offensive to the gentile people, too [because] what you're saying in
essence, is that the gentiles don't care what they bury."10" It's typical of the
counterattacks on Bruce that the underlying motivations remain unexpressed as the
establishment searches to articulate why he cannot openly discuss issues of ethnicity
or other forms of non-normativity. Television in the 1950s did have ethnic jokes, but
they tended to be widely accepted generic stereotypes such as Sid Caesar's doubletalking German general109 or extremely broad such as the following Bob Hope quip
made on St. Patrick's Day: "Right now there are nothing but Irish tunes on the radio
and it's all very democratic. I heard one announcer say today 'And now Pat O'Reilly
and his Four Shamrocks play "Irish Eyes." But first a word from our sponsor,
Manischevitz wine.'"110 Such humor did not rely on the understanding of personal
ethnic experience that Bruce introduced into stand-up comedy.
Caesar's Hour. September 26, 1954.
The Bob Hope Show. March 16, 1954.
Complicating Ethnicity: Bruce's Jewishness as Performed
In addition to his innovative discussions of and references to Jewish life, Bruce
deliberately peppered his speech with Yiddish. He rarely deployed full sentences in
Yiddish—this was a child of immigrants and not a first generation arrival. His
scattered use of catch phrases implied that Bruce had insider knowledge of a different,
special world—that he was hip. Combined with his use of jazz idioms, this allowed
Bruce to sneak up on his audience. According to critic Nat Hentoff, "By stringing
together enough Yiddish firecracker jazz jargon.. .he reaches his audience with his
more serious assaults before they are quite aware that they themselves are also
included among his targets." The pleasure of cracking the code allowed audiences to
accept such attacks as an honor, an initiation price to be paid for admittance into the
inner circle of the hip. If his use of Yiddish was just for show, it was a performance
that he continued when off-stage, where he would use a similar vocabulary. There,
however, he would sometimes speak in code in order to keep something concealed
from the powers that be, such as the moment in his New York trial when he told
journalist friends who smuggled him tape recorders to keep quiet by saying "Zug
nisht! [Say nothing!]"111
In a provocative move, Goldman's biography suggests that Bruce was passing
as a Jew on-stage and that much of his Jewishness was constructed as an adult.
Goldman's case is that "Lenny was never bar mitzvahed, never sent to Sunday school,
never instructed in Jewish history, customs, law, or religion
Lenny Bruce was
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 532.
reared in goyville to be a perfect little goy."112 Goldman posits that Bruce's love of
jazz and use of Yiddish came through the influence of Joe Ancis, a Jewish funnyman
who was not a professional comedian but was friends with many who were, including
Bruce and Rodney Dangerfield.113 According to Goldman, "Joe was also the first to
mix in one phrase languages of totally different provenances, totally distinct levels of
usage. Big intellectual words would rub shoulders in his shpritz with old-country
Yiddishisms and hipster jazz slang, underworld argot and baby talk"114 and "[i]t was
from Joe that Lenny got the flavor of the Jewish lower classes."115 It is plausible that
Ancis had a major impact on Bruce—Gerald Nachman calls Ancis "a kind of phantom
figure who looms in the back of Lenny Bruce's path, as well as those of Mel Brooks,
Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and Will Jordan"116—but Goldman's book is the
only documentation that claims Bruce could have been anything approximating a
derivative of Ancis. Ancis was, after all, not a performer, which is an obviously
essential element to Bruce's stand-up, both logistically and theoretically. Ancis may
have developed Bruce's Jewish side in conjunction with his comedy, as would have
Ibid., 86.
In May of 2009, the top Google result for "Joe Ancis" comes from a WikiAnswers post by
"Jereanne" that reads as follows, in its whole: "I first met Joe Ancis in 1988 or 89 through Rodney
Dangerfield. Rodney and Joe had been friends for over 50 years and at the time Joe was living in
Rodney's condo in NYC. Rodney would say that Joe was the funniest man he ever met. Joe never went
on the road with Rodney because he had a fear of flying but this one time Rodney had convinced him to
come to LA where he camped out at the Beverly Hilton penthouse. Joe was a regular Joe with a sharp
Jewish wit. .tall and he and Rodney drank at the same pace. We got onto a discussion of God. I tried to
explain my thoughts on faith likening it to turning on the lightswitch without any thought of where the
electricity [sic] came from. Joe quipped. "Yea, cause 1 pad [sic] the light bill"!
Later I learned Joe was a real mensch to many comics and most notably Lenny Bruce." Jereanne, "Who
Is Joe Ancis?," WikiAnswers, http://wiki.answers.eom/Q/Who_is_Joe_Ancis.
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! ,138.
Ibid., 142.
Paul Hallaman, "Gerald Nachman, Author Of "Seriously Funny" Is Interviewed on Jerry Jazz
the other Jewish comedians hanging out together at Hanson's Drug Store in New York
Goldman's portrayal of the Jewish influence in Bruce's life is inconsistent.
Despite his talk of "goyville," Goldman frequently assigns supposedly Jewish
attributes to Bruce and his family, stating that Lenny had "all the classic Jewish
cleanliness phobias"117 and that "[l]ike so many Jewish parents, [Bruce's father]
Mickey Schneider sacrificed too much for his children and thereby induced guilt by
his generosity."118 Four pages after making a point that Schneider was disconnected
from the Jewish experience because he did not know a word of Yiddish, Goldman
announces that Schneider had a smile that "bespeaks a lifetime of tsuris that only
another Jew could understand."119 Goldman paints a more accurate picture when he
acknowledges the potential co-existence of Jewishness and other identities, as when he
writes that the family of Bruce's father "were English Jews.. .who spoke English as
their native tongue and were damn proud of the fact. The family, nonetheless, was as
typically Jewish in its pattern as if it had come from the Polish Pale or from Russia,
Rumania, or Hungary."120 Some of the discrepancies stem from Goldman's bombast
and propensity for purple prose. Some have to do with the reality of the life of an
American Jew, a cultural minority that came to the United States in various waves of
immigration, with an oft uncertain relationship to the white majority. To rate Bruce's
ethnic authenticity according to the amount of Yiddish he learned as a child is to
instate an unrealistic test of cultural purity.
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 17.
Ibid., 104.
Ibid., 90.
Ibid., 91.
Bruce was certainly often read as Jewish, in his private life as well as in his
public persona. Honey Bruce wrote in her autobiography about an incident in the mid1950s before Bruce's celebrity when they drove across country and encountered a
"pickup truck with three young blond cowboys playing fender tag with us."121 The
cowboys pulled up alongside the Bruces, rolled down their window, and asked "Are
you a Jew?"122 Reluctant to take the easy way out, Bruce refuses to pass as white.
Instead, he sticks his head out the window and yells "yes," before engaging in in some
fancy driving in order to get away from them. From Honey's perspective, this was
"the first time I saw into Lenny's feelings of being on the outside of society. There we
were, in the middle of flat prairie country with nothing but the stillness of the land
around us, and because Lenny was a Jew, he was still unacceptable and unwanted."123
Bruce's marginality is itself inconstant. As a Jew, he he had the option to pass as white
and forget his minority status at times, although bigotry could always pull up in the
next pickup truck. That is, being Jewish is not just a choice but an interpellation.
Bruce's autobiography describes his childhood endeavors to perform
whiteness. When collecting bottles left at the back of Angelo's Bar and Grille in the
1930s and attempting to cash them in at the King Kullen Market: "I tried to look as
innocent and Anglo-Saxon as Jackie Cooper, pouting, pooched-out lip and all, but I'm
sure I looked more like a dwarfed Maurice Chevalier."124 Here is one more example of
Bruce's failed mimicry. He suggests that whiteness can be performed by ethnic whites
but that the performance can fail, as one can always be called out by the audience.
Bruce, Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady, 206.
Ibid., 206-07.
, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 4.
Nonetheless, the manager cashed his bottles, rewarding Bruce for his self-conscious
childhood attempt at assimilation.
Bruce's cognizance of the performative aspects of identity helps explain why
he was so fond of "The Palladium," a routine included on his 1959 album
Togetherness. "The Palladium" consists of an elaborate scene centered on a fictional
aspiring comic named Frank Dell, a comic in the "middle class bracket" who wants to
work "a good room."125 The bit clearly speaks to angst revolving around the idea of
acceptability within and around vaudeville. Bruce distances himself from Dell's
sentiment by stating his contention that "rooms don't have any identity,"126 but he
clearly cares enough about such aspirations to concoct a twenty minute set, which is
remarkably long, particularly for stand-up of that era. Dell convinces his personal
agent to book him at the Palladium because the venue represents the height of
vaudeville respectability. Bruce mocks vaudeville in the form of the staid and trite
sentimental acts of a bygone era of comedy and skewers respectability in the person of
the plummy hypocrisy of the English booking agent.
Bruce plays Dell with deliberate bathos and one suspects that within his
construction of a new identity and a new comedy format lurks a man who desperately
wanted to succeed in a forum that never accepted him, and which he never could
respect. One version of "The Palladium" ends with Bruce removing some of the
distance between himself and Dell, confessing "[tjhat's the bit. The bit is, ah,
naturally, part me."127 Intriguingly, the reason Dell gives for believing that he will
, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
, Togetherness.
, The Essential Lenny Bruce. ,110.
perform well is that he has learned how to shape his identity and play to different
groups. Pleading with his personal agent, Dell vows: "I've got it down now. I work to
Jewish people—I've learned how to say 'toe-kiss.' I work to the Italian people—I've
got the mamma mia bit—I got it all down. I got a Jolson finish, I'll murder them
now."128 Dell's self-assessment is off. His performance of ethnicity is performed from
the outside, without the crucial element of lived experience, and Dell bombs in
London, unable to accurately read and connect with his audience. Bruce's portrayal of
Dell hints at Bruce's own anxiety but also points to a belief that such professional
performance failures can be avoided if one has a a greater consciousness of how the
private, everyday performance of identity actually functions.
Bruce has a similar critique of the hack comedian's generic use of ethnicity on
his 1958 album Interviews of Our Times. On the track "Djinni in the Candy Store,"
Bruce sings in Yiddish while portraying an old man cleaning up his store in
Manhattan's Upper East Side. Here, the joke resides in the disparity between the
aristocratic djinni released from a bottle encountering a local New York Jew whose
very ethnicity signals a remove from the world of fantasy ideals—and djinnis. Generic
wordplay remains, a legacy from vaudeville, but it now harkens to the past, clumsily
out of place in the present. This is the case with the ending of "Djinni in the Candy
Store," when the Jewish storeowner asks the djinni to "make me a malted," to which
the djinni responds "alright, you're a malted"—and promptly turns the man himself
into a milkshake, rather than fixing a traditional malted milkshake as expected.129
Bruce delivers the deliberately corny ending lines with ironic detachment, indicating
Ibid., 104.
Lenny Bruce, Interviews of Our Times (1958).
that the humor comes with the acknowledgment of a tired trope whose day has come
and gone. The humor is out of place, depending on puns when the rest of the skit plays
on the contrast between openly ethnic New Yorkers and the abstract character of
common fables.
One does not even have to read between the lines in order to see that Bruce's
relationship to Judaism was not non-existent so much as it was contradictory. That
Bruce's use of Yiddish may have been constructed as an adult rather than learned as a
child says less about a lack of authenticity than it speaks for Bruce's choice of
language as political. Stephen Kercher reminds us that Bruce refused to climb the
class ladder as well: "Unlike the vast majority of successful mainstream Jewish
American comedians and entertainers working during the 1950s, Bruce did not
dissociate himself from the culture of working- and lower-middle-class Jewish
Americans or the Yiddish gutter slang of his youth."130 For Kercher, this means that
"Being Jewish provided Bruce.. .with a new, more authentic way of
communicating."131 Kercher's account is not at odds with that of Goldman, as
authenticity is a construct and not sui generis. Bruce's stand-up Yiddish belongs to his
other attacks on the trend of Jewish assimilation, such as his mockery of reform rabbis
who are "[s]o reformed they're ashamed they're Jewish."132 For Bruce, Jewishness
represented a refusal to conform, and to assimilate was to capitulate. Bruce portrays
Judaism as an ethnic heritage which should not be denied and as inherently
performative. It is possible to diminish the signs of one's Jewishness and pass as
Kercher, Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America, 407-08.
Ibid., 408.
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
white, but a moral performer performs his self—which proffers the stand-up comic as
the most moral of performers. Of course, this unveiling or ethnic performance is a
reverse image of the process by which many Jewish comedians constructed their
American-ness so as to veil their ethnicity and roots which could often be traced back
to Germany, Russia and other nations.
Comedy Cool: Race-ing Ethnicity
I think it is important to acknowledge how significant and shocking it
would have been for a Jewish comedian to affiliate himself with nonwhite minorities in the United States—and to do so from a position of
hipness—just as images of the abjection and slaughter of European
Jewry in German and Polish concentration camps began to filter into
American consciousness.133
—Kate E. Brown
When it came to disturbing the process of assimilation, Bruce's most
audacious maneuver was to align Jewishness with blackness. At its most obvious, this
came in his expressions of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement. Bruce was
bothered by stereotypes of blacks, as we see in his routine "The Defiant Ones," which
parodies the Tony Curtis-Sidney Poitier picture. Bruce performs with a jazz musician
friend, Eric Miller, who is African American:
Bruce: Come on Jane. It's this way, Jane.
Miller: No, it's this way. What do you keep calling me Jane for?
Bruce: You don't want to be called "boy" do you?
Miller: No.134
Kate E. Brown, "Richard Pryor and the Poetics of Cursing," in Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy
of A "Crazy" Black Man, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press,
2008), 78.
Bruce, Togetherness.
Miller plays the straight man, with Bruce delivering joke lines, including some which
are deliberately corny. Bruce: "Don't forget to play The Star-Spangled Banner. It
takes both the white keys and the dark-kies."135 Bruce mocks the American ideal of
equality, proclaiming proudly how blacks have the right to pay income tax, to go to
jail when they commit a crime, and to get drafted. As for schools and segregated
housing, well, that takes time...
Explaining his views on offensive words to the audience of The Steve Allen
Show, Bruce does not defend his own language so much as attack the morals of others,
calmly asserting that "[t]here are words that offend me. Uh.. .let's see—Governor
Faubus,136 segregation offend me."137 His fantasia "Would You Want Your Sister to
Marry One of Them!" argues that the generalizing prejudices of a KKK member
would break down in the face of sexual desire when posed with the proposition of
marrying either the more conventionally beautiful black singer Lena Home or the
white singer Kate Smith, whom Bruce does not consider attractive. Bruce repeats the
idea with the choice between the white actor Charles Laughton and the black actor
Harry Belafonte, adding:
and if you say "Well, Harry Belafonte isn't a very good thing 'cause
he's sort of an ofay with a tan, he's been assimilated, and it's only
one"—alright, I'll come up with twelve million for you. I'm coming up
with twelve million black keesters, twelve million black black Sidney
Poitiers... .Kiss him on the mouth, that Sidney Poitier, as opposed to
kissing Tony Galento, that grobefreser...m
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was most famous for ordering the national guard to prevent the
desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
The Steve Allen Show.
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
Bruce's use of "black black" acknowledges the possibility that some blacks are
viewed as less authentically black than others. He employs a disparaging term towards
whites used by blacks—"ofay"—when discussing assimilation amongst blacks,
placing the negative connotation more on a generalized whiteness than it does on
Belafonte in particular. The Yiddish terms keesters and grobefreser09, in turn, seek to
remove Bruce from the umbrella of whiteness.
Bruce calls out Hollywood, mocking it for stereotyping blacks and ethnic
whites. His album Interviews of Our Times (1958) contains the satire "Father
Flotsky's Triumph," in which inmates of a prison have taken its guards hostage.
Stereotypes are inflated from within, from the exuberantly kind-hearted Irish priest
Father Flotsky who speaks in an overinflated Irish accent, offering to negotiate with
the prisoners, to the black death row prisoner:
Cut to the worst part of the last mile, a real Uncle Tom scene, death
row, the first cell. [As the prisoner, singing in a deep baritone:] Water
boy! Well, well. Soon I gwoin up to hebbin, on dee big ribber boat.
Then when I gets up dere, I gwonnee gets me lots of fried chicken and
waddymelon. [Sings:] Fried chicken and waddymelon. Fried chicken
and waddymelon, that's what I gwonna get when I get up to that big
ribber boat in heaven. God damn! Yasuh, boss. You see, you don't
mind dying, boss, if you got a natural sense of rhythm. H'yack yack
yack yack.140
Bruce offers a cornucopia of stereotypes, adding in Yiddish again and an over-the-top
male homosexual nurse. His exaggeration highlights the tropes of film in the United
States while constructing a world in which the ingredients of the proverbial melting
pot mix but do not break down into a generic blandness. Having previously failed as a
A crude or coarse over-eater.
Bruce, Interviews of Our Times. Bruce's minstrel laugh at the end is strikingly similar to that used by
Richard Pryor on the title track of Pryor's 1976 album Bicentennial Nigger.
traditional mimic, Bruce's new efforts exhibit a hip conversance with multiple subgroups.
Nothing attests more to Bruce's hipness than his close association with the jazz
scene, which began while he was playing burlesque joints in the mid 1950s.141
Working alongside dancers and jazz musicians, Bruce began telling dope jokes and
literally playing to the band, even at the expense of his paying patrons, and sometimes
in order to impress specific individuals. The people Bruce tried to please at this point
were as likely to be up on the stage with him as they were to be out in the audience
and could be quite specific. According to Harlow, when close friend and jazz musician
Joe Maini played the same club:
Lenny felt he had an audience that dug his comedy. Hearing Joe laugh
at a line that went over the audience's head gave Lenny a reason to be
funny, an incentive to be creative. How could he say the same words
and expect his hippest jazz-musician friend to laugh? So, whenever Joe
Maini worked Strip City, Lenny adlibbed—the beginning of his freeform style.142
Bruce's entrance into jazz cool gave him style and community, but placed him outside
of mainstream white America, as the jazz accompanists for his burlesque gig were a
racially mixed group including "[white bassist] Red Mitchell, [black pianist] Hampton
Hawes, [black drummer and member of Miles Davis Quintet] Philly Joe Jones, [black
pianist] Elmo Hope, [white female pianist] Lorraine Geller, and [black pianist] Carl
Perkins"143 On top of being artistic influences, some of the musicians became close
friends and inducted Bruce into the jazz lifestyle, including the use of heroin.144 The
Chapter Two address this period in Bruce's career in greater detail.
Bruce, Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady, 214.
Collins 17.
NB Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 17.
same conversational quality that connected him to the audience was therefore a way of
simultaneously setting himself apart, connecting Bruce to hip musicians who operated
at the margins of society but accumulated critical approbation. The mixed setting had
avant-garde connotations, both racially and artistically.
Jazz was a common site of rebellion at the time. As Amiri Baraka notes in
Blues People: Negro Music in White America, early modern jazz, or bebop, "defined
the term of a deeply felt nonconformity among many young Americans, black and
white."145 Writers as well as comedians used some of it. Writing in 1963, Baraka noted
that Beat Generation authors "gained much notoriety because of their very vocal
attachment to jazz."146 It led to the creation of a separate cool elite, as it would to a
lesser degree in stand-up comedy: "The 'secret' hopper's and (later) hipster's language
was the essential part of a cult of redefinition, in terms closest to the initiated. The
purpose was to isolate even more definitely a cult of protection and rebellion."147
Bruce borrowed this language for his personal and professional lives.
Bruce actually belonged to a contingent of jazz-inspired comics. First and
foremost was Lord Buckley, a character who, after a show business career doing
everything from running dance marathons in the 1930s to performing in vaudeville in
the 1940s, utilized a hyper version of jazz and beatnik terminology in surrealistic
monologues. Mort Sahl was a jazz aficionado himself who "cite[d] pianist and
Imamu Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: William Morrow,
1963), 200.
Ibid., 233.
Ibid., 202.
bandleader Stan Kenton as his most important performing influence."148 Sahl
conceived of their affinity in terms of attitude, saying that: "Stan, of course, was a
great artist, but he was a voice of defiance, and he always did it on his own terms."149
Documentary filmmaker Robert Weide points out that Sahl, after beginning at Enrico
Banducci's folk club "the hungry i" in San Francisco, forged "a circuit of jazz clubs,
bringing comedy into such places as Mr. Kelly's in Chicago, the Village Gate in New
York and the Crescendo in Los Angeles."150 Intimate relations between stand-up
comedy and jazz should not be surprising. Both jazz and comedy were art forms given
little respect at the time by the critical establishment, and both of them were
dominated by minorities. Comics and musicians played many of the same venues,
particularly after Sahl pioneered stand-up as a profitable profession. In the 1950s and
60s, before the creation of comedy clubs, performing at the same venues also fostered
an overlap in the audiences for jazz, folk, and comedy.
While not foreign to comedy, several performance methods Sahl and Bruce
emphasized in their stand-up can be found in the world of jazz. For example, comedy
has a long association with repetition or the use of refrains. What was new was the
degree to which stand-up, under the influence of Sahl and Bruce, came to prize
techniques such as improvisation. Abandoning a script entailed risk both for the
comedian, who performed without a safety net, and for the audience, which rarely
knew what was coming next. Gleason stressed the importance of seeing Bruce live, as
"American Masters, Mort Sahl," American Masters, PBS,
Robert B. Weide, "Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition,"
Bruce, "like the jazz musician, gets bored with the same routines and this has led him
to improvisation and leads him now away from things which have become associated
with him, making his nightly shows a different experience than his records."151 It also
meant that fans who wanted to experience the live and uncensored Bruce had to show
up at the clubs, where they could consider themselves part of the cool inside elite.
Ralph Gleason, the jazz and cultural critic who would later help found the rock
and roll magazine Rolling Stone, wrote numerous liner notes for jazz albums, and also
for Bruce. Commenting on a "culture of conformity" and sociologists who claim that
the college students of 1958 were conservative, Gleason points to contrary evidence
with Bob and Ray, jazz musicians, and the "Comedy of Dissent" as exemplified by
Lenny Bruce: "Lenny Bruce is an example of something new in our society. He's a
comic right out of the jazz world." For Gleason, Sahl has some "jazz orientation" but
is too restrained to a particular rarefied social strata, versus the far-ranging Bruce, who
is "colossally irreverent—like a jazz musician. His stock in trade is to violate the
taboos out loud... Bruce improvises the way a jazz musician does.... Lenny Bruce is a
social commentator, as is the jazz musician."152 That is, Bruce plays an important
cultural role, and adopts all of the positive attributes Gleason demands of artists:
irreverence, the violation of taboos, and social commentary.
The scholarly language and depth of Gleason's accolades reveal a
corresponding desire on the part of Bruce (and stand-up comedy in general) for
legitimacy. Gleason was one of the critics who bestowed the stamp of intellectual
approval on jazz, and now he was transferring some of this cachet onto Bruce. Jazz
Ralph Gleason. Liner notes. Lenny Bruce, American, 1960.
Bruce, Interviews of Our Times.
was the perfect choice of authority figure—recognized as an art form, yet still seen as
cutting edge and capable of causing disruption, in no small part due to the musicians
themselves. Bruce's irreverence and the improvisational style of the stand-up comic
become aligned with a more critically acclaimed art form and the Civil Rights
struggles of its primary practitioners, who fought racism alongside cultural snobbery.
Gleason sets Bruce apart from other comics, with humor transformed from a
throwaway element entertainment into a unifying tradition among fellow dissidents.
Gleason does not view the association between Bruce and jazz as coincidental
and speculates "as to why his comedy of dissent has flourished in the jazz clubs. He
terrifies other comics—the usual ones—by his material, in the same way the jazz
musician terrifies the hotel bands and the mickey mouse tenor men. He is a threat."153
Previously established forms are being upset by upstart artists. Gleason considers it
positive for the establishment to feel threatened, and that there is a need for
generational change in night club comedy, as for "almost two decades the night clubs
have wallowed in a sea of sentimentality and pious corn and bathroom jokes."
Comparing Bruce to jazz musicians accepts the latter as cultural authorities, validates
the former, and also establishes a paradigm for Bruce to follow: "The jazz musician is
a rebel with humor, if with a cause, and there is no more effective putdown of the
political speeches, the incongruities in the news, the fatuous posing of the tent show
religious carnivals than that which goes on in the conversation of the jazz musician
and the humor of Lenny Bruce."154 Not only can humor have a cause, says Gleason,
but it actually lends itself to rebellion.
The fear was of content (what Bruce said) and form (how Bruce said it), with
the entertainment establishment noticeably rattled by the abandonment of predictable
scripts. In December of 1958, Ed Sullivan informed Bruce's manager that Bruce could
not appear on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town specifically because Sullivan was
concerned that Bruce might go on the show and then "mouth 'whatever he damn well
pleases."'155 His jazz sensibility may have been one reason Bruce found an occasional
home on television as the guest of Steve Allen, who was himself a piano-playing
composer of jazz music.
Bruce's allegiance to jazz was part of his statement of racial affiliation. Eric
Bogosian's introduction to the 1992 re-issue of Bruce's autobiography connects
Bruce's jazz technique to his use of ethnic and racial dialects:
He developed jazz habits: enjoying one's work, doing it for the sake of
expression and fun, exploring new ground, taking chances. These were
jazz laws, and Lenny brought them to comedy.... Lenny somehow
melded Black and Jewish vernacular.156
Bruce incorporated jazz lingo alongside his Yiddish, and the specific brand of
improvisation he brought to stand-up comedy has heavy jazz overtones. In his seminal
book on African American comedy, Mel Watkins expresses his belief that Bruce
"adopted the swagger and assertive impiety of the black hipster in many of his
routines and, more than any previous comedian on the mainstream stage, he evoked an
Ibid. This is before Jon Stewart, who himself could refashion The Daily Show because of his standup roots.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 16.
Eric Bogosian, "Introduction," in How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Simon & Schuster,
1992), viii.
iconoclasm and irreverence that mirrored the tempo and thrust of black street
humor."157 Bruce may have paralleled Ingrid Monson's depiction of the beboppers
who developed improvisation techniques partially in reaction to more commercial
white swing bands, as black musicians "sought to reassert their musical leadership in
jazz by creating something that outsiders had difficulty copying."l58This union
operated to decenter whiteness and highlight minority voices.
The liminal space of a racially-mixed jazz club becomes Bruce's setting and
the prototype for the comedy clubs that would emerge in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Gleason's review in Variety explicitly suggested that Bruce was a good booking for
such venues and his reviews and liner notes aim to establish an audience identity for
Bruce, implying that the same jazz coolness adopted by Bruce could be adopted by his
audience. For example, the liner notes for Bruce's 1960 album American posit the jazz
audience as the
basic audience for Bruce because jazz listening postulates familiarity
with the feeling of improvisation and this is essential to understanding
and appreciating Lenny Bruce. He 'wails' like a jazz man, 'get in the
groove' or whatever he may use to describe the jazz musician's
equivalent of being 'on.'.. .the whole thing swings in a jazz sense.150
Gleason lecturing his readers on the intellectual reasons to appreciate Bruce and, as
Bruce himself did, employs jazz lingo to indicate inclusion in an insider club. Jazz is
the site of the cool other, founded by black musicians, who created a space into which
Bruce steps, finding a home for his comedy rhythm and Jewish ethnicity.
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 485-6.
Ingrid Monson, "The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz
Historical Discourse," Journal of the American Musicological Society 48, no. 3 (1995): 411.
Bogosian hints at some of the problematic nature of Bruce's affinity for
African American jazz culture, although he poses it as positive: "Lenny was one of the
bridges existing between post-war African-American culture and the 'counterculture'
culture of the '60s and '70s. Just as the Rolling Stones and the Animals ripped off
R&B, or MTV absorbed rap music, Lenny hooked into the jazz mentality."160 "Hooked
into" is a more complimentary term than "ripped off or even "absorbed," but all three
apply to the appropriation of African American culture by white artists or executives.
Ralph Gleason closes his liner notes on Bruce with the large claim that the anti-verbal
jazzman has "Lenny Bruce to speak for him with power," suggesting that Bruce has a
greater access to influence, due to the microphone provided by comedy and Bruce's
status as a white man, but where does Bruce derive the authorization to speak on
behalf of blacks or black men? He has an actual black man, his friend Eric Miller, on
stage for the skit "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties," but Bruce is clearly
the author and impresario of the piece, with the bulk of the lines. No matter how much
Bruce got laughter from jazz musicians, both white and black, the fact remains that his
primary audience was white.
Bruce appeared at times to buy Gleason's praise and presume that he could
speak on behalf of African Americans. In Las Vegas in 1960, after being called out of
the audience in order to take a bow, Bruce sprayed the headlining African American
singer Pearl Bailey with a fire extinguisher. Performing shortly thereafter in a night
club, Bruce tells his audience why he acted out in Las Vegas. In part, it was out of
annoyance at being called on-stage alongside other entertainers in order to bow
' 60 Bogosian, "Introduction," vii.
mindlessly to the crowd. It was also because Bailey's act includes negative stereotypes
in which, according to Bruce, "Negresses have loose morals.. .and colored people are
lazy."'61 Bruce cites his own inflexibility, stating that "I am not a liberal. I forget she
comes from a different generation," implying that he himself is intolerant of
stereotypes while Bailey, in contrast, lack political awareness. Powered by an
understanding of race that stems from his experience of Jewishness, what Bruce does
not do is question whether Bailey's use of stereotype might stem from a survival
strategy necessitated by being a black entertainer in a racist and racialized system.
Race is essential for Bruce's performance of ethnicity, as his use of blackness
allows him to equate Jewishness with urbanity. On the one hand, goyish becomes the
artificial and inauthentic, regardless of the official religious affiliations: "Evaporated
milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it.. ..Spam is goyish and rye bread is
Jewish."162 On the other hand, Bruce declares that "To me, if you live in New York or
any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live
in New York you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish
even if you're Jewish."163 He incorporates black jazz men such as Count Basie into
Jewishness while expelling a black convert to Judaism (Ray Charles) and a Jewish
blackface performer (Eddie Cantor). Jews are the non-whites: "Negroes are all Jews.
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 5.
Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews."164 We should
recall that he travelled down the assimilationist path before reclaiming his Jewishness,
so routines such as "Jewish vs. Goyish" call himself out as well as others. He ignores
the difference in the situation, the reality that blacks do not have the option of
assimilation in the same manner that Jews do. The dichotomizing is a fruitful comedic
technique, but it should not obscure the underlying fact that Bruce himself was both
Jewish and Goyish.
Bruce's invocation of blackness grants him a cool factor and enables him to
accent the non-white elements of Jewishness. The danger resides in the creation of a
new stereotype, in particular the conflation of blackness with the jazz-man. Bruce
appears aware of the possibility that the emulation of jazz mannerisms by white
hipsters could be seen as cultural appropriation. His early recording "Interview with
Dr. Sholem Stein" (1958) consists of an interview about calypso music with a Hebrew
scholar discussing Hebraic influence on calypso music, such as the story of the
wandering Jew. Stein claims that there are Hebraic characters scattered all over, as far
as the Bahamas, and compares calypso lyrics with the Mishnah, the seven books of
Moses, in particular the third book. Asked whether he has any interest in future
colonization, Stein says he is trying to convince Yasha Heifetz to sing calypso music,
accompanying himself on the guitar. Bruce's target appears to be other whites who
believe that they can adopt non-white cultural practices as if picking out ingredients
from a salad bar. Indeed, Bruce frequently calls out white liberals, who would
presumably have been a major portion of his audience. He paints a sarcastic picture of
Equality Heaven, where presumably progressive Hollywood producers like Darryl
Zanuck and Stanley Kramer, who believe in equality, all live, and Miller and his
colored friends can go and polish their cars. Bruce points to the hypocrisy of the white
liberal, even as his Jewishness allowed him to play the part of a white southerner.
While the stamp of blackness was unavoidable for African American stand-up comics
in America, Jewish stand-up comics have had greater leeway in deciding how visible
to make their ethnicity165, which helps explain their earlier ascendance in the field.
Bruce's performances of race do not reveal him as a saint of the Civil Rights
movement, but a struggling sinner. It appears that he first tackled racial stereotypes
when performing in the Catskills with his wife Honey in the early-to-mid 1950s. The
two would embody old racial stereotypes that were beginning to be embarrassments to
white America, doubly so when presented out of their usual context by the two
Bruces. Honey states that, when playing in the Catskills,
We would do like a satire on a handyman and, say, the Negro maid that
had worked the season in the Catskills. Like, we were making the ride
back to the city and talking over the Jewish people we worked for. He
sounded like one of the guys on Amos 'n' Andy, and I did a voice like
Butterfly McQueen.166
The two performed satires in which they played black resort workers speaking about
the Jewish resort-goers. Traces of this approach remain in the "Father Flotsky" satire,
in which the black death row convict dreams of heaven because of all the watermelon
and chicken that'll be there, and declaims that "you don't mind dying, boss, if you got
a natural sense of rhythm." By placing Hollywood stereotypes or race and ethnicity
A more recent example is Roseanne Barr, whose autobiography tells of her formative experience
growing up Jewish in Salt Lake City. I suspect that she did not reveal this fact in her initial act due to
the already significant obstacles arising against her vocal feminism and class consciousness.
Goldman 71.
alongside each other and by reconfiguring blacks as Jewish, Bruce situates ethnicity in
the United States within the larger framework of race and also launches Jewishness as
the fashionable forefront of stand-up comedy self-fashioning.
Chapter Two: "Utter Taboos: The Obscenity of Lenny Bruce"
"They said that he was sick 'cause he didn't play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day
to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him
like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had."
—Bob Dylan, "Lenny Bruce"1
Lenny Bruce's entrance into the national mythos of the United States began in
the late 1950s, when his stand-up comedy appearances at San Francisco's North Beach
nightclubs caught the eyes of prominent cultural critics. Writing in Variety, Ralph J.
Gleason pronounced him "the hottest sleeper comic in recent local history."169
Legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen quoted Bruce to close the
April 1958 column in which Caen coined the term "beatnik." Under the all caps
heading "CONFESSION," Caen wrote that: "Comedian Lenny Bruce, who opened
last night at Ann's 440 on [Broadway Street], confides: 'I'm just like everybody else. I
want to be a non-conformist, too!'" 170 The joke reads now as it probably did then, as a
muted jab, aimed more at the self-proclaimed non-conformists than at the upholders of
the establishment. The one-liner has been removed from its place in a larger act, and
the verbal witticism has been separated from the aggressive energy of Bruce's
physical presence. Nonetheless, the quip evokes one of the central organizing issues of
Bob Dylan. "Lenny Bruce" Shot of Love. Columbia, 1981.
Ralph. J. Gleason, "Ann's 440, S.F.," Variety, April 9, 1958.
Herb Caen, "Pocketful of Notes," San Francisco Chronicle, February 6, 1997. [Original: April 2,
1958. Microform Unclassified.]
Bruce's groundbreaking comedy—namely, normativity versus non-conformity in the
United States.
It can be difficult to recollect the panic that Bruce aroused with his use of
profanity, accustomed as we've become to the use of cursing on-stage. Bruce's use of
comedy to destabilize normativity and broach core issues of race and ethnicity was
radical enough to elicit a sustained governmental backlash, most notably in the guise
of obscenity prosecutions. By the early 1960s, municipalities from coast to coast (San
Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York) felt that Bruce needed to be
contained via prosecution. According to legal scholars Ronald Collins and David
Skover, around a dozen prosecutors, twice that many defense lawyers, and thirty trial
and appellate judges were involved in Bruce's four primary obscenity cases, making
the trials the most ever involved in "any single body of First Amendment litigation.
And all of this for misdemeanor offenses."171 How then, in a few short years, did
Bruce's public persona evolve from an unknown irreverent quipster shoring up the
bottom of a local newspaper column into a notorious performer perceived as a
nationwide threat?
This chapter traces Bruce's entanglement with the law, linking the obscenity
claims to the performances of race and ethnicity explored in Chapter One, and arguing
that the obscenity charges against him stemmed more from his exploration of taboo
concepts than from his use of specific taboo words and, furthermore, that Bruce's
speech acts served to delimit the field of stand-up comedy. Bruce demonstrates that
stand-up comics could lay claim to non-normative language, and it was his routines
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 4.
about sex, drugs, ethnicity and race which established the Id of each individual comic
as the prime staging grounds for stand-up. The state-sponsored repression of Bruce
shocks in retrospect largely because of the success of his legacy, which was the
creation of stand-up as a free speech zone, in which flirtation with the obscene is not
just tolerated but expected.
Standing Trial: Obscenity in San Francisco
The first major obscenity charge arrived in October of 1961, when Bruce
1 79
played the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, just down the road from Ann's 440.
Recounting that earlier debut, Bruce describes how his agent asked him to replace
Ann's supposedly homosexually-oriented show with ostensibly heterosexual
entertainment. The following on-stage reminiscence prompted Bruce's arrest by two
police officers on the lookout for obscene acts:
Bruce [as Bruce]: Well, what kind of a show is it, man?
Bruce [as Agent]: Well, you know.
Bruce [as Bruce]: Well, no, I don't know, man. sounds...kind
of a weird show.
Bruce [as Agent]: Well, it's not a show. They're a bunch of
cocksuckers, that's all. A damned fag show. And that's...
Bruce [as Bruce]: Oh. Well, that is a pretty bizarre show. Uh...I don't
know what I could do in that kind of a show.
Bruce [as Agent]: Well, no, it's, we want you to change all that.
Bruce [as Bruce]: Well...Chr...I don't...that's a big gig. I can just tell
them to stop doin' it.173
Ann's 440 was, appropriately enough, at 440 Broadway St., San Francisco. The Jazz Workshop was
located at 473 Broadway.
The Trials of Lenny Bruce, (Sourcebooks, Inc.), Compact Disc. "Ann's 440 / A Pretty Bizarre
Bruce creates humor by purposefully misreading the agent's request that he change the
on-stage show, imagining instead that he has been asked to alter the off-stage sexual
behavior which designates the performers as homosexual. The misreading is possible
because the agent does not distinguish between public and private performance,
stating that "it's not a show" because it's a "fag show." The agent appears caught
between the belief that homosexuality is morally unsuitable for public viewing and
that homosexuality is already a performance when off-stage, and therefore unworthy
when evaluated using show business standards.
Bruce's on-stage reenactment portrays himself as he often wanted to be seen,
more the open-minded and reasonable rebel than the firebrand revolutionary. He gets
to be both the one benefitting from the expulsion of homosexual acts and the one
publicly critiquing such banishment. When a stand-up plays multiple characters, it is
within the framework of the self, presenting how he or she perceives the world and his
or her place in it. When playing the agent, Bruce's tone is brash and vulgar, an uptight
and illogical cog of the establishment. When playing himself, the tone is laidback,
inquisitive, and matter-of-fact. Bruce calls the outgoing show "weird" and "bizarre,"
but it's unclear whether this characterizes his views of homosexuality, or is due to his
interpretation of the show as a literal enactment of homosexual sexual acts. Bruce's
brashness resides both in his use of obscenity in the live public act of stand-up, and in
his revelation of who utilizes these derogatory terms in private, behind closed doors.
Ironically, given Bruce's depiction of hypocritical authority figures, it's
actually the dialogue issued as the moralizing agent which got him in trouble with the
law—namely, his use of the appellation "cocksuckers." The law, as embodied by
prosecutors and police officers, took offense at Bruce's choice of words in a markedly
personal fashion. Arresting officers James Ryan and James Solden proclaimed outrage
at the public utterance of "cocksucker," with Sergeant Solden telling Bruce: "I'm
offended because you broke the law. I mean it sincerely. I mean it. I can't see any
right, any way you can break this word down, our society is not geared to it."174
Solden thus personalized the legal statute, establishing both himself and the statute as
representatives of an American people who have set up a legal system to prevent
themselves or their neighbors from encountering vulgar language in a public setting,
regardless of any individual's willingness to encounter such concepts. Time and again,
the attacks against Bruce did not come from club patrons but from governmental
authorities, suggesting a larger struggle against a societal power structure which
pushed aside the immediate tension between the stand-up comic and his audience.
Bringing the case to the San Francisco courtroom in November 1961, the
prosecution focused on three portions of Bruce's act. In addition to the word which
shook the policemen, Bruce's performance at the Jazz Workshop contained a comic
fantasia in which Bruce envisioned a man standing next to a ticket booth with a sign
hanging from his penis that read "When we hit fifteen hundred dollars, the guy inside
the booth is going to kiss it."175 Finally, there was Bruce's routine entitled "To Is A
Preposition, Come is a Verb," in which Bruce riffs on the phrase "to come" and
suggests that those who find the words obscene are driven by their personal sexual
frustration.176 Accompanying himself on drums, Bruce repeats the phrase "Did you
Collins 50-1.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 49.
Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce.
come good?" in a variety of permutations, first with a pause that makes it read "Did
you come? Good" before eliding the words into a rapturous refrain, equating sex with
a jazz-like improvisation on themes. The discussion of sexual satisfaction, both male
and female, is startlingly frank, but the state paid particular attention to the repeated
phrase "Don't come in me, don't come in me." In the only one of the three bits which
alludes to heterosexual activity, the government's objection was to the portrayal of a
woman attempting to avert pregnancy, which suggests that women's sexual agency
and the avoidance of procreation were both larger taboos than the expression of sexual
satisfaction. Bruce was cited as obscene for the use of individual words, but the
through-line of concern pertained to his revelations of non-heterosexual, nonprocreative—and, therefore, non-normative—sexual activity.
The state's particular anxiety surrounding sexuality anticipates Judith Butler's
articulation of hate speech. Butler notes a similar connection at play between injurious
speech and sexuality in the United States in the 1980s and 90s, writing in Excitable
Speech that "the action of speech is considered unequivocally to be injurious
conduct... in those instances in which the graphic representation of sexuality is at
issue."177 With Bruce, however, the issue was not whether he had injured any
particular person with his words. The state expressed little concern over the audience
members who paid to go to his shows. On the contrary, the government downplayed
Bruce's actual immediate audiences in favor of society in the abstract. The unvoiced
question became whether Bruce could use the medium of live comedy to produce a
speaking subject outside of the law's strict control.
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 39.
A core battle brewed over the framing of Bruce's act when presented in the
courtroom—would Bruce be allowed to explain his humor in context? The first judge
in the San Francisco case, Albert A. Axelrod, sided with the prosecution's assertion
that Bruce's performances need not be considered as a whole.178 This meant that any
word found obscene on its own could be counted against Bruce. Axelrod's decision
also characterized stand-up comedy as a series of isolated words—of individual jokes
strung together over time as opposed to a performance text that is conceived of as a
whole. Stand-up was not granted the respect that long-recognized art forms such as
literature received, even when regarded as potentially obscene. According to Axelrod,
"if you are discussing a book, then you may have to take perhaps the whole meaning,
but we are not talking about that. We are talking about a specific word."179 Brace's
profane words were not seen as components of sentences let alone of a full-length act.
By extracting the words from the performance, Axelrod disregarded the import of a
speaking subject operating in conjunction with an audience; this collaboration is, of
course, the engine of stand-up comedy. The comic cannot act without an audience,
whose laughter, applause, and presence comprise much of the interlocutory meaning
in the stand-up's speech act.
Although Axelrod considered Brace's language obscene, Brace's lawyers
successfully argued for a new trial based on a technicality, pointing out that their client
should have been informed that he had a right to counsel at his arraignment following
the arrest. Bruce then received a jury trial under Judge Clayton W. Horn. This was a
hopeful sign as Horn had presided over the 1957 trial and acquittal of Lawrence
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 54.
Ferlinghetti on charges of obscenity stemming from the publication of Allen
Ginsberg's Beat poem "Howl." At that previous trial, Horn had listened to the assorted
literary experts who advocated on behalf of the poem's merit and ruled that "Howl"
was not criminal as it contained redeeming social importance.
As it turned out, Horn was less open to justifications of cultural significance
when applied to stand-up. Bruce's lawyer Albert Bendich requested that Bruce's
comedy be allowed to breathe—namely, that "the audience might not be allowed to
respond naturally, given the circumstances that this is an accurate reproduction of a
performance which is given at a nightclub."180 Horn refused to make allowances for
the live nature of the medium, let alone equate the audience of the nightclub with that
of the courtroom. He ruled that "this is not a theater and it is not a show, and I am not
going to allow any such thing... .1 am now going to admonish the spectators that you
are not to treat this as a performance."181 Performance requires interpretation and an
interplay between audience and performer; Horn wanted the voice of the law to be
immutable. Furthermore, Horn explicitly ruled that the spectators at the trial were not
to laugh at the tape. Horn's pronouncement that the records of Bruce's performances
are "not for your entertainment"182 presupposes that one cannot enjoy the treatment of
serious subjects and betrays a common distrust of laughter, a frequent suspicion,
perhaps stemming from its association with physical pleasure. Practically speaking,
Horn asserted the law's sole power to determine meaning and to re-stage the response
to Bruce's material. This forestalled any potential community or communion Bruce
Ibid., 74.
might have created with his new spectatorship, the jury. Horn fought for the
universality of language, free from context, while Bruce made his living
demonstrating languages live and mutable nature.
The charges against Bruce arrived in the wake of major societal
reconsiderations of obscenity. Along with "Howl," there was the Supreme Court's
1957 decision in the landmark obscenity case Roth v. United States, which came down
6-3 against Samuel Roth's mail-order business selling erotic literature and
photographs. William J. Brennan's majority decision instructed that one could
recognize such material by asking "whether, to the average person, applying
contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a
1 S^
whole, appeals to prurient interest."
The definition was highly vague but
nonetheless made it clear that obscenity, should it be spotted, would be found to be
inherently without redeeming qualities, as "[ojbscenity is not within the area of
constitutionally protected freedom of speech or press." 184 Not only was obscenity
unprotected, it was undesirable, and Brennan quoted the Court's 1942 decision in
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire that "[i]t has been well observed that [lewd and
obscene] utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such
slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is
clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality."185 For the Court,
society clearly aligned on the side of order and morality. Should Bruce be shown to
operate outside the social norm, he could be duly censored and censured. For his part,
Roth V. United States, 354 U.S. 476,(1957).
Bruce never actually asked for permission to be obscene, but argued that he was in the
business of inciting social observation, not sexual incitement.
The law's fear of immoral speech may have been exacerbated by the refiguring
of sexual mores taking place in the United States of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In
1948, Alfred Kinsey had published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed five
years later by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Masters and Johnson began their
work on sexuality in 1957, while the combined oral contraceptive pill was approved
for use in the United States in 1960. In the world of literature, Charles Rembar sued
the New York City postmaster in 1959 to get Grove Press permission to publish Lady
Chatterley's Lover, and in 1961, Grove helped defend over sixty cases brought against
booksellers for selling Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. In this atmosphere, Bruce had
cause to be concerned about whether his performances would be considered artistic or
of social worth. Just a few years before presiding over Bruce's trial, Judge Horn hinted
at a belief that art should play an edifying and uplifting role in society; he sentenced
five women convicted of shoplifting to watch The Ten Commandments and write
essays on the film's moral lessons.186 It was unlikely that Bruce would be granted the
same esteem granted to Charlton Heston's Moses.
In the end, it was Judge Horn who came to Bruce's aid, giving instructions
which led the jury to acquit Bruce in March 1962. Newspaper accounts made it clear
that the jury sided with government efforts to rein in Bruce rather than the appreciative
night club audiences: The San Francisco Examiner reported that "[t]he jury foreman
said, in returning the verdict, 'we hated to give this verdict, but under the law as given
Donovan Bess, "Court Rules on Biblical Essays—1 Wins, 1 Loses," San Francisco Chronicle,
August 7, 1957.
us, there was nothing we could do.'"187 According to the San Francisco Chronicle,
Bruce's acquittal by the jury was no affirmation of "the comedian's role as a social
critic and his attacks on hypocrisy [but was] Judge Horn's instruction that to find
Bruce guilty it would be necessary to show that his act last October 4 at the Jazz
Workshop.. .had presented 'a clear and present danger.'"'88 Unable to paint Bruce as
an immediate threat, the jury called for legislative action against wayward comedians.
'"Under the letter of the law we had no choice,' jury foreman George Case III said,
'but we feel the obscenity laws of the State of California should be scrutinized and
tightened.'"189 The crux of contention was majoritarian control of minority voices, a
fight by the public court system to regulate speech between adults in private clubs.
Interestingly, Bruce's reaction to the verdict seemed to acquiesce to the
premise that his act involved an overdose of profanity, even as he hinted at a higher
purpose for his performance work. '"I'm never going to say any four-letter words
again,' Bruce said. 'I'm bored with the dirty-word aspect and I'm off for a bigger
mission. I'm going to thwart pseudo-Christians and make them live their religion or
back down.'"190 Bruce never did fulfill his vow to abjure dirty words, but the main
naivete of his statement lies in his failure to realize that his comedy already was about
the thwarting of pseudo-Christians and the exposure of their purported dissimulation.
That was the case with routines such as "Religions, Inc.," which I analyze later in this
chapter, and was also the nub of his attack on the moralizing entertainment agent who
"Acquittal of Lenny Ires Chief," San Francisco Examiner, March 10, 1962.
Michael Harris, "Lenny Bruce Cleared: Lenny Bruce Acquitted in Smut Case," San Francisco
Chronicle, March 9, 1962.
hired Bruce to replace the "fag show" at Ann's 440. It is possible that Bruce knew he
was already operating on this level but felt that the government had failed to take
notice. Such legal and cultural imbroglios do not need to operate on a conscious level.
Deliberate or not, the foundation of all of the obscenity cases was the government's
desire to eliminate Bruce's stand-up assault on the logic of conventional morals.
Vulgarity and the Vernacular: Bruce's Burlesque Background
A significant portion of the shock caused by Bruce's profanity stemmed from
the where of his speaking. This was particularly evident as Bruce transitioned into
more respectable middle class nightclubs and out of the burlesque joints that had
provided him with most of his work in the mid-1950s. "Burlesque" was formerly a
term used to designate a "species of literary composition, or of dramatic
representation, which aims at exciting laughter by caricature of the manner or spirit of
serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects; a literary or dramatic work
of this kind."191 American burlesque in the 1950s was a bawdier form of vaudeville
heavily transitioned into the striptease that would supplant it in the 1960s. It was while
emceeing this burlesque that Lenny Bruce began making innovative strides in several
of the focal areas that would come to define stand-up comedy: improvisation, active
audience response, and the inclusion of current events in the act.
Burlesque venues understandably put fewer restrictions on their comics than
family-friendly vaudeville, giving freer rein to expressions of sexuality and
"Burlesque, A. And N.," The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press,
experimentations with form. Honey asserts that it was at his regular gig at the Los
Angeles club Strip City that Bruce "started experimenting with comedy," in particular
when it came to the level of intimacy and innovation in his audience interactions.
Honey writes that her husband "began scouring the newspapers every day for a phrase,
a picture—anything to be used to spark an audience. At first he picked out look-alikes
in the audience.. .Customers began to come back again just to hear Lenny because
every night what he said was different but familiar to the audiences."193 The cause and
effect regarding the daily alteration of material is not clear-cut. Some audience
members assuredly returned more frequently because Bruce mixed up his material,
while a number of them presumably were interested in viewing the female strippers.
Bruce also mixed up his material because, for the first time, he had long runs at single
establishments, including Strip City, Duffy's, and the slightly higher class Crescendo.
In addition, the incorporation of local events into his act was indubitably influenced by
the success in 1954 of Mort Sahl, who not only incorporated news into his act, but
brought an actual newspaper with him on-stage. The transition from the general and
generic to the specific and the topical provided the crucial scaffolding for stand-up.
Low expectations actually allowed for greater artistic freedom. Again
referencing Strip City, Honey stated that it was "a great place for a comic to break in
material because no one would really notice if a comedy bit laid an egg. They also
wouldn't notice if Bob Hope were on stage. This would sometimes frustrate Lenny,
driving him to dream up bizarre stunts to relieve his boredom.'"94 William Karl
Bruce, Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady, 213.
Thomas, a cinematographer who has written on his exploits with Bruce, recounts an
infamous incident at the Hollywood club called Duffy's Gay Nineties in the late 1950s
in which Bruce "appeared nude and urinated in a knothole on the stage floor, about
which the dancers had complained because they caught their spike heels in it."195
Bruce's shock value stemmed from both boundary-pushing and simple attentionseeking, partially motivated by the pressure on the emcees to compete with the female
dancers. The sexual nature of the clubs emphasized bawdiness, and the milieu of
exotic dancing was pervaded by gender imbalance. The dancers were female, the
emcees and musicians mostly male, and the clientele also tilted towards more men
than women. The legacy of sexism in stand-up comedy owes much to the fact that
burlesque is one of its ancestors.
At the strip joints in Southern California, Bruce could swear in public without
official censure. Words he could use with impunity in burlesque were the ones which
would find him furor in middle class night clubs. Traditional swear words were
associated with disreputable social locations, and Bruce's lawyers inferred class
discrimination in the establishment's desire to prevent Bruce from using these words
in more reputable clubs. Defending Bruce in his 1964 New York case, Ephraim
London outlines the etymological history of English swear words:
after the Norman invasion of England, the words that began to be
adopted, words of politeness that began to be used in the English
language were words of French origin. And those that were of AngloSaxon origin tended to be used by the peasant class or the servant
class. m
William Karl Thomas, Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon
Books, 1989), 15.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 248.
London implies that Bruce was prosecuted in part for his refusal to assimilate as a
proper middle class citizen, evidenced by his continued use of language associated
with the working class,.
Indeed, it was only when trying to cross the tracks to the bourgeois side of
town that Bruce encountered resistance. The pressures of propriety obviously weighed
heavily as he sought to make his way in the entertainment business. We see this in his
introduction to "The Palladium," a twenty-minute routine about a vaudeville comedian
seeking to play a prestigious joint, in which Bruce opines against people who claim
that there was any such thing as "good rooms, class rooms," stating his belief that
"[r]ooms don't have any identity," even as he then proceeds to discuss at length the
challenges of playing highfaluting establishments.197 Like the laboring Vaudevillian
comedian he presents in "The Palladium," Bruce plays the working stiff who decries
the cultural elites even as he seeks their favor.
The class suspicions ran both ways. When facing a resistant high-class
clientele in fancier clubs, Bruce's instinct was to challenge them and, when necessary,
seek a more receptive audience. Thomas recounts how Bruce rattled his gilded cage
when playing the 1957 New Year's Eve show at The Slate Brothers Club in Los
Angeles: "[w]hen a line failed he'd turn his back on the audience and play to the
1 OR
Continuing to bomb, Bruce launched a joke that "had only drawn nervous
laughter from an all-male group" when told by Buddy Hackett the night before. The
two-line joke appears deliberately designed with impropriety in mind, with the
question of "Daddy, what's a pervert?" receiving the answer "Shut up, son, and keep
' 7 Bruce, Togetherness.
Thomas, Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet, 28.
sucking."199 The breach in etiquette was vulgar enough to get Bruce fired, but the joke
differs from those that would get Bruce into trouble a few years later. It was not an
original line, did not represent an individual's opinion, and did not link to a rebellious
social movement, as would stand-up. Therefore, the threat was minor, and there was
no need for the government to get involved.
The burlesque backdrop was also a major source of the heavy jazz influence
discussed in Chapter One and racially mixed spaces and performance places garnered
extra police watchfulness. That "Howl" was first performed at 6 Gallery, in the
"Negro section" of San Francisco, reflects that the white avant-garde were drawn to
rebel in liminal spaces.200 The poem itself echoes that attraction, citing the intersection
of races as a source of danger and thrills, talking of "angelheaded hipsters" who were
"dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix."
This white desire for mixed racial spaces must have elicited some of the fear of
"Howl" and of Bruce whose first arrest, after all, would come at the Jazz Workshop, a
showcase for African American music, where Bruce appeared on the bill alongside
black tenor saxman Ben Webster.
Bruce tried to outline the racial context of his work for the courts in later cases.
In his 1964 New York trial, the
city editor of Ebony magazine testified that Bruce's 'superb social
satire' reflected his 'continuing concern for basic issues such as racial
equality, bigotry, [and] religious intolerance....His comments on such
questions as to oppression, and the discrimination against the Negro
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 40.
people, his references to religious misunderstanding and intolerance,
and bigotry point this up well.202
For his appeal in the 1963 Chicago trial, Bruce wanted Father Norman O'Connor, the
so-called "jazz priest" who had officiated at Billie Holiday's memorial service in
1959. O'Connor promised to testify on Bruce's behalf, but was ordered by his
superiors not to.203 During the jury selection, Bruce's side dismissed "the Reader's
Digest devotee," presumably taking the magazine as an indication of a conservative
nature, while the prosecution excused "Mr. Witherspoon, a well-dressed middle-aged
black man."204 The resulting jury was all white.
The legal skirmishes over whether Bruce obscenely violated community
standards were not just about diagnosing obscenity but about determining community.
When arguing for Bruce, his lawyer Bendich brought up this liminal space of
burlesque next to the nightclubs, pointing to Finocchio's, with its "drag-queen blacknet-stocking-and-brassiered cabaret" in order to establish community standards in
which Bruce's behavior would not seem out-of-place.205 The question for society-atlarge, therefore, was whether they would allow representatives from such a
community to perform in the public square. The boundary-blurring was both
geographical and social, as stand-up comics developed their presentation of alternative
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 252.
Ibid., 152.
Ibid., 63.
Ibid., 64.
Unmasking the Man: Speaking like the People
Bruce argued that, in order to present a fully-formed character, foul language
was needed. In his own words, "when I speak like the people, I speak like the
people."206 The people liked what they heard. Bruce's fame grew and, by the time he
played the nightclub The Unicorn in Los Angeles in February 1963, the audience
urged Bruce to repeat the very routines that had brought him prosecution in San
Francisco in 1961 and at the nearby club The Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1962 (the
court consolidated the two L.A. cases into one). Bruce set out to test the dividing line
between personal and professional speech, telling his audience that
"[t]he law says that anything you say on stage that might be considered
obscene is illegal---even if you say the same things to each other on the
street or at home. In other words, if I'm not on stage, the law doesn't
apply, which is ludicrous. So, here's what I'm going to do." At that
point, Lenny opened the backstage door, walked into the gutter of
Sunset Boulevard, and continued to talk to the audience on the
microphone..." There he was, out on the street," [club owner] Cohen
recalled, "and he was repeating 'motherfucker, motherfucker,
motherfucker, motherfucker!'"207
Seven years after Erving Goffman published his The Presentation of Self in Everyday
Life, Bruce was questioning the division between a "back region, where the
performance of a routine is prepared, and front region, where the performance is
presented."208 Stand-up spotlights the junction of the two. To that extent, Prosecutor
Ross was half-right when he "argued that Lenny was no satirist like Jonathan Swift,
but rather a man who took the dirty language of the 'pool hall and the locker room
Ibid., 248.
Ibid., 115.
Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 238.
[into] the public place.'"
The stand-up comic is actually both satirist and purveyor
of dirty language.
The combination of previously distinct realms caused unintentionally comic
confusion as to which utterances were part of the public performance and which were
private. At one point, Bruce paused and "asked that the stage lights be dimmed [but
the] high beams still kept on glaring. Staring up at the control booth, Lenny yelled,
'You dwarf motherfucker, turn the lights down!' When there still was no change, he
bent over the table closest to the stage, and said: 'The dwarf prick thinks I'm
kidding.'" 210 The government considered these outbursts part of Bruce's act and
prosecuted him for those as well as his more standard set of routine. By operating
without an official script, stand-up gains the excitement of the live but has to accept
unexpected language as part of its text.
The legal system had never encountered anyone like Bruce before. The very
avant-garde nature of Bruce's act worked for him insofar as surprising and
entertaining audiences, but turned against him when it came to the eyes of the law.
Prosecutor Ross cited Bruce's unusual nature as reason for him to be contained.
Asking questions of one of the policemen present, Officer Gerald Schayer, he first
establishes Schayer's familiarity with the norms of comedic entertainment before
enquiring whether Bruce fit those norms:
Ross: How many times have you been to nightclubs where there were
acts, comedians, or a use of comedians, maybe not as a whole show but
just as part of the show?...
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 130.
Ibid., 103.
Schayer: Crescendo in the Hollywood area....The Largo in the West
Hollywood area. Pink Pussycat in the West Hollywood area. I believe
the Lake club....
Ross: During these times that you attended those performances, did you
hear any routines that were similar to these routines that you have
testified to concerning Mr. Bruce?
Schayer: No, I don't believe so....
Ross: I am talking about the type of performance he gave, treating
those topics and the manner in which those topics were treated, as you
have testified.
Schayer: No, I don't believe so....
Bruce's originality posed a risk for him, as the law was clearly shaken by the style of
performance he introduced into the public sphere. In addition. Schayer's testimony
suggested that the judge of comedy norms could be an officer of the law, rather than a
cultural critic or an audience member.
The early 1960s was the period of some of Brace's classic routines, including
"How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties" and "Thank You, Mask Man," the
latter being an investigation into the Lone Ranger's habit of heading off into the sunset
without stopping for accolades. Bruce portrays a townsman catching up with the Lone
Ranger, who explains how his work would be derailed by becoming addicted to
gratitude. Brace ventures beyond "unmasking" cultural icons and by suggesting that
what the Lone Ranger wants, when it comes down to it, is Tonto, and that the two are
bound by the Lone Ranger's sexual desire.
Lone Ranger: A present? Alright, for the children, I'll do it. No
ashtrays, uh, give me the Indian over there!
Townsman: Who, Tonto?
Lone Ranger: Yes, Tanta—whatever the spic-half-breed's name is, I'll
take him.
Townsman: Spic half-breed? God damn, you can't, you can't have
Lone Ranger: Bullshit, that's what I want, Tanta the Indian.
Ibid., 121.
Townsman: Look buddy, his name ain't Tonta, it's Tonto, and you
can't have Tonto.
Lone Ranger: Bullshit, I want Tanta. I want Tanta the Indian!
Townsman: God-damn you freak, I wanna tell you—what the hell
you want Tonto for?
Lone Ranger: To perform an unnatural act.
Townsman: What?
Lone Ranger: You heard me, to perform an unnatural act.
Townsman: The Masked Man's a fag. Haaaaaaaah. He's a fag.
Haaaaaaah. He's a fag man. Hold on, I'm getting dizzy. Don't look at
him, kids, that's a bad fag man. Ho, the masked fag bad fag dad man.
You fag bastard, you. God-damn it, kids. Masked Man, I never knew
you were that way!
Lone Ranger: Well, I'm not, but I've heard so much about it. You
know, I like what they do with homosexuals in the country. The
punishment is quite correct, consistent with most of the endemic law.
They throw them in jail with a lot of men, very clever.212
Typically, Bruce's larger point is the hypocrisy of the most selfless of societal forces.
The Lone Ranger's inability to get Tonto's name correct mocks the conceit of a
special bond between cowboy and Indian, tearing into the trope of the best friend of
color who validates the white man, as was also the case with the Lone Ranger spin-off
The Green Hornet, whose grateful sidekick is the ambiguously "Oriental" Kato.213
Once again, Bruce has the authority figure start with the epithets ("spic half-breed")
and vulgarity ("Bullshit"). The crass racial epithet reveals the unspoken racialization
of the relationship, with the associated sexual desire serving as the true unmasking of
the Lone Ranger. For Bruce, both the revelation of hypocrisy and the expression of
desire were crucial to stand-up comedy.
Again, Bruce felt forced to defend himself against the idea that talking about
sexuality was a prelude to sex and that he was inciting sexual excitement, as the
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
The trope continues in Hollywood movies, including many buddy cop films such as the Lethal
Weapon series starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
prosecution eschewed the deeper issues surrounding the signification of cultural icons
and pressed Bruce on the motivation behind his comedy:
Bruce: What's the most ridiculous thing that the Lone Ranger could
do? We assume that's completely incongruous....He wants the
Indian... .To perform an unnatural act. It is silly, you know
Ross: In other words, you were not trying to say anything about the
unnatural act, then? In other words, it was just for incongruity, then?
Was it trying to raise a laugh from the audience? Was that its point?
Bruce What do you want from me? Tell me—
Ross: Just your answers.
Bruce: I didn't—I didn't want to encourage anyone in the audience to
be perverse or to perform any unnatural act.2
A comic rather than a critic, Bruce is unable to articulate a greater purpose for his
routine. He is apparently flummoxed that the prosecutor might consider the act he
describes as one that he wants to model for the audience. His lawyer Burton Marks
puts it more clearly, questioning Officer Sherman Block whether "[a]nybody at that
show, after hearing Mr. Bruce, did they masturbate?...Did you think that on October
24, 1962, at The Troubadour, people were having an orgy by listening to Mr.
The judge sustained the prosecution's objection that the questions were
The L.A. charges would be dismissed in 1963 but did not lead to Bruce himself
experiencing the stand-up stage with free speech protection. The jury deadlocked and
the prosecutors felt they could not get a clear shot against Bruce. Rather than freeing
the comic, this dissolution sentenced Bruce to limbo. Unable to stop Bruce and this
new form with one fell swoop, the prosecutors across the country collaborated in order
to try and inflict death by a thousand cuts. The unfamiliar, non-scripted nature of
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 129.
Ibid., 124.
stand-up was working against Bruce. Defense lawyer Burton Marks argued that "once
a San Francisco jury legitimated Lenny's act, he could not thereafter be prosecuted for
performing the same act in California" but one of the Los Angeles judges, Robert
Dulin, ruled that "there was no proof that the two performances—the Jazz Workshop
and the Troubadour—were the same."216 The unique nature of stand-up meant that
each new performance could potentially merit prosecution.
Blasphemy in Chicago
The Los Angeles arrest occurred in October of 1962 when the West
Hollywood vice squad sent a group of undercover officers to watch Lenny Bruce
perform at the Troubadour night club. In the effort to ferret out potential obscenity
violations, the officials included a cultural interpreter, Sergeant Sherman Block, who
had once worked at a Jewish deli and could therefore apprehend Bruce's occasional
use of Yiddish. That evening, these ethnic utterances included references to sex
(schtup), oral sex (fressing), and male genitalia (schmuck andputz). The words dealt
with the sexual body but the censoring of Bruce's Yiddish appears foolish, as it's
unclear "to what extent, if any, could unknown foreign words (schmuck, schtup)
arouse prurient interest or offend community standards if the vast majority of the
community did not know what those words meant?"217 It did make sense, however, if
one understood that it was not only Bruce's performance of ethnicity under attack, but
that his perceived assaults on Christianity were under counterattack.
Ibid., 109.
Ibid., 117-18.
Bruce was arrested a month later, this time mid-performance in December of
1962 at the Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago. Alongside the usual litany of
purportedly obscene words, the police report included the complaint that Bruce "led
into a mockery of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations by using the
Pope's name and Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen's name." 218 The conflation of
obscenity and blasphemy is a clear example of how Bruce's critiques of the American
mainstream were taken in large part as an affront to Christianity. There was additional
anger that these attacks came from a non-Christian and confusion as to what Bruce's
Jewishness meant, as evidence by the police translator at his Los Angeles show.
One of Bruce's more provocative pieces was a lambast of organized religion
entitled "Religions, Inc.," in which he portrays the Pope and other prominent
Christians as crude salesmen protecting their product and exhibiting racism behind
closed doors. Bruce imitates Oral Roberts in conversation with the Pope, complaining
about desegregationist forces:
Listen, I hate to bug you, but they're bugging us again with that dumb
integration. No, I don't know why the hell they want to go to school,
either. Yeah, that school bus scene. Well, we had to give them the bus,
but there's two toilets on each bus. They're bugging us, they say get the
religious leaders, make them talk about it. I know it, but they're getting
hip. Yes, they say—no, they don't want no more quotations from the
Bible. They want us to come out and say things. They want us to say
"Let them go to school with them.'" No, I did walking-across-the-water
and snake-into-the-cane. They don't want to hear that jazz anymore!219
Bruce endows Roberts with hip slang—"bugging," "scene," "jazz,"—which punctures
the preacher's righteous aura. Bruce engages in moral jujitsu, with the dirty comic
notably more invested in the cause of Civil Rights than the religious leaders. Again, it
Ibid., 158.
Lenny Bruce, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958).
is the one with higher social status who employs ethnic slurs without compunction.
Making a joke about a religious man desiring a fancy sports car, Bruce has Roberts tell
the Pope that "Billy [Graham] wants to know if you can get him a deal on one of them
Dago sports cars."220 In a classic comic reversal, Roberts' final words to the Pope is
the assurance that "No, nobody knows you're Jewish."221 The joke is that the paragon
of Christianity is revealed as a Jew, which hints at the ubiquity of ethnic performance
and plays off of the paranoia of Jewish world control—not to mention the
understanding that Christ himself was a Jew, a largely unspoken fact in the 1950s.
At the Gate of Horn, Bruce performed his bit "Christ and Moses," in which the
two visit New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Cardinal Spellman is at the pulpit
talking about "Christian love." Christ is
confused... at the grandeur of the interior, the baroque interior, the
rocoque [sic] baroque interior. Because his route took him through
Spanish Harlem, and he was wondering what the hell fifty Puerto
Ricans were doing living in one room when that stained glass window
is worth ten G's a square foot? And the guy had a ring worth eight
grand. Why weren't the Puerto Ricans living here?222
The humor here is explicitly political; recordings show that audiences responded not
just with laughter, which tends to be instinctual, but with applause, which
demonstrates a conscious desire to signal agreement with the comic's sentiments.
Bruce again hints that the world of race is unstable and uncertain as he questions the
assumptions of Jesus's and Moses's racial identification by having Spellman, on the
phone with Rome, state his answer to an unheard question: "Course they're white!"™
Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce., 58.
Ibid., 61.
The mere suggestion of a non-white Christ and Moses would have riled many white
Christians at the time.
For Bruce, the cardinal sin of racist Christians was their hypocrisy. The New
York Times quoted Bruce's perspective on the situation as early as 1959, when he
refuted charges of crassness as follows:
I've been accused of bad taste and I'll go down to my grave accused of
it and always by the same people—the ones who eat in restaurants that
reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. If you can tell me Christ or
Moses, for instance, would say to some kid, 'Hey, kid, that's a white
fountain, you can't drink out of there,' you're out of your skull. No one
can tell me Christ or Moses would do that. And people who do aren't
even agnostics. They're atheists. That's where the bad taste jazz comes
For Bruce, racism is incompatible with the tenets of Christianity, making "racist
Christian" into an oxymoron. Bruce does not attack Christianity per se. It was
dangerous enough for a non-Christian to challenge mainstream religious practices in
the United States. Rather, Bruce proclaims himself as the true heir to the values of
Christ and Moses. The same article closes with Bruce proclaiming that he is a
"moralist" who someday wants to be a social worker, again, without hypocrisy, and
therefore "anonymously... not like some of those telethons."225
Bruce conceived of Christianity, not as the paramount organizing frame for
humanity, but as a smaller activity which fit into other paradigms In "Christ and
Moses," Rome becomes subservient to Hollywood, as Bishop Sheen (himself a
television star) can recognize Moses because he looks like Charlton Heston.
Christianity becomes a capitalist venture, with the worried Sheen announcing the
Gilbert Millstein, "Man, It's Like Satire: Using the Argot of Hipsters and Jazz Musicians, Lenny
Bruce Blows Sharp Social Comment," The New York Times, May 3, 1959.
arrival of Christ and Moses to Cardinal Spellman by whispering "I've got a customer
in the back." Christianity consorts with the Mafia, as the indignant Spellman, on the
phone to Rome, asks them to get rid of Christ and Moses: "Look, what are we paying
protection for?" Christianity becomes a show business venture as, on the subject of
miracles, Cardinal Spellman tells the press that he does not know whether Christ and
Moses are "going to do any tricks today." Christianity becomes everything except the
worship of God.
The Chicago forces aligned against Bruce saw their crusade against the comic
as pro-Christian and said so. This included the police, who took the job of controlling
Bruce as seriously and personally as had the officers in San Francisco:
Captain McDermott, the head of Chicago's vice squad, paid a visit on
[the Gate of Horn nightclub owner] to deliver an official warning: "If
[Bruce] ever speaks against religion, I'm going to pinch you and
everyone in here. Do you understand?...[H]e mocks the Pope—and I'm
speaking as a Catholic—I'm here to tell you your license is in
The presumption was that Bruce's riffs on Christianity were a challenge to all
organized religion. Prosecutor Samuel Banks at Chicago trial: "You will hear the
mockery of the church, not just any church, not just the Catholic Church, not just the
Lutheran Church, but the church per se. You will hear mockery that is vulgar and
obscene."227 Bruce's lawyer Zaidins specifically protested that the prosecution
confused obscenity for blasphemy and Variety picked up on the treatment of sex as
anti-religious, writing that: "The prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce's
Quoted in Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,
Quoted in Ibid., 158.
indictments of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the
comic's act."228
Shortly before his death, Bruce professed that his mistake was that he had
picked on the wrong God, suggesting that he would have been free from legal
harassment had he picked on Buddha or Mohammed. Bruce's Chicago performances
occurred just a few weeks after Vatican II convened, but while change might have
been in the wind, Bruce was an outsider threatening revolution rather than reform. The
more rebellious he became, the more overt the police presence became, and Bruce
accented his outsider status yet again. Sighting the police as they came to bust him in
Chicago, he stated "Oh shit, [laughing]...Wake up, quick! Out the back way. The
bricks move...anything. It's Super-Jew!" (perhaps a prelude to Pryor's "Super
Nigger" discussed in Chapter Five). The police reply was to end the performance and
demonstrate how the state defined identity much differently from stand-up comedy,
announcing: "Show's over, ladies and gentlemen, police officers. Everybody have a
seat....We're checking your ID cards."
The Chicago jury found Bruce guilty, despite testimony that "there was no one
on the premises who complained. Nobody at all."230 We gain greater understanding
into the jury by looking at what happened when court convened on Ash Wednesday.
The prosecutor, the judge, and all twelve jurors entered the court room with ash marks
prominently displayed on their foreheads. To be fair, the judge made an equally
prominent show of having the Catholics remove their religious markings in order not
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 460.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 147.
Ibid., 173.
to show any prejudice to the Jewish defendant's Jewish lawyers. Bruce himself was
absent, ordered to stay in Los Angeles to face felony drug charges (which are
addressed briefly in the next section). The jury's judgment was upheld by the appellate
court but reversed in November 1964 after the Supreme Court decided Jacobellis v.
Ohio. In that case, a Cleveland movie theater owner successfully argued for the right
to show the Venice Film Festival winning film The Lovers. When the appellate court
reversed itself on Bruce, they grudgingly declared that:
While we would not have thought that constitutional guarantees
necessitate the subjection of society to the gradual deterioration of its
moral fabric which this type of presentation promotes, we must
concede that some of the topics commented on by defendant are of
social importance....Judgment reversed.23'
The court's derisive assessment of Bruce's act contains accurate recognition of some
key aspects of stand-up comedy. "[TJhis type of presentation," appears to refer to a
"55-minute monologue upon numerous socially controversial subjects interspersed
with.. .unrelated topics," which now reads like an apt description of the genre.232 The
court asserted that they had previously tried to weigh Bruce's inclusion of material of
social importance against "the method" which was "so objectionable as to render the
entire performance obscene" and "went beyond customary limits of candor."233 For
Bruce and for stand-up, bending or breaking those limits is as fundamental to the
social importance of their work as the subjects under discussion.
People V. Bruce,(\964).
Performing Oneself
Bruce's overt revelations of Jewishness, discussed in Chapter One, were an
articulation of the previously unspoken and modeled a major function of stand-up
comedy—the exposure of the unmarked through the play of taboos. In the liner notes
for Togetherness, Bruce proudly quotes from a Variety article which cautioned him to
be less bold:
Bruce, however, makes a mistake in his comedy.. .by attacking or
satirizing so broad a range of subjects that he certainly will antagonize
somebody if he were to play a large enough audience. His material, as
it stands, is not for public performance. He greatly needs discipline and
some knowledge of rectitude.234
What Variety missed, at least on the surface level, was how Bruce's wide-ranging
revelations—of his Jewishness, of perceived Christian hypocrisy, of closeted
homosexual icons, of non-normative sexual practices—were the raison d'etre of his
comedy and would contribute heavily to the establishment of stand-up as a site of the
unveiling of the taboo.
Stand-up comedy's questioning of society's mores issues from a particular
individual, clearly framed as that person's opinions, which is a source of strength and
weakness. The convention allows for the comic to produce a wealth of material
particular to his or her individual experiences, but it also exposes the artist to attacks
in a way different from those faced by traditional actors and artists whose personae are
not so closely linked to their artistic output. Such was the case in Bruce's last major
obscenity case. In early April, 1964, the New York District Attorney's office had
Bruce arrested for performances at the Cafe Au Go Go in which he used words such as
Bruce, Togetherness.
"fuck," "shit," and "tits" while speaking about issues such as his belief that pictures in
Life magazine which purported to show Jackie Kennedy turning away from her hurt
husband in order to secure help, were actually evidence that she "hauled ass to save
her ass."235 Brace's observations were cloaked as honest admissions of universal
human frailty, but questioning the saintly courage of John F. Kennedy's widow was
political dynamite in 1964.
Defender Ephraim London tried to protect Bruce by pointing out that the New
York obscenity statute exempted performers, but prosecutor Gerald Harris protested
that this clause defined an actor as "a performer who recited material written or
prepared by another."236 For some thinkers about theater, there is no role for stand-up
within the traditional theater of realism, and Michael Chekhov states outright that
"[t]here are no parts which can be considered so-called 'straight' parts or parts in
which the actor always shows his audience the same 'type'—himself as he is in
private life.... An actor cannot give his audience new revelations by unvaryingly
displaying only himself on the stage."237 In traditional theater, Bert States informs us,
"the / of the actor is not at all the / of the character he is playing,"238 but with stand-up,
the part portrayed is an exaggerated stage version of the off-stage self and the I's are
frequently aligned, conflated, and equated. The I's coalesce in that they all revolve
around the performance of identity.
The Trials of Lenny Bruce.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 216.
Michael Chekhov, To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting (Harper & Row, 1953), 85.
Bert O. States, "The Actor's Presence: Three Phenomenal Modes," in Acting (Re)Considered, ed.
Phillip B. Zarrilli (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 23.
The practical and critical ramifications for Bruce were huge. As interpreted by
Collins and Skover, "By this definition, if someone else were to perform verbatim
Lenny's transcribed gig, vulgarities and all, that person (unlike Lenny) would be
exempt from prosecution. In other words, anybody but Lenny could perform his
act."239 Harris's logic suggests that stand-up comics are somehow outside the realm of
traditional performance because they are not far enough removed from their subject
material. Stand-up comedy's deviation from traditional theater was treated as legally
Having denied Bruce the status of artist, the New York court then conversely
proceeded to deny Bruce the right to present his own work—which, when it comes to
stand-up comedy, meant denying Bruce the right to perform as himself. The court
separated the speech from the body by having star witness Inspector Herbert Ruhe
recreate Bruce's act for the court, utilizing the notes on which he had jotted
particularly egregious phrases. Bruce feared that Ruhe's performance of Bruce's act
would condemn Bruce.240 Overruling objections, Judge Murtagh refused to strike
Ruhe's testimony.
Bruce appeared to recognize that the prosecution of stand-up put him in an
unusual bind. In a letter to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of
New York, delivered on November 24, 1964, he despaired how: "It is not as if a
particular playlet or particular book had been declared obscene and the author was free
to perform other playlets or write other books. The ideas I have are now imprisoned
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 216.
Nat Hentoff, Free Speech for Me-butNotfor Thee (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 329.
within me, and unless this Court acts, will not be permitted expression."241 According
to legal scholars Collins and Skover, "[i]n the history of New York, this was the first
prosecution concerning spoken words in a nightclub."242 By this point, Bruce could
conceive of no other means by which to express his opinions.
Stand-up comedy, a place of public construction of private individual, was
becoming a vehicle for the self-examination of Lenny Bruce. After his first
performance in San Francisco following the initial obscenity bust, Bruce stated: "I
wasn't very funny tonight. Sometimes I'm not. I'm not a comedian, I'm Lenny
Bruce."243 He was conflicted about the differences. When it functions, stand-up allows
one to be both a public performer and a private person. The law spun Bruce in so
many circles that, in the words of his lawyer Edward de Grazia, Bruce "lost his sense
of reality and no longer knew where he and his art left off and the rest of the world and
the law began."244In this light we see that it would have been difficult for Bruce to end
his career other than he did, discoursing about his legal woes on-stage, reading
transcripts aloud. The Village Voice described one such performance:
Deeper and deeper Bruce went, declaiming decisions, citing citations,
lecturing on the law until it became impossible to tell when Bruce was
quoting Justice Holmes, or quoting Justice Roberts quoting and
commenting on Justice Holmes, or when Bruce himself was quoting
and commenting on Justice Roberts quoting and commenting on Justice
Stand-up depends on the cannibalization of one's own life but comedy relies on
sufficient distance, so when one's on-stage life becomes the constant subject of off241
Quoted in Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, 565-66.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 229.
Ibid., 23.
Ibid., 24.
Ibid., 306.
stage prosecution, a Kafkanian feedback loop emerges. The government pressure
disallowed the requisite distance required in order for the comic to be able to translate
his individual life to the larger group.
Regardless of whether Bruce was convicted in any of the assorted obscenity
cases, the government intimidation and censorship was losing him money, time, and
bookings. In her book Excitable Speech, Judith Butler explains how:
[c]ensorship is a productive form of power: it is not merely privative,
but formative as well. I propose that censorship seeks to produce
subjects according to explicit and implicit norms, and that the
production of the subject has everything to do with the regulation of
speech. The subject's production takes place not only through the
regulation of that subject's speech, but through the regulation of the
social domain of speakable discourse. The question is not what it is I
will be able to say, but what will constitute the domain of the sayable
within which I begin to speak at all. To become a subject means to be
subjected to a set of implicit and explicit norms that govern the kind of
speech that will be legible as the speech of a subject.246
Stand-up comedy magnifies Butler's general principle for the production of a speaking
subject. In the specifics of stand-up, the subject speaks back against the censor, with
Bruce a prime example of this process. What the censorship of Bruce did, therefore,
was not just censor his current speech but reveal the unspoken censorship that had
been taking place in nightclubs prior to Bruce standing up and speaking out.
Attacked as he was for the words he uttered, it may be understandable that
Bruce saw free speech as a panacea, putting his faith in its libratory effect. Such
unbounded optimism actually wound up exposing the limits of his speech acts. This
was the case in his routine "Are There Any Niggers Here, Tonight?," in which Bruce
Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 133.
argues that a repetition of the N-word could actually empty it of the hate which has
accrued to the word over centuries:
[Casually:] Uh, by the way, are there any niggers here tonight? [In
mock response to himself, imitating an imagined audience member:]
Phew, what did he say? Why—is he really getting out of his nut? Are
there any niggers here tonight? What is he, that desperate for shock
value? Did he scrape the bottom of the barrel to be that cruel to say "are
there any niggers here tonight?" Have I ever talked about the shvarts
when they left the room [inaudible] or placated some southerner with
the absence of voice when he ranted and raved about the nigger-niggerniggers? Are there any niggers here? [As himself:] You know I'm
working with a nigger. Ah, I think I see one nigger couple back there.
Between those two niggers sit three kikes. Phew, thank God for the
kikes. And two spies, and one mick. We have two spies, one mick,
three kikes, and one spunky-funky-honky. Any more boogies? Three
more sheenies, eight more guineas, six guineas, seven wops, six
greaseballs. I pass with six dykes, four kikes, and eight niggers.
[Applause] The point. If President Kennedy got on television every day
and said I would like to introduce all the niggers in my cabinet and all
the niggers called each other niggers—they oft times do, but in front of
the ofays—and every day you heard nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger,
in the second month nigger would mean as much as "good night" or
"god bless you" when you sneeze or perhaps as much as "I promise to
hold the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God." Nigger
would lose its impact and they'd never make any four-year-old nigger
cry when he came home from school. Zug gornisht [Say nothing] gives
it the power.
While the sexual taboos Bruce employed have lost much of their shock value over the
decades, the impact of the N-word has not. The N-word does not risk obscenity here,
as it is not sexual, but it also differs from Bruce's sexual terms in that it acquired
meanings through a history of repetition, of public use and re-use, rather than a history
of censorship and silence. Bruce attempts to defuse the word, to disinfect it by putting
it under the spotlight, and to reduce its pained history by making it mundane.
Bruce, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
Does Bruce's progressive political intent justify his use of the word? In his
book nigger: the Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy argues
that "[w]hat should matter is the context in which the word is spoken—the speaker's
aims, effects, alternatives. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to
context is simply to make a fetish of nigger."248 Such an outlook suggests that Bruce
can be credited for trying to subvert the word, however, the audience in front of which
he utters it the N-word is majority white and, as described in Chapter One, Bruce has a
problematic history of believing that he could speak on behalf of Blacks. One could
also argue that by repeating the N-word, Bruce actually repeats the error of the state
by removing a word from its context. Just as his routine at the Jazz Workshop needs to
be taken as a whole in order to realize that Bruce is not using the term "cocksucker" to
incite a sexual reaction, one cannot remove the hate embedded in the N-word by
somehow severing it from its history.
Stand-up demonstrates that language is not abstracted from the act of saying.
The N-word may be the most obvious case, which helps explain the prevalence of its
use in stand-up comedy. Bruce's work with the N-word comes across as naive, a
demonstration that stand-up works best when the comic speaks in the language of their
own lived experience. When it does work, the norm is decentered and tension released
through laughter. When it doesn't work, it can simply reinforce traditional stereotypes
and blindly repeat injurious language, as Michael Richards did in November 2006
with his infamous outburst at the West Hollywood Laugh Factory. Heckled by a multiracial group in the crowd, Richards assailed them with the N-word. Cell phone video
Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: Pantheon Books,
2002), 41.
of the event shows that the crowd is uncertain what is transpiring, as they possibly
wait for Richards to reveal that his use of the word is part of a stand-up routine. Paul
Mooney, of the major African American comics to have deployed the N-word onstage, recognized that Richards may have been "trying to channel Lenny Bruce" and
other comics, including Mooney himself.249 Both audiences and performers have been
trained by Bruce to know that the stand-up stage is a site for the investigation of taboo
language and racial stereotypes, but Richards use of the word is impossible to
distinguish from a blatant racial attack and Mooney was so taken aback that he
dropped the word from his own act.
Bruce foreshadows later attempts by comedians such as Richard Pryor, Paul
Mooney, and Chris Rock to tackle the N-word and attempts to resignify the epithet
along the lines Butler suggests for situating injurious speech:
An aesthetic enactment of an injurious word may both use the word
and mention it, that is, make use of it to produce certain effects but also
at the same time make reference to that very use, calling attention to it
as a citation, situating that use within a citational legacy, making that
use into an explicit discursive item to be reflected on rather than a taken
for granted operation of ordinary language. Or, it may be that an
aesthetic reenactment uses that word, but also displays it, points to it,
outlines it as the arbitrary material instances of language that is
exploited to produce certain kinds of effects. In this sense, the word as
a material signifier is foregrounded as semantically empty in itself, but
as that empty moment in language that can become the site of
semantically compounded legacy and effect. This is not to say that the
word loses its power to injure, but that we are given the word in such a
way that we can begin to ask: how does a word become the site for the
power to injure?250
Darryl Fears, "The Word That Is the Very Definition of Unspeakable: Black Entertainer Endorses
Moratorium on Slur," The Washington Post, December 2, 2006.
Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 99-100.
Bruce's bold attempt to call attention to the N-word and rid it of signification but may
suggest that he does not have understood the depth of its history. One could argue that
Bruce, not having the requisite lived experience of blackness, could not comprehend
the word's context. He wasn't "appropriating the very terms by which one has been
abused in order to deplete the term of its degradation or to derive an affirmation from
that degradation"; he was choosing on his own to speak out on behalf of others as an
Bruce argued that his words were not what they represented, that to say the
word "toilet" is not the same as to present an actual toilet to the world. While it is true
that words do not have a one-to-one correlation with objects in the world, there is little
doubt that Bruce relies upon the sedimentation of signification that the words acquire
over time in order to power his act. Speech acts have an impact. The N-word, for
example, is commonly used as hate speech. The term "cocksucker" can, in certain
contexts, actually be used to incite lasciviousness. Bruce's use of language attempts to
have it both ways, to challenge the norm and therefore risk obscenity, and yet to
simultaneously deny the possibility of obscenity. Even more than what he said,
however, he was punished for his medium of choice. The Illinois Supreme Court
admitted that, in the words of Collins, "it was not punishing Lenny for what he said
(that would be unconstitutional), but rather for how he said it...While ideas could not
be regulated, certainly the manner in which they were presented could be."252
Ibid., 158.
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 182.
Epilogue: Sick Humor
The intensity and frequency of the government prosecution suggested that
Bruce went beyond mere irreverence or bad taste. At the New York trial, the
prosecution called a witness who characterized Bruce's brand of humor as
pathological. The Reverend Potter testified that:
[t]here is only one community I can think of where this would be
acceptable, and that would be in the back wards of the Rochester State
Hospital, in the mental hospital, where persons for the most part go get
on stumps and speak in this kind of random, irrational way and
primarily employing filthy and vulgar words and playing on them for
the sake of playing on them. This is tolerated....They let them babble
Potter's speech is extreme but the basics align with the case of the state: language such
as Bruce's was unacceptable, random, irrational, and vulgar. To open up a site such as
stand-up comedy is to let loose the mentally ill and infirm.
Potter was not the first to diagnose Bruce as sick. Indeed, the designation of
"sick humor" was first applied to 1950s joke cycles making their way through the
playgrounds and board rooms of the United States. Time noted the phenomenon in
1957: "Called variously sick stories, gruesome jokes or Bloody Marys, these gags get
their laughs by making fun of decapitations, amputation, disease, death," including the
now notorious quip "Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"254
Released the following year, Bruce's The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce played selfconsciously with the trend, including the track "Non Skeddo Flies Again," a satire of
airplane bombers in which one of the pilots flies drunk because he "don't dig height"
and the bit ends when a young boy is cajoled into walking out the door and falling to
Ibid., 277.
"Bloody Mary, Anyone?," Time, October 21, 1957, 27.
his death so as to reduce the passenger load of the plane.255 As reflected by the irony of
the album's title, Bruce appears to treat in jest the suggestion that his humor denotes
true sickness. On a track entitled "Psychopathia Sexualis," Bruce blends sick humor
with beat poetry, mocking both with his dry opening, the proclamation: "Poetry and
jazz. Psychopathia Sexualis, I'm in love with a horse that comes from Dallas. Poor
neurotica me."256 Sick humor delights in the breeching of societal taboo and the
revelation of cultural obsessions, but in retrospect, this track comes off as a goof,
complete with playful use of the latest studio techniques involving reverb and echoes.
Even Time noted in its 1957 article that sick humor might be cyclical rather than a sign
of the decline of Western civilization, acknowledging that every generation has its
variety of shocking jokes.
Time had changed its indulgent attitude by 1959, when the magazine published
an article entitled "The Sickniks," about a new breed of comedians accused of
negativity and attacks on "motherhood, childhood, adulthood, sainthood."257 Use of the
Yiddish suffix "nik" hinted at the Jewish background of many of these comics, as well
as gesturing to the Soviet satellite Sputnik and the appellation for the counterculture
beatniks. Time considered Bruce "[pjerhaps the most successful" of a group pioneered
by Mort Sahl and including Jonathan Winters and Shelley Berman.258 The label of
"sick humor" emphasized the shock value of the new humor but elided the
performative differences between the comics. Berman hailed from the Chicago group
Bruce, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.
"The Sickniks," Time, July 13, 1959.
My introduction largely credits Sahl for the invention of modern stand-up comedy; Winters and
Berman were more in the tradition of character actors playing other personalities than themselves.
improv scene and released his first album, Inside Shelley Berman, in 1959. Berman
presented some scenes based on his personal life, but was more of a traditional comic
actor, constructing scenes with characters who could have been played by anyone else
with the requisite technical chops. This is a key division between stand-up comedy
and improvisatory troupes such as Berman's The Second City, where characters would
be both invented and passed around among the actors. Winters was a hybrid between
the old and new comedy, wowing audiences with his stunning mimicry and the
creation of outlandish characters, but also fascinating fans by allowing glimpses into
his personal life, most notably with his mental breakdowns. Insofar as these collapses
remained off-stage, he was a professional comedian of an older school. None of the
others explored race and ethnicity to the degree of Bruce nor, with the possible
exception of Sahl, did they incorporate his performance of self.
Rather than asking what sick humor is in itself, it may be more valuable to
consider what critics and audiences perceive to be sick humor. Bruce made a point that
the good old days of comedy which preceded him were not so clean after all and that
his humor, in contrast, had a moral slant and did not target physical disabilities. He
cited specific comedians such as Joe E. Lewis, who found humor in heavy drinking,
and Henny Youngman, whose one-liners about ugly girls were considered comedy
classics. Bruce criticized Jerry Lewis for perpetuating racial stereotypes without
questioning them, writing sardonically how Lewis's
neorealistic impression of the Japanese male captured all the subtleties
of the Japanese physiognomy. The buck-teeth malocclusion was
caricatured to surrealistic proportions until the teeth matched the blades
that extended from Ben-Hur's chariot. Highlighting the absence of the
iris with Coke-bottle-thick lenses, this satire has added to the fanatical
devotion which Japanese students have for the United States.259
Bruce reminded the readers of his autobiography that Time magazine was itself guilty
of finding humor in physical shortcomings and had written that "Shelly Berman has a
face like a hastily sculptured hamburger."26" The so-called "health comic," therefore,
was one who never offended "unless you happen to be fat, bald, skinny, deaf or
blind."261 Bruce's sickness was that he did not attack those whom society considered
already sick, but those held up as near-perfect specimens.
Bruce's humor attempted to re-diagnose the societal body. His main exemplar
of sickness was racism. In his routine "The Kid in the Well," he opines that
this is what I call over-emotionalism. There's a kid who's stuck in a
well and the headlines scream for six days Child Trapped in Well:
Nation Awaits in Vigil. In the meanwhile, you can go in any
cosmopolitan city and still see in the classifieds: Orientals may buy
here. Negroes may buy here, and one schmuck gets caught in the well
and everybody stays up for a week.
Bruce professes to his audience in "The Tribunal" that the mixed-up morals of society
are what "is really sick to me. That's the kind of sick material that I wish Time had
written about." His humor is not so much sick on its own as it is a confrontation
critique of a sick state of affairs. The prevalence of race and ethnicity in Bruce's work
and the later purveyors of stand-up comedy is partially due to the stand-up's role as a
cultural analyst of deep-seated pain and sickness and the fact that there continues to be
no bigger wound in the United States than that of racism. Bruce was not sick so much
as he revealed sickness.
Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 98.
Ibid., 99.
In this context, vulgarity is needed for an honest analysis, in order to confront
the everyday world and its sickness. Epithets occasionally obscured Bruce's more
revolutionary work in establishing a forum from which to diagnose the country. Brian
Glanville wrote in The Spectator that
Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave
of American comedians.. .Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is
that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own
perception and, in Bruce's case, its own is not 'sick'
humour.. .but super-ego humour.262
Glanville's analysis captures both Bruce and the potential Bruce manifested in standup comedy. For some cultural critics, there was a sense that the comedy landscape was
changing, but uncertainty of how long the trend would last, and what its lasting
characteristics could be. Writing in The New York Times in May 1959, Gilbert
Millstein characterized Bruce as "[t]he newest and, in some ways, most scarifyingly
funny proponent of significance, all social and some political, to be found in a night
club these days...a sort of abstract-expressionist stand-up comedian."263 Some of
Millstein's unease appears to stem from what was key to the new medium, such as the
use of personal material to address societal issues, and he makes a point that Bruce
actually wrote all of his new material, the truth of which matters less than what the
necessity of its appearance says about the form's requirements. Indeed, the concept of
"stand-up comedian" is so nascent that the use of the term here pre-dates by eight
Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! ,418.
Millstein, "Man, It's Like Satire: Using the Argot of Hipsters and Jazz Musicians, Lenny Bruce
Blows Sharp Social Comment."
years the first listing found in the Oxford English Dictionary,2M although the New York
Times employed the term as early as 1954.265
We can glean Bruce's influence on stand-up comedy in part from how his
attributes became the ones emulated in the form. Time aims their indictment at the
culture surrounding Bruce, admitting that "audiences unquestionably laugh at Bruce,"
but adding that this is although "much of the time he merely shouts angrily and
tastefully at the way of the world."266 They attack Bruce for his jokes about leaders,
both political—specifically, Dwight Eisenhower—and religious—quoting Bruce's
joke that religious leaders '"have missed the boat. 'Thou shall not kill' they say, and
then one of them walks comfortingly to the death chamber with Caryl Chessman."267
Time does not come out and say exactly what they consider "tasteless" about this joke.
Perhaps it is the suspect concept that one should not use comedy to address issues of
consequence and it appears that Bruce breaches etiquette simply by applying comedy
to serious ideas. He then rubs salt into these sensitivities by suggesting hypocrisy on
the part of the moral luminaries of the United States. The fact that his apparent
bitterness is the issue, with no mention made of his use of profanity, suggesting that
the establishment was upset with Bruce's attacks before they began attacking him for
his specific word choices.
In December of 2003, thirty-seven years after his death, Lenny Bruce (192566) received the first posthumous pardon in the history of New York State when
"Stand-up, A. And N."
Lohman, "News and Notes from the Television and Radio Studios."
"The Sickniks."
Caryl Chessman (1921-60) was convicted and sentenced to death in California for being the rapist
and robber known as The Red Light Bandit. Many believe Chessman to be innocent of these crimes; in
1977 his case was made into a TV movie starring Alan Alda.
Governor George Pataki cleared the comic of a 1964 misdemeanor conviction
received after two performances at Greenwich Village's Cafe Au Go Go. Pataki
described the move as "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the
First Amendment," and this is how Bruce is best remembered, as a free speech martyr
prosecuted for introducing words such as "cocksucker," "motherfucker," and the
(now) prosaic "fuck" to the lexicon of American public performance. Bruce's legacy
is that critiques of societal norms have come to be expected in the numerous comedy
clubs which sprang up in the decades after his death in 1966. As well as a forum in
which the overt expression of ethnicity is now common, stand-up has become the
major site of taboo-baring comedy, where we allow obscenity to be confronted in
ways that allow it to be both dismantled and reinforced.
Chapter Three: "Standing Up Black: Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby"
"Whatever the causes of black laughter, whatever its effects, whether it
was celebrated or lamented, the degree of attention Negro intellectuals
accorded it was a manifest sign of its pervasiveness. Laughter, of
course, springs from many sources. Central among them is the desire to
place the situation in which we find ourselves into perspective; to exert
some degree of control over our environment. The need to laugh at our
enemies, our situation, ourselves, is a common one, but it often exists
the most urgently in those who exert the least power over their
immediate environment; in those who have the most objective reason
for feelings of hopelessness. It is this that gives meaning to the proverb
of East European Jews who lived on such intimate terms with poverty,
prejudice, and pogroms: "Suffering makes you laugh too."268
—Lawrence W. Levine
"Comedy was the original form of entertainment that black families
created in order to survive."269
—Dick Gregory
Lenny Bruce ensconced race and ethnicity as part of the practice and subject
matter of stand-up comedy. After his work, the absence of African Americans in the
burgeoning new art form became particularly glaring. Of course, the exclusion of
black voices was common in an era of officially sanctioned segregation and apartheid
rules. On the political front, the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education was not
handed down until May of 1954, the Montgomery Bus boycotts took place in 1955
and 1956, and the Voting Rights Act was not signed until August 1965, just a year
Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press,
1977), 300.
Dick Gregory, "Foreword," in African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to
Today, ed. Mel Watkins (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002), xi.
before Lenny Bruce's death. The advent of African American stand-up comics was not
inevitable—the medium could have grown as hostile and unwelcoming to black artists
as it has remained to most women, who have never had equivalent success as male
comics on the national stand-up stage.270 In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of three
comedians—Dick Gregory (b. 1932), Bill Cosby (b. 1937), and Richard Pryor (b.
1940)—established the stand-up stage as a space for first-hand black voices, speaking
for themselves and their communities in front of integrated audiences.
Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby introduced black comedy to the integrated main
stage in the early 1960s, each of them pioneering a model of how African American
comics could intervene in a racial discussion within comedy that had been initiated by
non-blacks. Dick Gregory became the first to break the so-called color barrier. Never a
star in the African American vaudeville houses known collectively as the Chitlin'
Circuit,271 Gregory blended gentle generic jokes with sharp social critique, carefully
calibrating humor and one-line structure to make some very pointed barbs under cover
of congeniality, before his anger burst into direct political activism off-stage. Bill
Cosby quickly followed up as stand-up's first superstar, successful in large part
because he approached race by eliminating direct references to it from his act. While
negotiating their act with multi-racial audiences, Gregory and Cosby found
My related article "The Stand-up as Stand-in: Performer-Audience Intimacy and the Emergence of
the Stand-up Comic in the United States since the 1950s" goes into greater detail about the historical
struggles of female comics in the field of stand-up comedy. The gist of my argument is that the process
of personalization cultivated by these key male stand-ups has often worked against the acceptance of
female comedians by resistant audiences, as well as by club owners and bookers. The article is due to
be published by Parlor Press in an upcoming anthology on live comedy audiences, edited by Judith
NB footnote 5.
performative solutions for dealing with the legacy of blacks and humor in the United
Setting the Stage: Before Gregory
Asking the question, "Where does humor fit in the blood-stained history of the
black American?," William Schechter answers that "[i]t has been important in its use
as a survival tool during slavery, significant in its role in hardening stereotypes that
have perpetuated racial intolerance from the antebellum period, and useful in the
insights provided in the changing psyche of the black American."272 This is a fair
amount of weight to place on a method of operating which many view as essentially
light-hearted, despite its perennial popularity and ubiquity. Schechter is not alone in
his belief in the power of humor; in the words of Lawrence Levine, "no other
mechanism in Afro-American expressive culture was more effective than humor in
exposing the absurdity of the American racial system and in releasing pent-up black
aggression toward it."273 That is, black humor has been both revelatory and a release, a
pleasurable acting out that often speaks to pain, and a pastime employed to help
process the burden of history while surviving in the present. Humor, present in all
cultures and eras, plays a heightened role in the formidable historical circumstances of
African Americans.
Black laughter has a tangled and variegated history in the United States,
interpreted by some outside observers as evidence of a carefree inner nature, while
William Schechter, The History of Negro Humor in America (New York and London: Fleet Press
Corporation, 1970), 20.
Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 335.
seen by many on the inside as "a balm against oppression" even if it was "also a force
that would help perpetuate racism through a stereotyping of blacks."274 The most
common form of stereotype was the minstrel, a black man portrayed by a white
performer in blackface, a mask which was eventually adopted out of professional
necessity by black entertainers who found that their stereotyped image had preceded
them to the stage. Minstrelsy was a hugely popular form of mass entertainment for
around one hundred years, beginning in the 1830s, with a legacy that continues to taint
the charged relationship between humor and blackness.
In the decades leading up to the emergence of stand-up comedy, African
American comics still had to deal with the historical weight of blackface, which
frequently trapped them inside the broad stylings of stereotype and obstructed the
performance of individuality that is so essential to standing up. Stand-up comedy's
construction of the individual within the socio-political context of the United States
was a combination that called out for the entrance of black comedians, even as the
history of segregation and slavery made their entrance onto the stand-up stage
particularly tough. The minstrel mask stood as a barrier between performer and
character, as well as performer and audience. As Ralph Ellison emphasizes, "the mask
was the thing (the 'thing' in more ways than one) and its function was to veil the
humanity of negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience's
awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities
behind the mask."275 The dropping of the minstrel mask therefore overlapped the move
Schechter, The History of Negro Humor in America, 11.
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York City: Vintage Books, 1953, 1964), 49.
from vaudevillian artifice toward a more intimate comedy which embraced exactly
that humanity and ambiguity.
One of the first to discard blackface was Chitlin Circuit performer Sam Theard
(known as Spo-Dee-O-Dee, best remembered as the author of "(I'll Be Glad When
You're Dead) You Rascal You" and most active as a comedian in Harlem in the 1930s
and '40s). Theard regarded with regret that, "[w]hen you went out after the show
without it on, no one would recognize you."276 The absence of fame while off-stage
points to the difficulty of representing anything other than stock interchangeable
characters when in blackface. Unlike actors, stand-ups cannot afford to submerge
themselves into a series of temporary roles as the characters are ostensible versions of
selves. The practice of blackface finally phased out in the 1940s, a move precipitated
by performers such as dancer-actor-comedian Timmie Rogers, who later stated that he
"knew the time had come when a black comedian could be accepted by an audience
other than the black one."277 Given the autobiographical nature of the form, this
acceptance was absolutely necessary for the advent of black stand-up comics.
Prominent African American joke-tellers in the era immediately preceding
Dick Gregory included Moms Mabley (1894-1975) and Redd Foxx (1922-1991), who
were both comic actors and joke-tellers in the vaudevillian tradition—enormously
talented but with a significantly smaller personal component to their comedy. Mabley
was a regular at the Apollo theater in Harlem from the 1930s to the 1960s, adopting
Redd Foxx and Norma Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor (Pasadena, California:
Ward Ritchie Press, 1977), 98.
Ibid., 116.
what Mel Watkins calls "the character of an elderly earth mother."
Later in her
career—after the advent of stand-up comedy made such a move possible—she would
merge the man-hungry older woman character with her own persona. Watkins notes
that "she foreshadowed the shift to direct social commentary and stand-up comic
techniques that would define humor by the late fifties," but the telephone call skits he
cites focus on the classic foibles of an extrinsic and detachable character, a naive and
crotchety elder conversing on the phone with famous people, but without relying upon
actual details from Mabley's private life.279 Richard Pryor's character Mudbone is a
throwback to this tradition of comic acting, but always speaks to us framed within the
context of the personal and personable Pryor directly addressing his audience.
Foxx, best remembered for his starring role on the 1970s sitcom Sanford and
Son,28" honed his craft in nightclubs and on the Chitlin' Circuit after World War II. He
frequently teamed with Slappy White in the early 1950s, not unusual given that the
Circuit's most common comedy format was that of the comic duo, which emphasized
acting ability and downplayed the use of direct audience address in preference of onstage conversations between performers. Foxx gained initial fame through his racy
party albums, starting with Laffofthe Party in 1955, and in 1960 made what Mel
Watkins calls his "first important appearance as a single act in a white club at the
Crescendo in Hollywood."
Coming the year before Gregory's breakthrough, Foxx's
"crossover" had less impact because it lay outside the realm of stand-up comedy. Foxx
was a supremely accomplished teller of jokes, particularly of the raunchy kind, but
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 391.
Ibid., 393.
NBC, 1972-77.
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 514.
even at the height of his success on television, he did not play upon audience interest
in the actor's personal life, but hammed it up as a broad and irascible old man.
Multiple entertainers attacked the glass ceiling that held back black comics. As
Gregory himself points out in his 1964 autobiography nigger, Nipsey Russell, a
monologist and joke teller known for his comic poems, pushed boundaries by playing
white vaudeville houses, and was already playing to Gregory's audiences in clubs on
the South Side of Chicago, although his main venues consisted of the last of the
Chitlin Circuit. Russell did not do the personal material required of stand-up, but did
perform without blackface. When describing African American comedians who tried
to escape the old look, critic Gilbert Millstein recounts the tale of Timmie Rogers
arriving for a gig at a Sunset Strip place in a dinner jacket only to be informed that he
had to put on his old "green-and-red zoot suit costume" or be fired—which he was.282
Again, the dinner jacket uniform represented the old school of vaudeville and the
Chitlin' Circuit rather than the less formal stand-up comedy epitomized by Mort Sahl
and his sweater vest. The absence of black representation was vast enough that
Gregory would feel confident stating point-blank that "No celebrated black comedians
influenced me—because there were none."283
Dick Gregory: Cracking the Color Line
Dick Gregory was the greatest, and he was the first... Somebody had to
break down that door.284
—Richard Pryor
Gilbert Millstein, "A Negro Says It with Jokes," The New York Times.
Gregory, "Foreword," xii.
Robert Chalmers, "Dick Gregory: Mr Incredible," The Independent, December 19, 2004, 93-95.
Dick Gregory made his debut at Chicago's Playboy Club on January 13, 1961,
fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues with the Brooklyn
Dodgers and seven years before Thurgood Marshall became a United States Supreme
Court Justice. Comedy historian Gerald Nachman writes that Gregory's premiere
"seemed a logical step in the racial revolt of the fifties and sixties."285 Nonetheless, it
took a last-minute cancellation by a white comic ("Professor" Irwin Corey) to prompt
an agent to call in Gregory. Furthermore, when Gregory showed up at the club having
run twenty blocks after taking the wrong bus, the club's manager wanted to pay
Gregory to go home, as the audience consisted mainly of frozen food executives from
the South who were unlikely to accept a black comic. This fear seems to be specific to
comedians, as black jazz musicians and singers, including a 19-year-old Aretha
Franklin, were already performing at the club without being warned away.286 As a tale
of individual triumph, Gregory's debut story combines fortuity (filling in for a
cancellation, reminiscent of Lenny Bruce's beginning) and irony (the southerners are
won over by his self-deprecation). Gregory writes in his autobiography that he only
performed that evening because he was "so cold and so mad and so broke."287 Almost
two years later, Newsweek could look back with equanimity and pronounce how, that
evening, Gregory "was an immediate hit—and Jim Crow died in the joke world."288
Nevertheless, it had taken a perfect storm to break that barrier.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 482.
Sean Parnell, "Playboy Club in Memoriam: Chicago Bar Project,"
Gregory, Nigger, 142.
"Theater: 'Where Else?'," Newsweek, December 24, 1962.
Bruce was already speaking about race and ethnicity while onstage, the social
topics given a sharper political edge through the personalization of the material,
whereas Gregory initially trod a safer line, mixing several different comic traditions.
He told many generic jokes utilizing the more concise structure of vaudeville, issuing
quips such as: "Just my luck, bought a suit with two pair of pants today.. .burnt a hole
in the jacket."289 He studied white joke books to see what would go over well with
white audiences, but then adjusted the humor to fit his personality and perspective. We
can hear this in the anti-IRS humor which opens his first album, In Living Black &
White (1961). It starts as a very basic anti-tax joke, presupposing a shared antagonism:
"I'd like to thank you very wonderful people in the audience who have talked about
my act and come back and bring your friends with you. And through doing this you've
pushed me right up into the eyes of the Internal Revenue."290 The mere mention of
being audited garners a collective laugh, and it is only later that Gregory reveals the
racial aspects of the situation, of the IRS agents sitting in his house wanting to talk
with him about the black boxer Joe Louis while Gregory pretends ignorance: "Sit there
two hours talking about Joe Louis. And I make like I don't know who Joe Louis is.
And the guy believed it! He say, you mean you never heard about Joe Louis, never? I
said, oh yeah, yeah, you talking about the tax consultant."291 Much of the innovation
lies in how Gregory takes a generic white middle class anti-tax comedy line and shows
it to be both universal (establishing that the IRS goes after all wage-earners) and
, Nigger, 132.
Dick Gregory, In Living Black & White (Colpix, 1961).
' Ibid.
specific (pointing out how black taxpayers are treated differently). It is a hybrid
humor, establishing a beach front within stand-up for a consciously black humor.
Gregory adopted Mort SahPs model of the humorist who performs self-written
commentary on current events. Contemporaneous accounts lauded Gregory's intellect
and productivity. Arthur Gelb's New York Times description informed readers how
Gregory "reads a minimum often newspapers daily, runs up a monthly telephone bill
of $1,200 calling friends all over the country to ask, 'What's new?,' and writes thirty
to forty new jokes every day."292 The need to accent Gregory's intelligence has a
patronizing tinge to it, but reminds us how establishment critics now placed a distinct
premium on comedians with command of the latest political happenings, who sought
ways to voice their own personal opinions.
The widespread acceptance of Dick Gregory as the "first major breakthrough
black comedian" recognizes how he engaged in a new mode of comedy.293 The
statement also privileges white audiences insofar as it implies that a comedian's
acceptance from the dominant racial group is a prerequisite for success. To be sure,
Gregory, Cosby, and Pryor all consciously sought the financial and critical rewards
made possible by playing audiences with a significant white contingent. Because of
his unprecedented position and isolation in the spotlight, Gregory was often viewed as
emblematic of all blacks, consistently asked by journalists to be an authority on Civil
Rights, a presupposition that would continue to face later black comedians including
Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.
Arthur Gelb, "Comic, Back at Blue Angel, Proves He Is a Durable Talent," The New York Times,
September 14, 1961.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 482.
Stand-up is particularly prone to presenting individuals as racial
representatives because it isolates the solo body. This can accent the tension between
the person as a supposed proxy for their race against the opportunity for the comic to
articulate their individuality. In addition, the subject of stage entertainment in the
United States had already been the black man. Talking about minstrel dancing, Eric
Lott has pointed to "the male body as the primary site of the power of 'blackness' for
whites."294 Some black comedians had subverted the stereotyped roles they were
forced to play, including Antigua-born Bert Williams, star of Vaudeville and
Broadway, who undercut racial prejudices by wringing unexpected subtlety and
nuance out of the minstrel stereotype. Gregory's situation was more precarious than
that of Sahl and Bruce if only because he did not have the option to attempt to pass
racially, the half-veiled dance performed by many Jewish entertainers. Gregory was
able to write his own lines and perform with his own bodies, but his unspoken stage
partner was the blackface minstrel of yore.
Gregory appeared aware of this heritage and, even though Sahl had pioneered
stand-up comedy, Gregory took care to object to comparisons between the two, telling
one audience in 1961: "You see, I wish you'd read all the papers, you know, you've
been reading these local papers, you know, calling me the Negro Mort Sahl. You have
to read them Congo papers and see where they calling Mort Sahl the white Dick
Gregory."295 Gregory implied that, in their zeal to fit him into what was already
known, critics ignored alternate perspectives and histories as well as overlooking what
Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York City:
Oxford University Press, 1995), 116.
Gelb, "Comic, Back at Blue Angel, Proves He Is a Durable Talent."
Gregory might be doing that was original.296 Gregory had to demand to be the central
figure in his own stage act, rather than be seen as the black version of a well-known
white comic. He opined that: "Ever since I been on the Jack Paar Show, everybody's
been asking me what is Jack Paar really like. I'm trying to find out who I am. They
can call me Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, and a couple of other—I'm so
confused being three white boys and myself, I don't know what to do."297 Hinting at
the use of stand-up in order to explore the performer's sense of self, Gregory's
comment mocks the simplicity of pigeon-holing. It is common for comedians to adopt
performance approaches pioneered by others, but the novelty of Gregory as the first
African American stand-up comedian may have cloaked his own talents and individual
Gregory's remark also reflects how W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of double
consciousness can function for a black stand-up comic who is expected to exhibit a
comforting similarity to white comedians even while establishing a unique voice and
alternate outlook. For Du Bois, this double consciousness is a "twoness" in which
African Americans have a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of
others."298 Gregory had to be able to "code switch," taking details specific to black
life—such as chitlins and "nappy hair" on his 1962 album, Dick Gregory Talks
Turkey—and frame them so that they were comprehensible to outsiders, in this case as
In July 2009,1 saw Gregory and Sahl perform together at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco, still
joined in the public's imagination over forty years later. Both of them retained their signature styles,
with Gregory more daring and challenging the political thinking of the audience, while Sahl had more
polished jokes and viewed the world stage in a more detached manner.
Gelb, "Comic, Back at Blue Angel, Proves He Is a Durable Talent."
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (USA: Feather Trail Press, 2009), 12.
examples of uncouth concerns that upwardly mobile blacks attempt to conceal.299
Comedy is a felicitous setting for the juxtaposition of inconsonant social worlds
because contrast is one of the surest means of creating humor. As the only major black
stand-up, frequently facing white audiences, Gregory's comedy frequently contained a
pedagogical aspect, which makes it understandable that he later segued into a life as a
lecturer on political and health issues.
Gregory received respect from both critics and patrons. Praising Gregory, The
New York Times wrote of him in 1961 as "the only member of his race thus far to join
with and hold his own in the ranks of the bright, young, intellectually oriented, wittily
topical, stand-up comics."300 His stardom had much to do with the fact that he was, as
Watkins phrases it, "the first Negro standup comedian in half a century or so—since
the late Bert Williams was in his prime—to be so widely accepted by white
audiences."301 Sustained success in stand-up comedy requires the audience to accept
the comic as a person as well as a performer because the genre often conflates the two.
Stand-ups perform individuality on-stage in order to sell their act, while Williams, of
course, was playing characters other than himself.
At times, Gregory made statements promoting individualism that could be
taken to conflict with his socially-conscious activism. On Dick Gregory Talks Turkey,
he states that "we have problems all over the world today because men cease to be
individuals," the crisis being that:
We like to identify with everything other than ourselves. We like to
identify with groups, religions, races. You hear it every day. I'm
Dick Gregory, Dick Gregory Talks Turkey (Vee-jay, 1962).
Arthur Gelb, "Comic Withers Prejudice Cliches," The New York Times, March 20.
' Millstein, "A Negro Says It with Jokes," 34.
Italian, I'm German, I'm Negro, I'm Jewish. So what? Do you realize
that when you identify with anything other than yourself first as an
individual, oh, you have a cheap way out for a lot of your own shortcomings? Did you know that?302
At first blush, this comes across as if Gregory were disregarding the social forces
impacting individual lives, a foreshadowing of later neo-liberal attempts to ignore
racial inequity, all in the name of human individuality. Gregory is not making a claim
for colorblindness. He neither rejects his ethnic background nor discounts the
racialized circumstances that shaped his life. For Gregory, group-identification is only
a problem when it negatively impacts individual agency. Satirically thanking God that
he's "been like an individual ever since I was seven years old," Gregory states that he
had no problems moving into an all-white neighborhood "because I moved in as an
individual."303 His white neighbors were in London at the time, and in the absence of
their watchful gaze Gregory was not forcibly fixed within blackness. His sense of
double consciousness could temporarily subside.
In his autobiography, Gregory describes a practical impetus behind the need to
play up individualism on-stage:
I've got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second. I've got to
be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man. I've got to act like a
star who isn't sorry for himself—that way, they can't feel sorry for me.
I've got to make jokes about myself, before I can make jokes about
them and their society—that way, they can't hate me.30
The implied audience is white. According to Millstein, once Gregory became a star,
his audiences included the "comparatively few Negroes who can afford him,"
sympathetic whites, mildly prejudiced whites, and racist Southerners with "the
Gregory, Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.
, Nigger.
unshakable notion that Gregory must be kidding."305 Gregory's assertion
acknowledges the potential danger of having a black stand-up comic confront the
white gaze, just as there is a threat against black families moving into white
neighborhoods. But Gregory does not completely cast off the appellation of "colored."
He educates his white audience how one can be both an individual and a Negro—
indeed, that everyone United States is both their own person and a member of at least
one racial group, even though many whites have the luxury of going through life
Gregory connected stand-up to the older tradition of black folk humor.
According to television writer William Attaway: "Dick Gregory is using today the
down-home, plantation type humor that came directly from minstrels, which is a way
of telling it like it is under the cover of laughter."306 No one doubted the wealth of
Gregory's creativity, although it is possible that he deserved less credit for originality
than he received. Mel Watkins notes that some of the older black comics were
"startled and perplexed" because Gregory's material included jokes that "were
common currency in black communities."307 We can find jokes from his act which
belong to the generic sort told on the street corner or the Chitlin' Circuit stage, which
Gregory frames within stand-up's requisite air of autobiography. He told the following
joke during his debut at the Playboy Club:
Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white
waitress came up to me and said: 'We don't serve colored people here.'
Millstein, "A Negro Says It with Jokes," 34, 37. This inability to read Gregory's satire is reminiscent
of recent reports on many contemporary conservatives reading the Colbert Report on its face value,
rather than as a satire.
Schechter, The History of Negro Humor in America, 186.
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 498.
I said: 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole
fried chicken.' About that time these three cousins come in, you know
the ones I mean, Klu, Kluck, and Klan, and they say: 'Boy, we're
givin' you fair warnin'. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna
do to you.' About then the waitress brought me my chicken.
'Remember, boy, anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to
you.' So I put down my knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken,
and I kissed it.308
At its roots, this is a trickster tale plucked from common joke cycles circulating in the
black community. The tradition of these jokes preceded Gregory and persists long
after borrowed from it. In the late 1960s, Paulette Cross collected the following
version from an interviewee who introduced the subject as a white restaurant worker
accosting a black customer who's ordered chicken, telling him:
goan nigga, goan, its yo chicken, you ordered it, goan, but the manager
told us, whatever you do that chicken, we goan do to you. So the black
man looked around at 'em a coupla times and he picked up the salt and
he sprinkled salt on the chicken, put the salt down and he looked at 'em
a coupla times and he picked up the chicken in his hands and he rolled
it around, and round in his hands till the tail was up, and then he kissed
it, smack. And he looked at 'em a coupla times.309
The latter telling employs the third person, as is common in folk humor. When told to
a white audience by Dick Gregory, he uses the first person of stand-up comedy, giving
a human face to this particular victim of bigotry. The technique of humor was as
crucial as the specific content of particular jokes, and Gregory altered the humor
further by framing the jokes within the larger context of his personal life. Originality
is, of course, constructed, and stand-up comedy relies as much on the appearance of
singularity as it does on actual first-hand authorship. After all, the generic jokes told
by Gregory were new to white America. As Redd Foxx puts it, Gregory was "the first
Gregory, Nigger, 144.
Paulette Cross, "Jokes and Black Consciousness: A Collection with Interviews," The Folklore
Forum 2, no. 6(1969): 141.
black comedian to stand up in front of a white audience and say what had so often
been said before black audiences."310 Gregory himself admits that his act was not
completely new, if only because it originated in his earlier everyday life: "When I left
St. Louis, I was making five dollars a night. Now I'm pulling in $5,000 per week—for
saying the same things out loud I used to say under my breath."3"
Gregory's humor could be read differently depending upon the racial
experience of the audiences. A joke about his poverty-stricken upbringing could be
read (as it was by critic Arthur Gelb) as evidence of how Gregory doesn't "belabor"
the race issue
: "What's this—kids don't eat off the floor anymore?... When I was a
kid the cookie never reached the floor. If it did the germs had to fight us for it.
Mamma said, 'You see germs? Then play with 'em.'" 313 One could also read the quip
as a description of the stark economic effects of racism in the United States, as an
example of the significant heritage of poverty throughout much of the history of
blacks in the United States, and a model of humor used to survive dire circumstances
by allowing for expression and alleviating tension. Similarly, the following joke about
the Congo could be read as ridiculous nonsense or pointed commentary: "People ask
me... 'How come they don't send white troops?' Only way I can figure it out is they
don't want 'em coming home with those war brides.'"3'4 For some, the concept of
white soldiers with black brides was simply ludicrous, while to others the image
referenced historical reality (such as the U.S. occupation of Japan) and pointed out the
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 178.
Gelb, "Comic Withers Prejudice Cliches."
Millstein, "A Negro Says It with Jokes," 37.
illogic of a racial system in which cross-racial affiliation only arrives at the point of a
Gregory delivered many of his harsher jokes wrapped inside gentle packaging.
Criticizing the stereotypical roles played by blacks in the movies and on television,
Gregory makes his point while including his own behavior as a possible target of
laughter: "I wrote Holly wood... Damned if I can see one colored cop on 'The
Untouchables.' They wrote me back they making a picture called 'Stagecoach South';
they offered me the leading part and I turned it down 'cause I know the first time they
make a Negro Western, the Indians gonna win."315 Here, Gregory couples significant
critique of Hollywood racism—calling out movie westerns in particular—with a
comic protestation of impotence. By professing the inevitability of failure, Gregory
wears a smile while daring society to admit and redress racial inequity
Gregory's affability may have made his pointed commentary more palatable,
as he would have encountered greater pushback had he displayed the caustic nature of
a Lenny Bruce. Instead, Gregory's self-effacement allowed him to get away with jokes
that called into question the values of the white majority. He questioned mainstream
assumptions in remarks such as "You gotta say this for whites, their self-confidence
knows no bounds. Who else could go to a small island in the South Pacific, where
there's no crime, poverty, unemployment, war, or worry—and call it a 'primitive
society.'"316 Referring to whites in the third person marginalizes their presence, but
Gregory's affect is bemused, so his white audience members need not feel threatened.
As with his cutting quip about war brides, Gregory's critique is so far outside the norm
Ibid., 39.
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 502.
that some could dismiss them as absurd while others could take in the disapproval. His
barbs garnered cover from humor's veneer of fiction, which allows comics to claim
that what they say is merely done in jest. As a result, Gregory could joke about a
coming day when blacks would rule—that there might even be a black president—and
it could be read by audience as powerless fantasy rather than earnest speculations on
revolution. The latent danger surfaced when direct speech substituted for indirect
humor, such as when a white female audience member in Indiana spoke up that she
"sure would like to love" Gregory.317 Gregory defused the peril posed by the real life
proposition of miscegenation by making her drunkenness the frame of the joke, and
spinning a quick fantasia on the two of them being forced to leave town in a hurry,
narrating a crisis in his quips that he hoped to avoid in reality.
Gregory's accent on amiability captured the attention and approval of many
mainstream white journalists and critics. The headline of a March 1961 New York
Times article on Gregory's local debut read "Comic Withers Prejudice Cliches."318
Two-sub-headlines clarified the reasons the Times had for praising Gregory. The first
noted with presumed approval that Gregory's self-criticism extended to blacks ("Dick
Gregory Aims Shafts at Negroes as Well as Whites"). The second lauded his lack of
bitterness ("Show at Blue Angel Is Offered without Trace of Rancor").319 Gregory
engaged in a precarious balancing act. He had good reason to believe that, were he to
offer up more of his anger from the start, no matter how justified, the white audiences
Millstein, "A Negro Says It with Jokes," 39.
Gelb, "Comic Withers Prejudice Cliches."
and critics might resist, as Gregory was pioneering new ground as an African
American comic speaking directly to mainstream white audiences.
It quickly became questionable how long Gregory could sustain his good guy
act. Millstein says that Gregory "looks back without anger" at the moment in his
childhood when he was made to realize he was being viewed in racial terms. Given his
later statements as a political activist, it is unlikely that Gregory was truly without
rancor. As he admits in his autobiography, he deliberately chose an approach so that
"the audience would never know that I was mad and mean inside."320 By hiding his
anger, Gregory tapped into a common survival strategy. Looking back as on older
adult on his stand-up beginnings, Gregory writes that "comics who have decided to be
socially conscious, honest with their audiences, and without a hidden agenda are still
obligated not to offend or disrespect individual patrons."321Thanks to the cover of
humor, he was able to attack issues without appearing to directly attack those in the
room, to make his anger and the reasons behind it into serious humor.
Nevertheless, within a year of his entrance onto the national stage, Gregory
risked rejection and began expressing his acrimony at the current state of apartheid in
the United States.322 In his own words, he "kept pushing things further. I made
everything more topical, more racial."323 He had a clause inserted into contracts which
allowed him to cancel shows with little or no notice so that he could participate in
Civil Rights marches and protests. In late 1962 Gregory began travelling to the South
as a Civil Rights activist, agitating for desegregation and voting rights. He proved
Gregory, Nigger, 134.
, "Foreword," xii.
Millstein, "A Negro Says It with Jokes," 39.
Chalmers, "Dick Gregory: Mr Incredible."
himself more than just a talker and was arrested multiple times. While Gregory was
addressing the Centennial Missionary Baptist Church, someone threw a tear gas
canister into the room. Gregory chided those who got up to run, declaring that "[i]f
you're not ready to die, get on out of here... If you're frightened go on home."324 By
April 1963, Gregory was in the headlines of The New York Times because of his Civil
Rights work, with headlines such as "Dick Gregory Defies Police in South."325 The
article ran on the front page, justifying Gregory's notion that his presence could
provide publicity and protection. In this context, his fantasias read as much more
threatening. Asked by a "radio newsman.. .if the comedian would be called an 'outside
agitator' because of his participation in the march [Gregory replied] 'No more so than
Hitler called Southern white boys outside agitators."326 Outside the nightclub, others
took his comments more seriously, even if the remarks still had the same humorous
While Bruce brought the language of the streets up onto the stage, Gregory
took the insights and insults of the stage out into the street. When he led another march
the day after the initial April 3 news story, the New York Times reporter wrote that
"the police refused for the second day to take Mr. Gregory into custody despite a
stream of abuse he directed toward B. A. Hammond, the Police Commissioner, and
other officials."327 The situation was volatile and potentially violent, with the biggest
danger coming from local police who:
Claude Sitton, "Mississippi Town Seizes 19 Negroes: Dick Gregory, Not Held, Leads Greenwood
March," The New Yokr Times, April 4, 1963.
, "Dick Gregory Defies Police in South," The New York Times, April 3, 1963, 1.
Ibid., 40.
Sitton, "Mississippi Town Seizes 19 Negroes: Dick Gregory, Not Held, Leads Greenwood March."
appeared to be on their best behavior because of the presence of a
swarm of news reporters and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents,
one of whom filmed the incident. Nevertheless, a man who had sought
to squirm away from a patrolman was bounced repeatedly on the
pavement while being carried to the bus. A second was thrown into the
bus and the thump of his falling body could be heard 20 feet away.328
The visibility of comics makes them a target for criticism yet as entertainers they tend
to remain on the safe space of the stage rather than venture into the streets. As a free
speech zone, the comedy club operates at a remove from the physical point of conflict.
Having averted the potential anti-black violence present in the nightclubs since his
first major gig at the Playboy Club, Gregory followed the danger of potential violence
to sites of actual violence.
Gregory molded the two main approaches taken by the African American
comedians who followed him: one could directly address apartheid in the United
States (the path eventually taken by Pryor) or deal with more generic "universal"
subjects (the path eventually taken by Cosby). When he shifted his emphasis from
talking to walking, the question arose of whether he remained a comic. Gregory
claimed comedian as just one of his identities, and did not put it first on the list. When
in a Chicago jail for "disturbing the peace when he helped lead Civil Rights
demonstrators on the city's South Side," Gregory released a statement that said "I'm
not an entertainer first, nor am I an American first. First, above all else, I'm a
Negro."329 Many friends and sympathizers figured that Gregory was abandoning his
career and that comedy and activism could not co-exist with full commitment. Robert
Lipsyte, who worked on Gregory's autobiography, stated that by 1964 Gregory "was
"Dick Gregory Working as Jail Paper Reporter," The New York Times, August 18, 1963.
blowing his career. Promoters were too frightened to hire him....Like Ali, who always
thought of himself as more than a boxer, Greg always considered himself more than a
comic."330 According to Redd Foxx, Gregory "became so wrapped up in the cause of
racial equality that he began to lose sight of his humor."331 This critique is similar to
those of Bruce once his trials became the main topic of his stand-up shows. Comic
commentary requires one to be able to view the world simultaneously as one wrapped
within it and at a remove, operating with what Arthur Koestler calls "the detached
malice of the parodist, which turns pathos into bathos, tragedy into comedy.""2
This distance of stand-up from the physical frontline of Civil Rights depressed
Gregory's faith in humor, as its entertaining aspects threatened to drown out the
embedded points. Frustrated, Gregory asked "[t]hey didn't laugh Hitler out of
existence, did they?"333 and argued that
Humor has only helped the oppressed in one respect.. .as a narcotic. If
humor were the weapon to solve the problem, there'd be comedians in
the foxholes of Vietnam. As for me, humor was the only outlet to
express my anger.. .Humor can no more find the solution to race
problems that it can cure cancer.334
Speech acts appeared to have limited revolutionary potential when confined to
nightclubs. Comics such as Gregory and Bruce could definitely influence culture, but
it was done at a remove unless they were in a courtroom or on the street. If, as Koester
claims, "[i]n all forms of malicious wit there is an aggressive tendency at work which,
for one reason or another, cannot be satisfied by the usual methods of reasoned
Chalmers, "Dick Gregory: Mr Incredible."
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 181.
Koestler, The Act of Creation, 52.
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 44.
Schechter, The History of Negro Humor in America, 186.
argument, physical violence, or straight invective," then Gregory abandoned humor in
order to satisfy his grievances directly, without the remove of humor.335
While on-stage, though, Gregory did accomplish much in terms of raising
racial issues and utilizing stand-up comedy to showcase the serious intellectual
capabilities of African Americans, establishing a precedent which lasts to this day. For
centuries, according to Ralph Ellison, the Negro had been designated the "national
scapegoat."336 In traditional stage comedy, the scapegoat is a derided figure of ridicule
who is driven off or defeated; in stand-up comedy, the figure of derision returns and
speaks on his or her own behalf, often seeking to get the audience to own up to our
communal sins. Gregory gave voice to the scapegoat and tackled stereotypes, arguing
that "offensive though they may be, [stereotypes] do exist and they must be held up to
the light of reason if they are ever to be eliminated."337 Dick Gregory's
accomplishments meant that a model now existed for African Americans wanting
careers as stand-up comedians, even if he exited the stage shortly after opening the
Bill Cosby: Race Erasure?
One of the first aspirants to follow in Gregory's wake was a Philadelphian
student at Temple University by the name of Bill Cosby. In the summer of 1962,
Cosby started working Greenwich Village clubs such as the Gaslight, while still a
Koestler, The Act of Creation, 92.
Ellison, Shadow and Act, 49.
Alan Dundes, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of AfroAmerican Folklore (Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 621.
student.338 He was not sure of his career trajectory. A contemporaneous New York
Times review describes Cosby as a "24-year-old physical education major at Temple
University, here for the summer to polish his style, collect new material and save
money for the fall semester."339 We see that stand-up comedy was not yet considered
to be a prudent career path for an aspiring entertainer. Cosby's quick rise to
superstardom may be what changed that common wisdom.
In the main New York nightclubs, Cosby mostly worked to whites, with
African Americans going unmentioned in The New York Times' mention of the
audience at the Gaslight, "composed mainly of Bohemian youths in beards, college
girls who discuss medical care for the aged, and tourists."340 It is possible that Gardner
was practicing color-blindness in this article, but it is unlikely given his later
discussion of Cosby's race-based material. Indeed, his reporting is primarily valuable
for its evidence of Cosby's now-forgotten race and civil-rights related humor.
Cosby's very early humor exhibits the influence of Gregory. Cosby riffs on the
trope of the first black President, a fantasy also taken up by Gregory and Pryor.
Playing the President, Cosby observes the absurdity and ubiquity of racism, positing
that it wouldn't stop even with the capture of a symbolically and politically powerful
position. Talking on the phone, he states "Yeh, baby, everything's fine, except a lot of
'for sale' signs are going up on this block."341 Cosby addresses housing discrimination
a second time, this time using comic role reversal to invert the traditional status of
Cosby completed his undergraduate degree from Temple in 1971 and earned a doctorate in education
from the University of Massachusetts in 1977. His doctoral dissertation was titled "The Integration of
Visual Media via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids into the Elementary School Culminating as a Teacher
Aid to Achieve Increased Learning."
Paul Gardner, "Comic Turns Quips into Tuition," The New York Times, June 25, 1962.
whites, stating: "I used to live in a nice neighborhood. Then two white families moved
in."342 The New York Times reporter saw some of Cosby's comments as "cryptic" and a
"threat," such as his riposte to an "unsmiling patron" that: "You better laugh. I've got
a club that's the opposite of the Ku Klux Klan.'"343 It's unclear whether the center of
the joke is the audience member, the KKK, or the mere idea of an African American
wielding power equivalent to that of white supremacists. Most of Cosby's sporadic
stabs at race comedy targeted the irrationality of race as a concept (let alone a practice)
rather than the injustice of racism in society, such as his quip that "[o]ne morning I
woke up and looked in the mirror. There was a freckle and it just got bigger and
bigger."344 Cosby may have been mocking the irrational differentiation by skin color,
but here he winds up the target of his own joke. This is race humor that risks taking a
common component of humor—abjection—and reinforcing it rather than undermining
Success came swiftly for Cosby. He made the pages of Newsweek less than a
year after his move to New York City. By June of 1963, explicit racial commentary
was absent from his stage act, leading Newsweek to note that "[t]he most startling facet
of Cosby's act is that, unlike any other current Negro comedian, he tells no strictly
Negro jokes."345 It is impossible to untangle the degree to which African American
comics spoke about race on-stage out of personal desire or due to outside
expectations—or some combination of the two motivations. Stand-up comedy was in
the process of being fashioned to address contemporary issues and Dick Gregory
Z 345
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy.
"Riiight," Newsweek, June 17, 1963.
loomed as the model for cutting edge black comedians. Cosby implied that he erased
race in large part to satisfy audiences, explaining that "[w]hen I told racial jokes, the
Negroes looked at the whites, the whites looked at the Negroes, and no one laughed—
until I brought them together, and then I had to tell the jokes all over again."346 In
Cosby's vision, stand-up becomes a site for racial reconciliation, with the comic
serving as the intermediary speaking in a common tongue.
The purportedly universal subjects of Cosby's 1963 debut album, Bill Cosby is
a Very Funny Fellow Right!, involved comparisons of football to war, lampoons of
razorblade commercials, fantasias on Noah and Superman, philosophizing about the
differences between men and women, and tales of the absurdity of karate. His opening
is reminiscent of Sahl's conversational musings about politics and popular culture.
Cosby is personable, making sure to inform the audience of where he is from and
where they are before launching into his observations about the New York City
subway system:
I am not from New York City. I was born in Philadelphia, raised in
Philadelphia, educated in Philadelphia. And, uh, for those of you that, if
you plan to come into New York at anytime soon, don't take [or] bring
a lot of money with you. A'right? It's the greatest city in the world.
You can get all the entertainment you want for only fifteen cents. Ride
any of the subway trains that they have here. It's marvelous. Not only
will they take you where you want to go and bring you back, but they
go out of their way to entertain you. They put a nut in every car.347
In Lenny Bruce's comedy, we are all exposed as freaks and crazies, no one more so
than the righteous and the upstanding. In contrast, Cosby's world of tourists and show-
Bill Cosby, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right! (Warner Bros., 1963).
watchers squarely establishes Cosby and his audience on the other side, as middle
class denizens.
In early interviews Cosby expressed an acceptance that he would have to
tighten his material, but ironically, the meandering improvisational style would
become a hallmark. In his own words, Cosby's "thing was stories, long stories and
vignettes."348 To the eyes of Redd Foxx and Norma Miller, "Bill Cosby was the first of
the black comedians to come out of the improvisation school—the school that trains a
performer to take a subject, develop it, and make it come out funny, without knowing
in advance what direction he's going in."349 His technique pushed the boundaries of
fledgling stand-up comedy enough so that Herb Gart, a manager of folksingers and a
fellow Temple student who had steered Cosby toward the Gaslight club in Greenwich
Village, claimed that "[h]e's never been a 'stand-up comic' He's always been a
storyteller."3501 would argue that Gait's concept of "stand-up" is actually that of the
older vaudevillian joke-teller and that Cosby's avoidance of one-liners is more
consistent with the new comedic practice of stand-up, with its extended personal tales.
Some of the influence came from television programs such as Sid Caesar's
Your Show of Shows. Cosby recounted in the late 1960s how he: "went into this
business after hearing Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner do their 2000-year-old-man
routine. I loved their flow of humor, the looseness of it and the fact that any second, a
piece of greatness could suddenly be created."351 Even more importantly, as with Sahl
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pry or, 44.
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 190.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 571.
Lawrence Linderman, "Bill Cosby: A Candid Conversation with the Kinetic Comedian-ActorSinger-Entrepreneur," Playboy, May 1969.
and Bruce, jazz was a primary influence on the development of Cosby's comedy. In
the same interview, Cosby stated that: "When I started doing comedy, I began
structuring my work the same way jazz musicians do; to me, a joke is a tune that has a
beginning, a middle and an end. I'm the soloist, and my chord changes are the punch
lines that make people laugh."352 That is, the joke structure is not missing but
expanded. It is not that Cosby has absolutely no idea of which direction he will take at
any given moment, so much as it is that his play of riffs and motifs presents him with
multiple possibilities from which to choose.
Cosby's debut album is full of fantastical stories, most notably his re-telling of
the Biblical tale of Noah's Ark. In Cosby's version, a skeptical Noah is suspicious of
the voice he hears, commanding him to build an ark and collect the species of the
world to safeguard them from the coming flood. He is concerned about what the
neighbors might think, speculates whether he is on the television show Candid
Camera, adds to the anachronisms by asking what a "cubit" is, and pointedly informs
God that he's mistakenly given Noah two male hippos. It is possible that Noah's
questioning reflects the caution of an underdog, but to Watkins, Noah is "ethnically
nondescript; he is an Everyman."353 Still, while his race is not easily identifiable from
the narrative, Cosby's Noah is decidedly bourgeois, with middle class concerns about
saving face in front of the Joneses, and Christianity accepted as the rule. Cosby makes
a claim for inclusion in the mainstream that the Jewish Bruce could not do without
conversion. In stark contrast to Bruce, Cosby utilizes stand-up to present personal
, "Bill Cosby: A Candid Conversation with America's Superdad About His Revolutionary
True-to-Life Comedy Series—and About Racism, Kids, Humor and Heroes," Playboy, December 1985.
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 506.
experiences while actually diminishing the ethnic specificity of that world, with the
primary exception of the Fat Albert characters made into a television cartoon from
1972-85. Watkins states that the children in these stories are not performed as white so
much as they "have almost no uniquely black or ghetto aspects to their
personalities."354 Cosby's stand-up comedy creates a fictional world in which African
Americans need not be marked, and race is not erased so much as elided. It does
remain there in Cosby's black body as a visual marker. Implying that Noah could have
been black was not a radical as saying the same of Jesus, but it was a bold unstated
Several managers considered Cosby's ostensible race neutrality remarkable
enough to claim credit for it. Fred Weintraub (who owned the Bitter End), put the
transition in terms of accenting Cosby's individuality, stating that "I helped change his
persona. He wanted to be a 'black comedian.' I must have told him a thousand times,
'There's one Dick Gregory. You gotta be Bill Cosby."355 Roy Silver, who managed
Cosby as he ascended to the top of the nightclub world and into television stardom
with I Spy356, said that: "I was determined to make him a star. I gave him the no-black
[material] concept... .It wasn't per se racial—it was much sweeter than what anyone
else was doing."357 Silver's statement implies that Cosby had the lucrative opportunity
to be the black man with whom liberal white audiences could feel comfortable. His
description of Cosby's developing timing and style suggests that comedians only
engaged in racial jokes because they were an easy laugh, contradicting Cosby's claims
Ibid., 505.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 572.
NBC, 1965-68.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 573.
that audiences "feel similarly uncomfortable facing color humor and off-color humor,
as if there were something illicit about both."358 To this extent, Cosby was the antiBruce, endeavoring to make his comedy accommodating, aiming for laughter without
unease and acclimating white audiences to change with a similar strategy to Jackie
Robinson, who held his tongue about most of his complaints when trying to integrate
major league baseball.
Cosby posed his decision to sidestep race as an artistic choice, that it was his
chance to be unique as well as to encompass a wider audience. He told Newsweek that
"There's no comic I admire more than Dick Gregory.. .but there's room for only one
Dick Gregory. Because of the acceptance of the Negro comic, he doesn't have to lean
on racial material any more. I'm trying to reach all the people. I want to play Joe Q.
Public."35' It is unclear why, if black comics were truly on equal footing with white
comics, they would have to censor their comments on race. Cosby implies that Joe Q.
Public is white, or at least does not view or discuss the world in racial terms and that
doing so could be seen as a gimmick, rather than the artificial attitude being the
conscious omission of such speech. At the time, Gregory himself argued that Cosby
was "ducking it" by not talking about race.36" His success disproved the common
wisdom that there could only be one star African American stand-up.
Cosby countered the perceived lack of activism by noting how he worked to be
a strong role model by building upon Gregory's legacy. For Cosby, one of Gregory's
achievements was that "[fjor the first time people could listen to a black man talking
"Dick Gregory (Interview)," Playboy, August 1964.
on an intellectual level."361 With the rise of stand-up, Cosby felt that he could
incorporate his social consciousness into the pursuit of his profession, that "[cjomedy
was now going into the dignified vein. I knew that I had an opportunity to help the
black man in my interpretation of him."362 Rather than tackling stereotypes directly as
did Gregory, Cosby countered them with their absence, substituting seemingly nonracialized humans in his humor, and the example of himself as a successful black
entertainment star. The potential benefits came from educating whites on the fallacy of
black stereotypes while providing young blacks with positive role models. Cosby was
the very image of success, tall and athletic with a charm that came across on television
as well as in person. The result was a bounding leap away from black minstrelsy.
Expectations that he should follow a prescribed path of social obligation to
fellow African Americans often rankled Cosby. In part this was due to the pressure on
a single person of color performing in front of a majority white audience—the same
question of representation faced by Gregory. Cosby complained that: "I don't have
time to sit around and worry whether all the black people of the world make it because
of me. I have my own gig to worry about. If a white man falls off a chair, it's just a
guy. If a Negro does it, it's the whole damn Negro race."363 At times, Cosby felt he
should be able to pursue a career in entertainment without being politically involved,
saying, "I don't see these people knocking the black elevator man in their building just
because he isn't doing anything for Civil Rights by running that elevator."364 Of
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 193.
Ibid., 194.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 583-84.
Linderman, "Bill Cosby: A Candid Conversation with the Kinetic Comedian-Actor-SingerEntrepreneur."
course, as opposed to the job of the elevator man, the job of the stand-up comedian
inherently includes social commentary. The very focus on personhood which can
make stand-up a prime vehicle for altering the ways in which people view the
individual also creates extra emphasis on that solo performer. The fact that Cosby did
not place as distinct an accent on Civil Rights issues as comics such as Gregory and
Pryor may help explain his longevity on the stage, as well as because he was seen as
more palatable to mainstream audiences. He became a spokesman for products such as
Jell-O, rather than the Civil Rights movement.
Cosby saw his abandonment of explicit racial issues was not a way of
forgetting his self but of reclaiming his individuality. This strategy served as an
example in its own right and Watkins argues that it opened doors of opportunity for
comics to come, accenting how it was a strong move against the lingering stereotypes
propagated by minstrelsy:
Cosby's presentation of an essentially colorless comedy routine was
revolutionary. No previous African-American comedian had attempted
or been allowed to step so boldly into this non-racial territory before
non-black audiences. Traditionally, the few black comedians who were
booked into white clubs or theatres were expected to present familiar
ethnic comedy, heavily laden with dialect, that corroborated the image
of naive humor established during minstrelsy. Only a decade earlier,
black comics had been passed over or fired because they were not
'Negro' enough.365
Cosby was creating the possibility for black comedians to avoid issues of race just as
many whites did, laying claim on the powerful privilege of the unmarked.
On the performance front, Cosby's selective use of biographical ingredients
demonstrates how stand-ups mine their off-stage lives for on-stage material and
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 504.
present a performance of the personal—but that performance is not always an accurate
representation. When asked whether his childhood was as happy as he made it seem,
Cosby replied "Are you kidding? The thing I most remember about being a kid was
being poor. I remember the eviction signs.. .1 remember a Christmas when we had no
Christmas tree, and you can't get lower than that."366 Of course, one wouldn't
necessarily know this from watching Cosby's act, in part because of his positive
thinking, a world view that "when you're young, you have all kinds of energy and you
forget the bad things and get on with the good."367 Conscious artistic and business
choices were also a major factor, showing us that even while mining one's personal
life for public performance, the comic has great leeway in what to select.
Decades later, in the 21 st century, Cosby continues to bring out complex
reactions, in large part due to his pointed comments made about behavior in the poor
black community.368 While commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Board
of Education in 2004, Cosby declared that "the lower economic people are not holding
up their end in this deal" and that "[t]hese people are not parenting. They are buying
things for their kids—$500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on
Phonics.'...They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English."369 Cosby
said that he was not talking about all poor blacks and that he was trying, as described
Linderman, "Bill Cosby: A Candid Conversation with the Kinetic Comedian-Actor-SingerEntrepreneur."
When I teach undergraduate seminars on race and ethnicity in stand-up comedy, it has been Cosby
who elicits the most passion from students of color. Some fiercely advocate Cosby's right as an artist
from a struggling background to do whatever he must to succeed economically and artistically. Others
argue that Cosby has betrayed his roots, including his working class heritage, particularly given the
public comments he has been issuing on black social issues since the mid-2000s.
Felicia R. Lee, "Cosby Defends His Remarks About Poor Blacks' Values," The New York Times,
May 22, 2004.
in The New York Times, to "inspire people to take back their neighborhoods" but
continues to make similar comments targeting individual responsibility without
focusing on the social context of personal decisions.370 He has travelled a long road
from the man who stated, in the late 1960s: "Try to get a ghetto slumlord to fix up an
apartment and you'll know what frustration and bitterness is."371 Of course, that was
never a line one could find in his stand-up comedy or television shows, and Cosby's
lecturing about morals remains outside his stand-up comedy routines.
Cosby's remarks seem out of-line with his off-stage politics in his early career.
Cosby revealed some of his righteous indignation in an interview with Playboy,
declaring: "I really believe that black people could march until the end of the world
and the majority of whites still wouldn't want to give up what they see as their
precious right to be racists."372 Academic Michael Eric Dyson has been the most
prominent critic of Cosby's recent politics, looking back at the comic's career and
avowing that "Cosby didn't cringe at race or color per se; he cringed at blackness. He
didn't see the color of whiteness; it was the 'universal' he embraced."373 For Dyson,
Cosby uses the universal to ignore the specificity of blackness, thereby reinforcing the
racialized power structure of society. Dyson engages Du Bois' concept of being "both
a negro and an American," arguing that "[ujnlike Du Bois, Cosby didn't see that black
identities needn't give up their particular ethnic or racial slants to be universal; that's a
false dichotomy engineered by the white merchants of a variety of universalism that
Linderman, "Bill Cosby: A Candid Conversation with the Kinetic Comedian-Actor-SingerEntrepreneur."
Michael Eric Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? (New
York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005), 48.
seeks to project the normative as the universal. The two surely aren't the same."374 To
Gerald Nachman, Cosby's decision to not address race directly was "a harmless but
meaningful deception,""5 but to Dyson, it was harmful, an abandonment of the impact
that color has had on Cosby's own life, and freed whites "from the responsibility to
mend the social relations they had fractured, or in any case had benefited from, in the
first place."376 Cosby's stand-up career does come in a different era than that of Du
Bois, of course, and it could be argued that his act disabuses whites of stereotypes, and
that his current moral exhortations are delivered in a different medium, to a primarily
African American audience.
Sammy Davis, Jr., who also received criticism over his complicity in a racist
entertainment system, pointed to Cosby's off-stage work, remarking that "Bill Cosby
carries as much weight on his shoulders as any Negro I know... .but he's totally
committed. He gives freely of time and money."377 Indeed, Cosby continues to engage
in these activities down to today, including millions of dollars donated to historically
black colleges and universities. His television shows have consistently attempted to
present a dignified image of African Americans, even while steering away from
racialized topics. At the height of his small screen success, Cosby told USA Today: "I
don't think either of the races could take it if we began to lay it out and tell the truth.
What it comes down to is that people are different, but the same."378 This accent on
universality rather than particularity holds steady in his comedy from his early days in
Ibid., 47.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 564.
Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? , 21.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 578.
"Family, Not Race, Is Focus," USA Today, October 26, 1989.
the Village to his current performances around the United Sates, setting him off from
most other prominent black stand-ups.
The advent of first-person black humor into stand-up was a remarkable seachange in the world of comedy and represents a dramatic alteration in the history of
entertainment in the United States. Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby began the process of
integrating comedy, breaking down the barrier live and in person. It was a signal strike
against the Sambo stereotype, although Joseph Boskin may be overstating the case
when he argues that "the media emergence of black comedians spelled the end of the
jester."379 What they did do was to make black humor a serious matter, to use the
personal space provided by stand-up comedy in order to take the suffering laughter
noted by Lawrence Levine and transform it into gripping fodder for the main stage.
Gregory and Cosby also paved the way for Pryor, who would revolutionize the field
through the on-stage presentation of a bold working class black voice. Together, the
trajectory of the three explains the predominance of black men in the upper echelons
of stand-up comedy, which has continued after Pryor to include superstars Eddie
Murphy in the 1980s, Chris Rock in the 1990s, and Dave Chappelle in the 2000s.
Joseph Boskin, Sambo: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester (New York City: Oxford
University Press, 1986), 218.
Chapter Four: "Burning with Desire: Richard Pryor's Body of Pain"
"After such knowledge and given the persistence of racial
violence and the unavailability of legal protection, I asked
myself, what else was there to sustain our will to persevere but
laughter? And could it be that there was a subtle triumph hidden
in such laughter that I had missed, but one which still was more
affirmative than raw anger?"
—Ralph Ellison™0
"When you see me laughin'
I'm laughin' to keep from cryin.'"
—traditional (blues)381
With Bill Cosby's superstardom in the mid-1960s, the face of both stand-up
and black comedy became that of an African American averse to overtly addressing
racial issues in his comedy. Not only that, but Cosby spent an increasing amount of
time working in commercial television. With Lenny Bruce entangled by legal trouble
in the years leading up to his 1966 death and Dick Gregory increasingly concentrating
on his Civil Rights activism, the development of stand-up comedy as a new
performance practice slowed. It threatened to devolve into a modernized mirror of
vaudevillian comedy, with comics obscuring their off-stage personalities in favor of
traditionally exchangeable public comic masks, uninterested in employing comedy to
test societal bounds.
Richard Pryor initially appeared to jibe with this trend toward tamer comedy.
In the early 1960s, he copied Cosby, playing it safe rather than playing with fire. In the
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (USA: Vintage International, 1952, 1995), xv-xvi.
Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues (USA: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 209.
late 1960s, he took a step back from stardom in order to recalibrate his act off- and onstage. In the 1970s, he burst back into the mainstream. Basically, there were two major
acts to his entertainment career, separated by a brief yet significant intermission. Pryor
cemented the form's connection to the public construction of the individual, and he
located that process in the body, arguing for a stand-up comedy powered by desire and
Prior Pryor, Cosby Clone
Relocating to New York City from the Midwest in 1963 in order to pursue a
career as a comedian, Richard Pryor submerged his own style in favor of an imitation
of other comics, most notably the ultra-successful Bill Cosby. Some accounts have
Pryor deciding to make the leap immediately after reading a Newsweek article about
Cosby or seeing him on the cover of Time,182 with Pryor himself writing that he saw
Cosby perform at the Cellar and "decided that's who I was going to be from then on.
Bill Cosby. Richard Cosby."383 Pryor's witticism implies that his on-stage identity was
halfway based on his own self and style and halfway based upon Cosby's successful
formula. There was clearly more than a glimmer of truth to the joke delivered by
Pryor's friend and frequent collaborator Paul Mooney at a roast commemorating the
close of Pryor's 1977 NBC television show. In his introduction of Pryor, Mooney
relates that: "From the first day that America recognized him as a stand-up comics
In his autobiography, Pryor writes "I remember seeing a picture of Bill on the cover of Time
magazine" but an August 2009 search of their online archive reveals only two covers with Cosby, from
September 1987 and January 1997. Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 72.
[sic], the critics knew that he had something unique. Who else would have the nerve to
do Bill Cosby's entire routine?"384 The barb hits its target and Pryor visibly convulses
with laughter. Biographer Jeff Rovin quotes Pryor as going so far as to say that
because Cosby did a routine about Noah, "I did Adam and Eve, it was that simple."385
In his autobiography, Pryor acknowledges that "[i]f the material wasn't exactly Bill's,
the delivery was. So much so that I should've informed people."386 Since stand-up is
supposed to rely on an impression of the comedian's individuality, there's a perception
that Pryor was betraying the underlying pact between the audience and the comic. The
sins to which the stand-up confesses may be exaggerated or transposed, but top
practitioners such as Bruce and Pryor demonstrate that these declarations and
confessions exploit stand-up's potential with greater effect the closer they strike to
Pryor's initial Cosby-esque approach headed comedy back toward the terrain
of family-friendly vaudeville by avoiding the taboo-rich ground of Bruce and Gregory.
Pryor kept his jokes simple, such as the advertising crack: "I watch a lot of television,
and so I see those commercials, like the one where the woman says, 'Honey I got a
giant in my washer.' And her husband says, ' Yeah, well he better be gone before I get
home."387 We can spy hints of Pryor's later themes, including infidelity, in these early
television appearances. The same connection between early and later Pryor resides in
the victimization trope he uses to open his appearance on Rudy Vallee's On Broadway
Tonight: "When I was young I used to think my people didn't like me because they
The Richard Pryor Show. NBC: October 20, 1977.
Jeff Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue (New York City: Bantam Books, 1983), 54.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 11.
Ibid., 70.
used to send me to the store for bread and then they'd move."388 Pryor's humor here is
distanced, with gentle absurdism taking the place of the actual trauma of being raised
by a brothel madam (his grandmother) and prostitute (his mother), although
undercurrents of violence arise in these early 1960s routines, such as one on taxis
which plays on the double meaning of "tip":
You can't get a cab in New York City, right? Especially when it rains,
all the cabs are owned by one company, Off Duty. Right, huh? If
you're lucky enough to get a cab, you get in, you say, "Driver I want to
go to 78th St." Driver says, "I'm not going that way." "What do you
mean? I wanna go to 78th St." "You gonna give me a tip?" "I'm gonna
tip your cab over, you don't take me to 78th St."'89
The opening lines are boilerplate: introduce an issue in a manner which creates
comradeship with the audience, followed by a verbal witticism about the "Off Duty"
cab company. Other than the threatening last line, any competent comedian could
deliver this bit with similar authority.
The Cosby influence is most evident in Pryor's fantasy sequences, with plot
lines such as that of the burglar who is too strong for Pryor. Pryor's wife has to take
over the fight from her inept husband. She ends up thrashing both the crook and the
police called to the scene, who take the wife away. The routine ends with Pryor
declaring: "Me and the crook livin' happily ever after."390 One does sense a stronger
impression of actual underlying marital discord from Pryor's comedy than from
Cosby's. This is understandable, given that Pryor had left his first wife Patricia Price
and son Richard, Jr., back in Peoria. Cosby has also had scandals in his personal life,
including an admitted affair and possible illegitimate child, but one would be hard
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 534.
Bob Smeaton, Life of Pryor: The Richard Pryor Story, 2006.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 73.
pressed to imagine such fodder making it into Cosby's on-stage anecdotes. Cosby does
use stand-up to tell tales about actual people he has known, well-captured in albums
such as I Started Out as a Child (1964) and To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept
With (1968), but as discussed in Chapter Three, Cosby's proclivity is to remove the
harsher aspects of poverty and racism. While Cosby's characters begin in a
harmonious state only to have their foibles exposed, Pryor's characters start in a state
of discord, with harmony as an unobtainable ideal. Cosby's world becomes an ideal
one seeks to achieve, while Pryor's humor offers laughter as a respite from a harsh
reality one cannot forget.
At the time, the main model for taboo-breaking was Lenny Bruce, whose
exploitation of stand-up's rebellious capacities had brought him to personal and
professional ruin. Understandably, the advice for Pryor from industry insiders was to
play it safe and keep his comments on race to a minimum. Bill Grundfest, one-time
owner of the Comedy Cellar in New York, feels that Pryor had no chance other than to
emulate Cosby, that if he "hadn't done what we would consider not whitewashed
material, 'Oreo' material, he never would have gotten to square one....Compromise
was a necessity of the times.'"39' Jackie Robinson is a cultural exemplar here, for
repeatedly turning the other cheek even when encountering rank racism while playing
baseball as a black man.392 In the comedy world of the mid-1960s, Gregory's sharpness
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 533.
Robinson knew that he was performing a particular image of acceptance, writing in his
autobiography that he daydreamed about abandoning the extraordinary compromise demanded of him, a
stance which often made him feel emasculated: "To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was
supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those
white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from
it all. I'd never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have
was now viewed as an exception rather than a model, although Pryor does introduce
ethnic humor into his On Broadway Tonight appearance:
I'm not a New Yorker. My home is Peoria, Illinois. I had a wild
neighborhood, I gotta tell you. Because my mother's Puerto Rican, my
father's a Negro, and we lived in a big Jewish tenement building—in an
Italian neighborhood.
So everytime I went outside, they'd yell, "Get him! He's all of
The humor here hints toward a truly exposed Pryor, but verges on the cartoonish,
lacking the gritty detail of Pryor's later work. In fact, Pryor was from a wild
neighborhood in Peoria and did have life experience with Puerto Ricans, Jews, and
Italians, but he was initially reluctant to discuss those memories from brothels, seedy
nightclubs, and his own bedroom.
It was Cosby himself who advised Pryor "Not to cuss. Not to talk foul. Not to
act no fool."394 Cosby implied that to adopt Bruce's approach vis-a-vis vulgarity and
the taboo would be to cast aspersions on the entire African American community and
the cause of Civil Rights, perhaps by reminding white audiences of minstrel images.
Pryor's later career argues that airing one's cultural dirty laundry in a sympathetic
manner can serve as a sign of positive pride, but for the time being he heeded Cosby's
direction. Within a year of playing New York City nightclubs such as The Bitter End,
the Living Room, Pap Hud's, and Cafe Wha?, Pryor was similarly praised for being
'"sharp without being angry,' his humor 'rooted in his background but essentially
been if he hadn't been too much of a man." Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made (New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, 1972, 1995), 59.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 74.
nonracial in character.'"395 The image of a nonracial Pryor may be shocking in
retrospect, but it reflects just how much stand-up was shaped by its most prominent
practitioners—none more than Pryor, who could have made a profitable career without
rocking the boat.
In retrospect, Pryor feels he should have been more outspoken from the start,
that he was censoring himself due to expectations from "white America":
I knew the kind of drama and tragedy that made for great
comedy, but I let only bits and pieces creep into my act. Instinct told
me to do more, except the pressure was to go with the flow.
"Don't offend, Rich."
It was a politically charged time. Martin Luther King fought for
equality and dignity. Malcolm clamored. But in terms of entertainment
white America wanted their black comedians colorless.
Those were okay.
But as comedy writer Murray Roman, a nice man who didn't
know any better than to reflect prevailing opinion, advised me, "Now
I'd introduce Bill to my mother. But a guy like you...Don't mention
the fact that you're a nigger. Don't go into such bad taste."396
On top of Roman's patronizing racism, Pryor points to how unusual it is for stand-up
not to connect with the Zeitgeist, but white audiences held the bulk of the money and
white advisors instructed Pryor to be "colorblind," by which they meant that he should
avoid subjects and language specific to the African American experience. Like Cosby,
Pryor had had colorblind elements in his early act. As he tells it, other comics who
were familiar with his work before he moved to New York City in 1963 asked him
"What the fuck happened?" to which Pryor simply replied "I'm going for the
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 60.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 81-82.
bucks."397 He had feared that there "[a]in't no room for two niggers"398 but in short
order found success on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Merv
Griffin Show. Television money tempts stand-up comics to compromise, and for a man
very open about his desire to make a good living, Pryor seemed to have achieved his
major goal without ruffling any feathers. It came at the expense of obscuring his own
desires, opinions, and history. In retrospect, we can recognize this self-effacement runs
contrary to stand-up's focus on the comic's everyday personality. Pryor may not have
had to mine his own experiences and tribulations with race to the extent that he did,
but stand-up comedy lends itself to such on-stage confessions and revelations.
Identity Crisis: Breaking Id Down
I had a moment in my life when I said to myself, 'You're not gonna be
funny if you continue doing what you're doing, 'cause it's not true,'
you know, so I decided to try to do something out of my self.399
—Richard Pryor
If stand-up comedy functions at its greatest depth and complexity when culled
from the performer's own background, one might have accurately predicted that Pryor
would run into trouble as he continued to fashion material from Cosby's on-stage
approach, rather than mining his own off-stage history. Indeed, after achieving
superstardom on his own in the 1970s, Pryor looked back at his emulation of Cosby as
"unnatural."400 His evaluation of his early career counselors is that "they were gonna
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 54.
Smeaton, Life of Pryor: The Richard Pryor Story.
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 54.
help me be nothing as best they could," which can refer to the absence of a readily
identifiable on-stage persona and a lack of show business superstardom.401 He lay the
blame at the feet of his agents and his own greed, twin pressures advocating safe
commercial ventures over the risky exploration of social taboos, and credits ignorance
for his choice to submerge his personal predilections, proclaiming that "[t]he trouble
was, I didn't know any better than to listen to Murray Roman and people like that. I
didn't have a view of the big picture."402 Pryor Convictions declares that in the mid1960s he "could feel the stirrings of an identity crisis"403 and is rife with statements
such as "I had to rediscover Richard Pryor" and "I could barely commit to being
me."404 This line of thinking is not unusual, as performers commonly speak in terms of
being faithful to their own unique instincts and style. For stand-up comics, these
personal predispositions are doubly important to their artistic development, given that
the comics are the subject matter as well as the source of their art.
Pryor needed to acquire the self-knowledge required to compose his on-stage
persona: "I didn't know myself well enough. Charlie Chaplin had the Little Tramp, but
I hadn't yet discovered my character, and that was because I tried so hard to be
someone else. I didn't think about artistry as much as I did making monies."405 Pryor
has occasionally been compared to Chaplin, mostly due to their shared expertise at
mimicry, and he did create an equivalent to Chaplin's Little Tramp in his "[w]ino
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 533.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 82.
Ibid., 84.
Ibid., 86.
Ibid., 82.
philosopher" Mudbone, who was also an instantly recognizable comic underdog.406 In
contrast to standard film practice, the characters Pryor plays are taken from his life,
including Mudbone, who "is probably based on Pryor's Grampa Thomas Bryant."407
These figures are almost always presented in relation to Pryor, as when Mudbone
dispenses wisdom to Pryor. In addition, Pryor frames his characters by means of direct
address to the audience, as opposed to an actor who might be expected to fade from
view underneath the role being played. This helps explain why Pryor's film acting,
even when commercially successful, never had the same critical impact as his stand-up
performances. When John and Dennis Williams state that "For years we have kept
waiting for Pryor, our Richard, to break through one of those silly roles and talk to us.
He has rarely done so," they ignore the essential difference in direct address between
stand-up and traditional movies—not to mention that they overlook Pryor's concert
films, in which he certainly speaks straight to the spectators.408
Appropriately enough, practical advice came from Groucho Marx, who
encountered Pryor at a Hollywood party held in the younger comic's honor. Groucho,
of course, was a progenitor of stand-up comics, who used his years touring vaudeville
to construct a farcical character which eventually merged with his own private
identity.409 "Groucho Marx" was more than just the identification of a comic actor with
a popular role. Groucho, like his brothers Harpo and Chico, became known by his
stage moniker even when alone with family. On the long-running quiz show You Bet
406 ujfe official Biography of Richard Pryor," http://www.richardpryor.eom/0/4113/0/1240/.
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 62.
Ibid., 217.
NB Matthew Daube, "The Case of Rabbi Cantor Vs. Roscoe W. Chandler: The Marx Brothers'
Ethnic Construction of Character," in A Century of the Marx Brothers, ed. Joe Mills (Newcastle:
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).
Your Life, Groucho played a scripted and stylized version of his off-stage self""0
Groucho's admonition was for Pryor to aim higher, engage his brain, and avoid
becoming an empty clown or, as Groucho put it, Pryor would "end up a spitting wad
like Jerry Lewis."4" Lewis, who came to fame in the 1940s performing a nightclub act
with partner and straight man Dean Martin, built his career in the impersonal tradition
of the Jewish clown. Even when not wearing literal make-up, he wore the
metaphorical mask of the schlemiel. His off-stage life was absent from his on-stage
antics. As Joan Rivers once said of Bob Hope, "If you only listened to his material,
would you know the man?"412
In September, 1967, the ill-fitting performative mask finally led to Pryor's
famous breakdown at the Las Vegas Aladdin Club. The incident is legendary in the
Pryor mythos. As stated in the liner notes to the major Pryor audio retrospective, the
"birth of the provocative Richard Pryor whom we all know and love begins here."413
Over the years, variations on the story had Pryor stripping naked on-stage (reminiscent
of a stunt Bruce pulled off while performing at strip clubs) and/or having to be saved
from the angry Mafia owners of the casino (along the lines of Pryor's own routine
about a run-in with mob-affiliated club owners, eventually filmed for his
autobiographical 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling). Pryor's account is that
he looked out into the audience, taking particular notice, of all people, of Dean Martin:
I asked myself, Who's he looking at, Rich?
You Bet Your Life ran on radio from 1947 to 1956, moving from ABC to CBS and then to NBC. The
show also ran on television from 1950 to 1961. Bill Cosby briefly revived a version of the show from
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 84.
Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, 22.
Reggie Collins. "Pryor Times." Richard Pryor, ...AndIt's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Brothers
Recordings (1968-1992): Black Rain, Inc. & Richard Pryor, 2000.
I checked out the rest of the audience. They were staring at me
as intently as Dean, waiting for that first laugh.
Again, I asked myself, Who're they looking at, Rich?
I didn't know.
I couldn't say, They're looking at you, Richard, because I didn't
know who Richard Pryor was. And in that flash of introspection when I
was unable to find an answer, I crashed. I had a nervous breakdown... .1
finally spoke to the sold-out crowd: "What the fuck am I doing here?'
Then I turned and walked off the stage.414
The collapse of Pryor's character was existential, in that the core issue was how to
perform the playing of one's self. It is not that the on- and off-stage performances are
the same so much as the performance of self on-stage echoes and pilfers the
performance of everyday self. Pryor's unraveling was a dramatic encounter unfolding
on the stand-up stage, at the meeting place of his public and private selves.
However unpleasant it must have been at the time, Pryor later believed that the
"breakdown was the only way I could shed the phony image I'd created and start rebuilding my self-respect."415 Task one was to abandon the clean-cut Cosby mold and
confront the darker elements of his past and present:
I only know my days of pretending to be as slick and colorless as
Cosby were numbered. There was a world of junkies and winos, pool
hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head,
trying to be heard. The longer I kept them bottled up, the harder they
tried to escape. The pressure built till I went nuts.416
The picture Pryor offers us is the stand-up comic as one caught between a
performance mode which requires confession and conventional forces which press for
restraint. One could ask why Pryor did not give vent to these voices earlier, but the
discovery of this process appears common in stand-up. Most of the major stand-ups
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 94.
Ibid., 96.
Ibid., 93.
encountered a similar bind, including Bruce, Margaret Cho, and Dave Chappelle. Even
the wholesome Bill Cosby understood the needs of the medium and approved of
Pryor's search for self, no matter how profane: "I was in the audience when Richard
took on a whole new persona—his own. Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made
people hate it. Then he worked on them, doing pure Pryor, and it was the most
astonishing metamorphoses I have ever seen. He was magnificent."417 (There are also
rumors that Cosby personally intervened with promoters on Pryor's behalf after the
episode at the Aladdin.)
Of course, Pryor did not change his act with a single performance. Williams
and Williams argue that Pryor's transformation began before the Las Vegas crisis, "at
least four to five years before 1970 when it is widely believed he began to use the
monologues based on his Peoria experiences"418 but they also quote a review of
Pryor's performances in Columbus, Ohio, in November 1967, attesting that Pryor was
"[s]harp without being angry, rooted in his background, but essentially nonracial in
character."419 It was an evolution of an act that took years and there must have been
multiple performances in which Pryor "killed the Bill Cosby in his act."420 Stand-up
comedy asks its practitioners to find their vices via imitation, to construct identities
through trial and error, and it is nearly impossible to find a stand-up who has
succeeded from the start, without first constructing an identity through performance.
The practice of stand-up suggests that individuals can shape their own ever-evolving
selves, but must do so via the act of performing in front of others, and Pryor set off to
4 7
' Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 48.
Ibid., 47.
Ibid., 57.
Ibid., 48.
find both himself and his audience. The snapping point may have been abrupt, but the
rebuilding process was slow, albeit illuminative of how a stand-up comic constructs a
fitting on-stage persona.
In September 1968, approximately one year after his breakdown at the
Aladdin, Richard Pryor recorded his first comedy album. The eponymous Richard
Pryor was taped live at the Troubadour in West Hollywood—the very same venue
where Bruce had been arrested in 1962 (as detailed in Chapter Two). The album is
relatively mild compared to Bruce's earlier exploration of the taboo. In the early '60s,
Bruce angered law enforcement with his discussions of Jackie Kennedy's behavior
after her husband was shot, arguing that Time magazine pictures of the first lady
proved that she had "hauled ass to save her ass" and, in other routines, portraying the
Pope as a Madison Avenue con man.421 Pryor's harshest critique of such public figures
is to say aloud, "I wonder if Jacqueline Kennedy farts. Right? 'Uh, Mrs. Kennedy?'
Buawrrp!"422 The fart noise receives the biggest laugh line of the routine as well as an
applause break, after which Pryor continues: "Or the Pope?...If he does, it'll be like a
balloon. Pptthuuuu..."423 Pryor's fondness for the stomping grounds of scatology can
work to call out genteel detachment from the lower functions of the human body, but
the puerility here arrives unencumbered by political satire.
Representing the early portion of Pryor's self-imposed exile from the
mainstream, typical topics on Richard Pryor include his opinion about smells, and a
forty-two second conceit presenting Frankenstein on acid morphing into President
The Trials of Lenny Bruce.
Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor (Dove/Reprise, 1968).
Nixon. Pryor's technical skill sparkles, but his use of multiple voices speaks as much
to a search for surer footing as it does to his brilliant virtuosity. He is still "Bill Pryor,"
with noticeable shades of Cosby's intonation on tracks like "Girls," even as Pryor
explores overtly racial asides such as "Peoria, they call that the model city. Right?
That means we have the Negroes under control here."424 At other times Pryor appears
to cultivate a hipper street sound, such as opening the album with his own version of
the slick jazz cat employing hip lingo and always trying to score. The last full routine
before "Frankenstein" ends the album on a literal and metaphorical whimper, with a
joke about a man kicked in the groin, although Pryor does drag this particular comedy
cliche into the stand-up era by personalizing it and designating himself as the one who
assaulted the Army sergeant. Still, the wider societal critiques remain muted in
comparison to his later albums from the 1970s.
After a few years in Berkeley, where his forays into clubs and recording were
sporadic, Pryor returned to Los Angeles at the end of 1970, determined to go back and
"resume my career as Richard Pryor, comedian [because] For the first time in my life,
I had a sense of Richard Pryor the person."425 Pryor's 1971 album 'Craps' (After
Hours) is a much more personal production than Richard Pryor, full of details from
his own life that add an air of authenticity. He charges them with the energy of the
taboo, including when he proposed to his wife while mid ejaculation: "She got me to
marry her. We was balling and I was coming. [As wife:] Will you marry me? [As
himself, mid-orgasm:] Yes, yes, yes.yes, yeahes, yeahes, yes."426 These highly
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 121.
Richard Pryor, 'Craps' (after Hours) (1971).
sexualized and intimate events were inconceivable fodder for network television. Talk
about physical altercations make their way into his act, as Pryor reveals hitting his
wife, and describes her attacking him with a butcher knife. Wife-beating jokes were
not uncommon at the time—two years later the family friendly Cosby would joke with
his Las Vegas audience, "Why beat on your wife? I mean, mentally and physically.
Why beat on her? She's only trying to save you from losing everything you have. And
you know if your wife wasn't here, you'd drop a whole load. And if she's going to be
a pain in the behind, let her be it. And they are, too."427 Pryor extracts this talk from the
remove of abstraction and reenacts a fight for his audience in which he threatens his
wife and she "run downstairs and get a butcher knife. She's the butcher knife girl. But
she lets me get her wrist before she pulls it on me."428 Pryor ends again with a
reference to groin attacks, telling his wife: "You'd better not grab my nuts!"429 As with
Bruce, the further Pryor explores stand-up's affinity for the vernacular, the more he
connects to the vulgar present in the vulgate. He leads stand-up comedy in the
direction Bruce took it, with the ignobility of the everyday as the topic of choice.
The relation of on-stage to off-stage leads some to conflate the two, including
childhood acquaintances of Pryor's who grouse "I seen you do that shit on—that's the
same shit that you done round the poolroom, nigger. It ain't nothing."430 Pryor's
technique pushes ever more into stream-of-consciousness, with over half of the thirtyone tracks clocking in under a minute and only two of them longer than three minutes.
Bill Cosby, For Adults Only (MCA, 1971). The album receives its title because the main topic is
parenting, not because of any blue material.
428 Pryor, 'Craps' (after Hours).
"At no time do you hear Richard tell a joke. His works and monologues are
conversation pieces."431 His talk about bodily functions goes further, including a track
about masturbation, complaining that "[p]eople don't talk about nothin' real.. .like
jacking off. A lot of people didn't jack off. I did."432 By "real," Pryor appears to
designate subjects that are simultaneously ubiquitous and taboo, and it's these fronts
that Pryor presents as strengths of stand-up.
Pryor's growing forthrightness increasingly aligned him with Lenny Bruce, a
figure Pryor never knew personally, but with whom he had long felt a deep kinship.
Indeed, when Pryor first moved to New York City in 1963, he met then stand-up
comic Woody Allen at a nightclub. As recounted in the 1995 autobiography Pryor
Convictions, Allen told him to:
Stick around, watch me, and you'll learn something.
But oddly, I learned more from a hooker in Baltimore. I was
working the Playboy Club when I met her, and after the show she took
me to her place and said, "I want you to hear something." Then she put
on a green-colored record album, something that I'd never seen.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Listen," she said.
Then I heard Lenny Bruce for the first time.
"Lima, Ohio."
I'd never heard anything like him before, especially his bit
about the kid who went to the hobby shop to buy some airplane glue
but was afraid to ask for it. Instead, he asked for everything else, all
sort of crap, one item after another. Finally, after he'd gotten
everything else, he blurted out that he also wanted something like two
thousand tubes of glue.
That destroyed me. I went fucking crazy.433
As discussed in Chapter One, "Lima, Ohio" was one of Bruce's primary routines
surrounding the matters of ethnicity and passing. The airplane sketch which
' Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 210.
Pryor, 'Craps' (after Hours).
, Pryor Convictions, 70-71.
"destroyed" Pryor was radical in its expression of lust for the forbidden, with the boy's
longing for airplane glue symbolizing an addict's dependence on harder drugs. In the
decades since Bruce and Pryor, audiences have grown accustomed to the stand-up
comic's expression of forbidden desires. Pryor's anecdote demonstrates how this
affinity was not there from the start but had to be constructed. The second act of his
career gave increased prominence to stand-up's ability to handle stereotype and the
taboo, and began to emphasize the personal desire of the comedian.
Pryor Desire
As the search for pleasure, desire propels comedy. Most professional
comedians consider their primary aim to be the elicitation of audience laughter.
Freud's investigation into comedy, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious,
posits that "the joke's absurdity-techniques correspond to a source of pleasure. We
need only repeat that this pleasure comes from an economizing in psychical
expenditure and a relief from the compulsion of criticism" which pressures us to
follow the dictates of logic.434 For Freud, jokes, with their pleasurable economy of
phrasing, allow one to express hidden desires without fully revealing oneself. Stand-up
comedy pushes the boundaries when it comes to economy of phrasing, elongating the
joke structure, and deriving much of its pleasure by pushing the boundaries on what it
is acceptable to reveal. If "the pleasantry's function has been to lift internal inhibitions
and make sources of pleasure which these had made inaccessible flow freely once
more," then it is understandable that stand-up fosters the discussions of the taboo,
Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 122.
emerging during the eras of Civil Rights and the Sexual Revolution in order to foster
discussions about proper codes of behavior.435
Pryor's comedy assays which of his private desires and obsessions can be
reenacted and shared with the audience. Video of an April 1971 performance at the
Improv, released in 1985 under the title Live and Smokin', reveals a Pryor far from the
slick character of The Ed Sullivan Show. He works through material in front of what
sounds like a white audience, given their lack of response to some of Pryor's
references to black-specific culture. Some of his jittery behavior may plausibly
indicate cocaine use, but Pryor lacks his later assuredness as his response to the
audiences reactions (and lack thereof) demonstrate the essential interplay between
stand-up and audience. Stand-up's performance of self does not attempt to replicate
the off-stage subject so much as it reflects the always ongoing process of forming a
self. The comic tests out different masks, performs aspects of self and tells life stories,
re-staging these people and experiences on-stage, and eliciting feedback from the
One one-minute routine, labeled "Dick Junkie," stands out as it deals with
Pryor's own homosexual experiences at unusual length. The bit begins with what
appears to be standard homophobic fare, as Pryor declares "Never fuck a faggot"
before revealing that one should refrain from sleeping with homosexuals because:
"They lie. They can't wait till you finish fucking them" so that they can tell their
friends about the indiscretion.436 In other words, homosexual desire is widespread, with
homosexuality defined by the openness with which one admits such activity.
Ibid., 125.
Michael Blum, Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin', 1971, 1985.
Reminiscent of Bruce's thoughts on homosexuality announced during his Carnegie
Hall concert, Pryor accuses the audience of being hypocrites and concealing their nonheterosexual acts, telling them: "Y'all act like you ain't never sucked a dick or
something. Y'all be, 'No siree Bob, we never ever touched a penis in our lives. We're
real men.'"437 Pryor takes their potential moral judgments and turns the tables, labeling
the audience as either liars or uppity hypocrites—or some sort of combination of the
two. After mocking their unwillingness to engage in mutual confession, he quickly
proceeds to confess with provocation that he "sucked a dick. You can get a habit from
sucking dick. You know, become a dick junkie. You can only do it maybe three times.
You do it more than that, you get a habit," implying that he knew this from
experience.438 The power of the taboo Pryor breaks appears to make both the restless
performer and the mostly-silent audience uncomfortable.
Pryor's open exploration attests to stand-up comedy as an autobiographical
mode of performance. Referencing his routines about his dating life when growing up,
Pryor claims that "[mjost of the shit I said was true. I just reported on what I saw and
heard, adding a twist here and there."4W His daughter Rain adds that "[i]n his stand-up
there was always truth. He didn't make up things just to get a laugh or, you know, tell
a story. "44() The creation of character in stand-up need not be consistent or cohesive.
The stand-up self, like the off-stage self, does not exist as a static object but as an
ever-shifting subject. Rain continues: "Maybe at times you didn't know what Richard
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 49.
Smeaton, Life of Pryor: The Richard Pryor Story. Part 5, 7:30.
you were going to get personally, but you always knew you were going to get
Richard."441 This flexible identity applies to Pryor both on and off-stage.
Perhaps due to the eventual strength of Pryor's later reputation for desiring
women, Keith Harris argues that "Dick Junkie" portrays "homosexuality as a sexual
passage to heterosexuality."4421 would argue that Pryor actually presents both
heterosexuality and homosexuality as performed, with an overlap. He presents
homosexuality as a shared experience within the human range of sexuality, as
something covert yet common, which only disappears when rejected by the audience.
The heterocentrism of stand-up stems largely from an audience rejection of nonheterosexual desire, and it was these audiences that Pryor sought out, from the Improv
in New York City to Redd Foxx's club in Los Angeles.
By the time Pryor became a household name in the mid-to-late 1970s, his
discussions of homosexual experiences were gone from his act, with one notable
exception. At a gay rights benefit at the Hollywood Bowl in September of 1977, Pryor
confronted the crowd over what he saw as racist treatment backstage toward one of the
other acts:
Pryor told the crowd in earnest that he'd once had a gay experience and
didn't like it, but the dialogue seemed to stick in his throat. 'I'm the
only person connected with this thing who has actually come out and
admitted having a homosexual experience,' he went on, people bristling
when he tauntingly referred to it as 'fucking a faggot.'443
Ibid. Part 5, 7:30.
Keith M Harris, "That Nigger's Crazy': Richard Pryor, Racial Performativity, Cultural Critique," in
Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of A "Crazy" Black Man, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), 29.
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 161.
This is another of those episodes in which the person and their stage self are difficult
to distinguish. Pryor appears to be speaking to both the crowd and himself when he
"advised them they'd all be better off pursuing honesty rather than sexual freedom,
getting 'out of the closet with everything, with your entire self.'"444 He may have been
addressing himself as well. Despite his prior confessions and an affair with a drag
queen,445 the number of his gay experiences shrunk to the singular and were notably
absent from his stand-up. By no means does stand-up comedy require a complete
bearing of one's soul, if that is even possible. Instead, at its most powerful it involves
the compulsion to confession—the drive toward ever greater exposure of the taboo.
Stand-up confessions run the risk of being rejected rather than accepted, and by the
time he emerges as a national star, Pryor had decided to abandon his head-on
challenge to the supposed hermetic nature of heterosexual desire, perhaps because
homosexuality remains more taboo, or an identity that is easier to conceal from the
Public revelation can become addictive to the extent that many comics
consider it a greater priority than their off-stage lives and explore their identities onstage because they find it difficult to manage one-on-one. Pryor writes how,
"[ijronically, I had a hard time in the therapist's office. All I had to do was talk about
myself, but I found that painfully difficult. I figured it was too personal."446 He could
only address personal issues in public, so that the "time I spent by myself between
Hilton Als, "Profiles: A Pryor Love," The New Yorker, September 13, 1999.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 173.
shows was hellish. I hated being alone. I was my own worst company."
once he began opening up more off-stage to his therapist in the 1980s, his on-stage
self engaged crowds less as the signs of his desire for sex and drugs waned.
Pryor's understanding of his own desire appears extremely ambivalent,
whether it comes to sexuality, gender, or race. At times he mentions that color should
play no part in personal relationships, although he also views that as unrealistic. In a
question and answer session with the audience for one of his television shows, a black
woman requests that Pryor reveal one of his wildest dreams, to which Pryor replies:
"One of my wildest dreams is to be able to fuck a white woman and y'all don't fuck
with me."448 It is unclear which desire is stronger, that for white women, or not to have
his personal romances be public issues of race, even though Pryor, of course, made his
reputation revealing the inseparable linkage between personal and public issues of
race. The audience reacts in shock to Pryor, and he quickly protests, laughing. "It was
a dream, we was talkin' bout dreams!"449 In his "Black Man / White Woman" (1974)
he frets over his (in)famous predilection for white women as the objects of sexual
desire and the reactions from black women, stating that "Sisters look at you though
like you killed your Mamma when you're out with a white woman, don't they?"
thereby raising the possibility that other black men may share Pryor's personal
proclivity.450 Pryor presents himself as responding to black women in this situation by
Ibid., 169.
The Richard Pryor Show.
« Ibid.
Richard Pryor, That Nigger's Crazy (1974).
quickly and deferentially telling them "She's not with me." Interestingly, he delivers
this line in a subdued deferential tone usually reserved for his white characters.451
To some extent, Pryor appears to desire white women for their very lack of
power—the emasculation that he himself portrays when playing white, as I discuss in
Chapter Five. In the routine "Black and White Women," from the 1976 album
Bicentennial Nigger, Pryor portrays white women as more compliant than black
women, willing to take more abuse, both emotional and physical, without
But white women take more shit. Like you be at home, you know and
shit, you gettin' ready to go out, and you say [here, he deepens his
voice, heightening the link between blackness and masculinity:] I'm
going out baby, take it easy, [switching to an absurdly saccharine white
woman's voice:] Okay. Have fun. Toodle-oo. [returning to his
normative stage voice:] You say that to a black woman, the bitch start
dressing too.. . .And you talk about kickin' a black woman's ass, they
different, they don't play that shit.. . White women fighting: [using the
timid voice:] oh, please, [returning to his normative stage voice:] Black
women fighting: [impersonating an aggressive black woman:] yeah,
motherfucker, come on.452
Desire energizes Pryor's action and determines almost all of his relations to women as
they are invariably objects of said desire, with their main differentiation derived via
race. For Pryor, desire is a pleasure invariably accompanied by pain.
In Pryor's world, desire differentiates men by race as well. In his 1975 bit
titled "The Goodnight Kiss," white (male) desire once again fails to find fulfillment—
a white boy kisses his date goodnight, does not think about having sex, then goes
home and masturbates wildly. The black boy, after having spent hard-earned money
on the date, feels entitled to more than just a good-night kiss. If the girl will not
, Bicentennial Nigger (Warner Brothers, 1976).
comply, the black boy will order her to wake up her father, hinting that the desire for
the girl can be transferred across lines both generational and gendered. Black fathers,
according to Pryor, understand, and will even order their wives into the fulfillment of
the boy's desire. Black (male) desire becomes that which overflows and crosses
In an earlier piece, 1968's "Prison Play," Pryor looks to desire, both interracial
and homosexual, as the greatest threat to order. He opens the bit as a white sheriff with
a deep voice and a southern accent. The sheriff separates the black prisoners from the
white prisoners and a theater troupe enters to perform. The sheriff makes the
containment of desire the first order of business, announcing that
Now when the lights go out, I don't want any of you homosex-u-als
back there touching one another, and I mean that. Now there's a couple
of ladies in this here organization. And I don't want no cat-calling, and
I don't want nobody up here whistling, hee-hawing, or humming
around. And keep your hands out of your laps.453
The theater troupe (all of them portrayed by Pryor, of course) puts on a play about a
love affair between a slave (Black Ben the Blacksmith) and an unnamed white woman
who is part of the slave owner's family. The woman's brother proclaims joy over their
love, which will stand for true freedom and true love, at which point the sheriff stops
the show, proclaiming that: "[if] I don't get me a dead nigger, we're gonna hang one
of them homosex-u-als." The representative of whiteness orders that desire must be
contained, and it requires a sacrifice in the body of a black or gay man. As with "Dick
Junkie," "Prison Play" presents a black male desire that will not fit within the neat
confines of heterosexuality.
Pryor, Richard Pryor.
Pryor learned the power of desire as a child in the brothels, where he first
encountered white men as sexually exploitative power figures:
Tricks used to come through our neighborhood. That's where I first met
white people. They came down to our neighborhood and helped the
economy. I could've been a bigot, you know what I mean? I could've
been prejudiced. I met nice white men. They said, "Hello, little boy. Is
your mother home? I'd like a blow job." I wonder what would happen
if niggers went to white neighborhoods doing that shit. "Hey, man,
your mama home? Tell the bitch we want to fuck!"454
Recounting these experiences, Pryor points out the connection between racism and
sexual desire, which is both raced and gendered in the routine. As with Bruce's
authority figures, there's a revelation that the ones in charge—the "nice white men"—
are actually the unethical ones. Pryor may desire escape into sex and away from race,
but the two remain inextricably linked.
Pryor on Fire: Body of Pain
Pryor's only canvas, his racial body, was a site of great pain, a repository of
hurt and abuse that was personal in its specificity and social in its context. Many of
Pryor's routines (and much of his biography) revolve around physical pain. The
earliest memory he dispenses is of watching men fight at his grandmother's
whorehouse. Pryor asks why, and the answer he receives is a blow by his father. There
is also the tale of his father hitting his mother, who retaliates by drawing blood from
his father's testicles. Pryor was repeatedly beaten by his grandmother, raped by a
neighborhood bully, and physically fought racists while in the Army. Sally Hanson
"speculates that Pryor's 'well-spring of humor' comes from 'pain. He had, you know,
, Pryor Convictions, 35.
a really rough upbringing—such a painful childhood that the only survival was."455
The use of humor as a coping mechanism referred to in Chapter Three applies to Pryor
as well as any comic, to deal with the pain of the raced and hurt body.
Pryor himself connected the pain to his profession, professing that: "Most of
my life I spent feeling bad; I'm used to pain. When I'd wake up in the morning feeling
good, I'd think something was wrong... .There was this thing that if you were a comic,
you didn't go get healthy because you weren't able to get funny."456 Health implies a
balance less prone to humorous absurdities. It is not that pain leads to humor, but that
humor is one common reaction to pain, particularly pain that lacks an explanation and
is therefore, at its roots, absurd. Pryor goes so far as to assert that "You need pain to be
funny"457 and some of his most affecting routines deal with his body in pain. It is a
reversal of the long-standing idea of comic relief; rather than needing humor in order
to cope with pain, one needs pain in order to produce humor.
In his ground-breaking 1979 concert film, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,
Pryor reenacts a recent heart attack. John Limon is factually incorrect when he says
that "[fjhere is nothing like it in all of stand-up," if Limon is talking about the acting
out of a heart attack.458 Other comedians have done so, the most famous being Redd
Foxx, who did this on a regular basis, both in concert and then on his television show
Sanford and Sun. What is unparalleled is Pryor's personification of the heart as
unique, the pain that "itself signifies: 'I'll be fucking with you for the next hour or
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 530-31. Rovin 189?
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 118.
Ibid., 214.
Limon, Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or Abjection in America, 87.
j t i s a remarkable extension of what Limon designates as Pryor's
"manipulation of subjectivities" which extends beyond human beings into the world of
nature, where his imitations of animals "grants subjectivity indiscriminately to almost
everyone, almost everything."460 The pain is bigger than Pryor, able to bring him and
his comedy to the ground, forcing the stand-up to sit down.
Even more remarkable is the routine from Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset
Strip (1982) in which Pryor relates the inside scoop on how he set himself on fire, an
act that made the evening news around the world when it happened in June of 1980.
The concert is Pryor's first since his recovery from serious burns and, given stand-up's
dependence upon autobiographical material, it is inconceivable that Pryor would
refrain from discussing the topic. Using the euphemism of "milk and cookies," Pryor
explains to the audience how he was freebasing cocaine when the drug equipment
exploded. "Now here's how I really burned up. Usually, before I go to bed I have a
little milk and cookies. One night I had that low-fat milk, that pasteurized shit, and I
dipped my cookie in it and the shit blew up. And it scared the shit out of me. Not the
blowing up, but the catching on fire." This time, the pain is beyond understanding. As
he writes in his autobiography, "Can't even describe that pain. Shitfuckmotherfuckerohgoddamnshitohfuckgodhelpmefuckfuckfuckfuck doesn't even come close."461 If, as
I discuss in the introduction, comedy relies upon a cohesive union of competing
narratives, Pryor's skill at wresting thunderous laughter from this personal tragedy
testifies to his unrivaled skill.
Ibid., 84.
' Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 194.
Pryor's account was also a lie. As it came out later, first in his friend Jim
Brown's autobiography and then his own, Pryor had actually poured cognac over his
body and set himself on fire while in a drug-fueled dementia. It is a second testament
to Pryor's skill that he makes the routine so successful. The stand-up comic does not
need to tell the factual truth to the audience, but construct enough of an air of
authenticity to gain acceptance. This requires a framework of fact, and many of the
details Pryor dispensed were true, including his flight through the streets while on fire
and the extensive recovery he had to make at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital
Burn Center. The premise of the drug explosion, bizarrely enough concocted by his
public relations staff, was a total falsehood. That he got the audience to believe it
demonstrates the power of stand-up to construct a comic individual who is read as an
actual person, and not purely a fictional character.
What can we read into this incident? Glenda Carpio writes that she
would not, as Herman Beavers does, read Pryor's burned body after his
self-immolation as a symbol of 'how hard it is to be a black man in
America,' for this risks pathologizing race.. ..And, while I partly agree
with Beavers's claim that 'Pryor's body is a text onto which the impact
of racism is mapped,' I strongly emphasize the active and conscious
role that Pryor took in that endeavor. Pryor lent his body as a text.462
The concept of Pryor's body as a text can include the incredible physicality he brought
to his stage performances as well as the burn incident. Of course we do not want to
understand race (as opposed to racism) as a sickness, but a racist society can impact
the physical wellbeing of its inhabitants. Furthermore, Pryor's active engagement in
subjectivity could be seen as having magnified the impact of being a raced individual
within the United States. There are many examples beyond Bruce and Pryor of how
Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, 100.
stand-up magnifies the pressure that a society and an individual places on one's body,
including Margaret Cho's kidney failure in the mid-90s and Martin Lawrence's coma
in 1999. There is a sacrificial aspect to stand-up, of using one's own body to make
others laugh, and none carried that further than Pryor, whose oeuvre is full of fire
images, including being burned at the stake on the cover of "Is It Something I Said?"
and playing a caveman discovering fire on his television show. With Pryor, we see
stand-up as a struggle for control of one's body and one's self, between comic and
self, comic and audience, and comic and society.
Lawrence Levine's statement that the "oblique jokes of southern blacks were
able to draw humor from the most painful situation,"46' conjures up the trope of humor
as a survival device—of laughing to keep from crying. Pryor himself found his
identity as a stand-up comic when he tapped into that well of pain, letting both pain
and desire propel his comedy. His work reveals stand-up comedy as rooted in the
body, which only accentuates the tragic irony of his career fading due to a struggle
with multiple sclerosis. The way Richard Pryor describes the incidents leading to the
diagnosis of MS, it was a role reversal, with his body playing jokes on him,
reminiscent of his earlier heart attacks. When movie director Michael Apted asked
Pryor to take his place on the set of Critical Condition in 1986, Pryor tried to get there,
"Real hard. But my body wasn't buying that shit. It was fucking with me. Like ha-ha-
Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 314.
ha, you know?"464 To the last, Pryor's body was the nexus of his desire, pain, and
comedy. Before he finished, he remade stand-up comedy into his image and, as I
discuss in Chapter Five, reconfigured the possibilities regarding the performance of
race on the main stage of the United States.
464 pry or, Pry or Convictions, 220.
Chapter Five: "Bursting the Laughing Barrel: Richard Pryor's
Performance of Race"
"Black people can't disassociate themselves from issues of race
because we're living in a white world. The time for being white is over.
I have no use for anyone who never lets you forget what color they
—Richard Pryor
Driven by a compulsion to examine sites of pain and motivated by an acute
consciousness of being a black man in the United States, Richard Pryor revolutionized
stand-up through unprecedented attempts to co-opt traditional stereotypes and reverse
the centuries-old minstrel tradition. Richard Pryor not only laughed and incited
laughter, but did so with an unprecedented openness, bursting the bounds of the
laughing barrel described by Ralph Ellison. In his essay "An Extravagance of
Laughter," Ellison writes of
some small Southern town in which Negro freedom of expression was
so restricted that its public square was marked by a series of huge
whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED, and into which any
Negro who felt a laugh coming on was forced—pro bono publico—to
thrust his boisterous head.466
Ellison's ominous anecdote presents humor as a battleground, with its physical
manifestation, laughter, posing a threat to the establishment, as well as constituting a
rare refuge for the oppressed. If, as Malcolm X stated, "[t]he black man has survived
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 212.
Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (Vintage, 1995), 187.
in this country by fooling the white man. He's been dancing and grinning and white
men never guessed what he was thinking," then Pryor is as responsible as anyone for
offering an alternative to this particular foolery by replacing covert comedy with the
more open and overt joking available in stand-up comedy.467 Pryor built on the
tradition of laughter as racial resistance, bringing it onto the main stage of
entertainment in the United States, and making whiteness into a communal object of
laughter. In doing so, Pryor dramatically expanded the options of what black
performers and comics could say and what white audiences would hear as his work
managed to both entertain and instruct. With bravery and bravado, Pryor calls out the
racism of the United States from center stage, using stand-up comedy to turn the
previous object of comic discussion—the black man in particular—into the subject
speaking on his own behalf.
Back to Black: Re-claiming Roots
The rise of Richard Pryor's racial consciousness accompanied a realization that
the stand-up comic does not operate in isolation, but performs identity in negotiation
with an audience. Much of the jocular discussions of race and ethnicity involve testing
one's group affinities and affiliations, and if Pryor had a singular epiphany after his
1967 breakdown at the Las Vegas Aladdin Club,468 it was the necessity that he drop at
least halfway out of traditional show business, in order to regroup and discover which
"Malcolm X: A Candid Conversation with the Militant Major-Domo of the Black Muslims,"
Playboy, May 1963.
This event is explored in Chapter Four.
of these should take the place of his Cosby-esque presentation. Pryor felt a compulsion
to speak from the outside:
I saw myself as a victim of the system, an outsider for whom
justice was out of reach, a dream, and then I saw how closely my
situation mirrored the black man's larger struggle for dignity and
equality and justice in white society.
That was me.
I was that character.
That was the person to whom I had to give voice.
I decided to drop out of the whole damn thing altogether. Got
rid of my driver's license. Quit carrying identification of any kind.
Stopped using banks, paying traffic tickets, income taxes, and all that
By ridding himself of many official markers of identity, Pryor put himself in a more
optimal situation to select his own symbols of identity. His movement was to the
margins, into the late 1960s counterculture. Pryor moved to Berkeley in order to
connect himself to African American arts and politics. Close friend and fellow
comedian Paul Mooney drove him up to the East Bay, where Pryor could spend time
with black activists like Angela Davis and intellectuals like the author Ishmael Reed.
Pryor also spent time reading and re-reading Malcolm X's writings and playing
Marvin Gaye albums (as well as feeding his personal appetite by taking advantage of
the easy access to cocaine provided by the Oakland ports).
In stand-up, the search for self bridges personal life and career. For Pryor, this
bridge involved his sometimes ambivalent relationship to blackness. "Pryor later
recalled that a white teacher told him he was black, a Negro, and he became upset. T
didn't want to be this Negro,' he said. (Some Pryor watchers believe this still to be the
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 92.
case.)"470 Pryor certainly did not want to accept the image of blackness foisted upon
him by outsiders, and in order to rebuild the consonance between his personal life and
stage persona, he took a step away from his white audience and toward the black
community. It was Mooney who introduced Pryor to Redd Foxx's Los Angeles
comedy club in the late 1960s. Pryor felt that,
[w]ith a black audience, I was free to experiment with material that was
more natural. It was frightening, since I didn't know myself and had to
learn who I was. It was like I was there but I wasn't there, you know.
Yet it was also lovely, comfortable. I talked about the black
man's struggle to make it in a white world, which was also my
struggle. For the first time since I began to perform at Harold's Club, I
saw black people laughing—and not just at cute shit. They laughed at
the people I knew. The people they knew. It was enlightening.471
Pryor presents this story as a simultaneous advance in his consciousness and reunion
with his people. If stand-up comedy requires the performer to find an intersection
between their comedy and their personal life, it is quite understandable that these
experiences before black audiences helped Pryor develop an on-stage character that
felt, to use his own term, "more natural."472
We see this growing congruity on the 1968 album Richard Pryor (to a small
extent) and 1971 's Craps (to a larger extent), but it was Pryor's breakthrough third
album, 1974's That Nigger's Crazy which marked the emergence of the iconic
Richard Pryor. The album went Gold, earned Pryor his first Grammy for Best Comedy
Recording, and made him a national star. In his autobiography, Pryor write that "[t]his
was new stuff. It was like listening to Lenny. Everything was fair game."473 He calls it
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 30.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 98.
Ibid., 137.
his "first crossover success"474 and the term "crossover" would follow Pryor around
for the next decade, with Universal Pictures executive Thorn Mount later calling Pryor
"the most significant crossover artist in the history of the movies."475 But just who was
it who crossed over? Was it Pryor, returning to an integrated audience? Or,
considering that That Nigger's Crazy was made by Laff Records with a primarily
black audience in mind, was it the white audience members who crossed over into
Pryor's world?
Pryor recorded That Nigger's Crazy at Redd Foxx's L.A. club. It is defiantly
race conscious, foregrounding black patrons. The album opens with Pryor
acknowledging the black audience at his concert; his first words after "thank you" and
"good evening" are "Hope I'm funny. Yeah, cuz I know niggers ready to kick ass."
Pryor continues in the voice of a hypothetical black audience member: "you better be
funny, motherfucker," then, when actually heckled, replies "don't start no shit now.
Niggers be starting to fight and shit in the club. Pull out a pistol and shit and clear
everything up."476 Pryor paradoxically pleased audiences more by refusing to please
them. British actor Hugh Quarshie notes Bruce's influence here, remarking that the
"inspirational impact of someone like Bruce was that he wasn't afraid to make
enemies, you know—whereas Cosby wanted to be liked—and that must have been
what struck a chord with Richard Pryor."477 Like Bruce, Pryor's act evolved to
highlight race and ethnicity as unavoidable aspects of life in America, with personal
and institutional racism shaping the essential experience of being African American.
Quoted in Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 10.
Pryor, That Nigger's Crazy.
Smeaton, Life of Pryor: The Richard Pryor Story.
Pryor's material makes the stage a world that is both black-centered and maledominated (and in which the two frequently overlap).
Pryor's routine is anti-authoritarian and directly calls out white people even
when they are not the direct perpetrators of violence. He boils down the relationship in
a track entitled "Niggers vs. the Police," stating that: "Cops put a hurtin' on your ass,
man. You know, they really degrade you. White folks don't believe that shit, don't
believe the cops degrade. 'Aw, come on, those beatings, those people were resisting
arrest. I'm tired of this harassment of police officers.'"478 Whereas Cosby frequently
focused on a benignly recounted past, Pryor turns the aim of his comic storytelling to
the political present: "See, white folks get a ticket, they pull over: 'Hey officer, yes,
glad to be of help, cheerio.' Nigger gotta be talking about: 'I am reaching into my
pocket for my license. [Mixture of applause & laughter.] Cuz I don't want to be no
motherfucking accident.'"479 Pryor presents himself as a potential victim, but one who
now has the agency with which to frame his own story.
Understandably, the new Pryor was particularly popular among African
American audiences. Film critic Donald Bogle writes that "[w]ith the exception of
Dorothy Dandrige, it is doubtful if any other black film star, even Poitier or later Eddie
Murphy, has ever connected with the black audience in quite the intense way that
Pryor did."480 It is unlikely that Pryor could have achieved that connection without first
establishing the intimate relationship through the medium of stand-up comedy, which
Pryor, That Nigger's Crazy.
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 217.
also allowed Pryor to explore hidden dimensions of black masculinity. Jeff Rovin
writes that, prior to Pryor,
there were only three aspects of black maleness to be found on TV or in
the movies: the suave, pimp-style blandness of Billy Dee Williams; the
big-dicked, quiet machismo of the football hero Jim Brown; and the
cable-knit homilies of Bill Cosby. Pryor was the first image we'd ever
had of black male fear. Not the kind of Stepin-Fetchit noggin-bumpin'into-walls fear that turned Buckwheat white when he saw a ghost in the
'Our Gang' comedies.. .Pryor was filled with dread and panic—an
existential fear, based on real things, like racism and lost love.481
That is, Pryor's imagery of racism and portrayals of his individual struggles within
such a system were multi-dimensional and included a forceful, palpable willingness to
delve into areas of discussion that had been previously taboo, even within the arena of
Loaded Language: The N-Word and Stereotype
Pryor's path was the mirror image of Dick Gregory, who went from stage to
street. Instead of staying on the streets, Pryor felt: "I knew that I could stir up more
shit on stage than in a revolution."482 As a matter of temperament, it was unlikely that
the mercurial Pryor would commit to any organized Civil Rights resistance. He was
also more technically proficient and popular than Gregory, and therefore able to attract
more social attention while on-stage. The question became whether stand-up could
once again be as dangerous as it appeared with Bruce.
The most innovative tracks on his first album, 1968's Richard Pryor, are
of "the voice that was trying to break through."482 The title character is disguised as
Clark Washington, with Pryor bestowing a common African American last name that
evokes one of the nation's slave-owning founders and the legacy of forced name
changes. Washington, the "mild-mannered custodian for the Daily Planet," rushes off
to save the warehouse from a fire because that's where he holds his "stash."483 Pryor
contextualizes the piece, framing it within the discussion of why "they never have a
hero, a black hero."484 Super Nigger is an anti-hero, oppressed despite his abilities, and
on the verge of quitting because he is "[t]ired of doing them halls. Every time I finish,
Lois Lane and them come slipping and sliding down through there and I got to do 'em
over again."485 When he flies into action, the music is funkier than the standard
Superman on television fare. There is still racism in his world; the routine ends with
Super Nigger angry at one of the enthusiastic onlookers because they're shouting
excitedly "it's Super Nigger." Super Nigger warns "Don't call me Super..." as the
track fades away.486 Pryor ventures into the taboo here, but ends the skit just as the title
character begins to question his moniker.
The taboo which Pryor took on and attempted to overload was the most
explosive word in the English language. Indeed, his mere use of the N-word was, for
the time, remarkably revolutionary. While party albums like those of Redd Foxx were
renowned for their blue language, they were focused on sexual puns rather than racial
language. African American comedians also tended to work with milder language
Ibid., 113.
, Richard Pryor.
when playing live in integrated nightclubs. Being black was already considered a
significant hindrance to landing bookings and African American comedians in the
public eye were supposed to display exemplary moral behavior, a la Dick Gregory and
Bill Cosby. As Pryor testified, club bookers "would rather use the dirtiest ofay cat in
the world than to use a black cat."487 It is likely that he felt comfortable starting to bend
the boundaries of decorum now that he was no longer aiming for mainstream
acceptance, a change of direction which included stepping away from the flattening
effect of television.
Pryor's hesitance is understandable. As Glenda Carpio explains, the N-word
has a unique stature:
Not quite a curse word, 'nigger' is in many ways more taboo than
actual obscene words....As Kate E. Brown and Howard I. Kushner
argue, curse words derive their force from the fact they absorb 'the
history of their past speaking'.. .curse words 'are not owned but are
only voiced by the speaker.' 'Nigger' is the H-Bomb of racial epithets
precisely because, like curses, it derives its force from the history of
past use.488
Pryor's use of the word combines its everyday employment among certain segments
of the African American population with his own personal re-imaginings of a wellknown super-hero. His rewriting of a historically-loaded, communally defined word, is
audacious. The term also offered a particularly promising opportunity to test the extent
of stand-up's capacity to influence people and inform language.
Pryor's reasons for attacking the word relate to Bruce's motivations for his
own N-word routines, in which Bruce expresses the belief that repeating such a taboo
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 44.
Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, 88.
word could empty it of the hate and nullify its negative impact. Pryor writes that he
first went on-stage in Berkeley and decided to take on:
the most offensive, humiliating, disgraceful, distasteful, ugly, and nasty
word ever used in the context of black people. The word embodied the
hatred of racism as well as a legacy of self-hate.
And so this one night I decided to make it my own.
I decided to take the sting out of it.
As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else
to its wretchedness.489
Bruce had obviously failed to empty the word of signification, but Pryor clearly came
from a much different vantage point, as he knew the word intimately from a young
age, as both a recipient and as a giver.
Pryor's use of the word is part of how he tests the bounds and gauges how
much of his personal life story will be accepted on-stage by the audience. In The New
Yorker, Hilton Als writes that:
[t]he producer George Schlatter, who watched Pryor's transformation at
a number of clubs in the late sixties and the early seventies, told me,
'Richard grew up in a whorehouse. The language he used, he was
entitled to it... .Richard used the word 'fuck' on the way to the joke. It
was part of his vocabulary. It was part of his life experience.490
The language of one's childhood might be irrelevant to a traditional actor, but it is
central to the art of the stand-up comic. Redd Foxx agreed that, if Pryor is trying to
speak about the black community, he needed to speak in his own vernacular: "A lot of
people get mad because Richard uses the word nigger throughout his dialogue. Many
think it's unnecessary. But you only have to walk down any street that's black and
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 116.
Als, "Profiles: A Pryor Love."
you'll hear what Richard says on any corner. So, for interpretation, he's right on
target."491 Viewed this way, Pryor's use of the term was actually connected to his
back-to-black movement as he tried, like Gregory and Cosby, to further the
possibilities of black pride and possibilities.
Pryor's use of the N-word was anti-Cosby and anti-accommodationist. Pryor
certainly knew that Cosby had also riffed on the ail-American icon Superman. Cosby
also undermines the superhero, not by changing who he is, but altering the reactions of
those around him, so that Superman is viewed as the misfit:.
Cosby [as narrator]: Quickly he dashes into the phone booth. Starts to
take his clothing off there. Quickly, a cop comes up.
Cosby [as Superman]: Yes?
Cosby [as officer, incredulous]: What are you doing in the phone
Cosby [as Superman, matter-of-fact]: I'm changing clothes, officer.
Cosby [as officer]: You can't change clothes in the phone booth. Come
out of there. Who do you think you are, anyway?
Cosby [as Superman]: I'm Superman.
Cosby [as officer]: Right. Bring a wagon in, Charlie! Come out of that
phone booth.
Cosby [as Superman]: Look, I told you I'm Superman! Can't you see
this Red "S" on my chest?
Cosby [as officer]: Right, I'm gonna give you a Red "S" and a black
eye, if you don't come out of that phone booth.492
Cosby pokes fun of the idea of fantasy heroes, while upholding the world of the rule of
law and non-aberrant behavior. Pryor sees that normalized world as dangerous and
repressive, ignoring the lives of the oppressed and preventing the downtrodden from
living out their own fantasies. Of course, Superman is himself an immigrant, from the
Planet Krypton. The creation of two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland in the late
1930s, Superman fought against the Nazis throughout the 1940s, and became "the
' Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 210.
Cosby, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right!
United States' most loyal and powerful immigrant, built specifically to conform to
Western cultural norms."493 As a conformist who could have taken the route of the
outsider, Superman aligns more with Cosby than Pryor.
By making the N-word a regular feature of his act, Pryor also put himself on
the very forefront of rebellious comedians. Journalist Mark Jacobson feels that:
"Using the word 'nigger' was the masterstroke. It placed him out of the mainstream,
plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white
people are not allowed to say that word."494 That is, rather than simply an insult, the Nword could signal solidarity with the black community, as the "use of the term
nigger... is often coupled with the use of code features which are furthest removed
from [Standard English]" and "serve[s] to emphasize that [Black English] is being
used and that what is being engaged in is a Black speech act."495 Some observers were
also hopeful that Pryor could indeed lead the way to taking the sting out of the word.
Redd Foxx wrote that "Nigger no longer refers to a people; it's an attitude. 'Actin' the
nigger' means acting like a damn fool."496 To that extent, utilizing the N-word was a
means towards engaging with and undermining the vestiges of the minstrel image,
although Pryor tends to throw a sympathetic light on those he labels with the N-word.
Others warned that what mattered was who heard the offending words. The 2006 BBC
documentary Life of Pryor contains footage of Dick Gregory arguing that Pryor "never
used profanity as a punchline," but that problems ensued when children who did not
Aaron Pevey, "From Superman to Superbland: The Man of Steel's Popular Decline among
Postmodern Youth" (Georgia State University, 2007), 53.
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 93.
Claudia Mitchell-Keman, Language Behavior in a Black Urban Community (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1971).
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 263.
know any better heard what Pryor was saying and simply wanted to imitate the
vulgarity.497 Pryor might be able to reshape the word, but his audience could just as
easily repeat the epithet minus his careful recontextualization..
Pryor put the N-word into mainstream homes throughout the United States
when he hosted Saturday Night Live in its first season, in 1975. Aired with a seven
second delay in case Pryor used language too bold for the network, the sketch "Word
Association" featured Chevy Chase interviewing a prospective employee played by
Richard Pryor. Pryor replies "black" when Chase says "white" and "pod" when Chase
says "bean," eventually escalating to Pryor responding "ofay, redneck, cracker, white
trash, and honkey" to Chase's mention of "tar baby, colored, burrhead, spear-chucker,
and jungle bunny."498 The text is cited in Pryor's autobiography with no comment
other than that it "stretched the rubber band of what was normally seen on
television."499 It did that, as well as demonstrating the exclusive power of the N-word,
as Pryor runs out of anti-white epithets, forced to answer "honkey-honkey" to "spade"
and "deaaad honkey" to Chase's ultimate card, "nigger."5"11 Pryor did not need to
improvise in order to demonstrate the power of his language, although the delay
demonstrated the fear that network executives have of live stand-up comics, as they
had with Bruce.
The very title That Nigger's Crazy comprises a shot across the bow of centrist
cultural sensibilities. Here was Pryor voluntarily taking on a derogatory phrase usually
uttered by racist whites or dismissive blacks, intended to deny personhood. The title
Smeaton, Life of Pryor: The Richard Pryor Story. Part 3, 2:35.
Saturday Night Live December 13, 1975.
499 pryor, Pryor Convictions, 143.
Saturday Night Live
combines the criticism of the earlier "sicknik" comedians as pathological with the
historical designation of racial figures as mad. As Sander Gilman reminds us, "the
mad black is the nexus at which all [white] fears coalesce."501 Pryor himself links his
personal mental state to the social situation of an abused people, stating on the album:
"Police degrade. I don't know, you know, it's, often you wonder why a nigger don't
go completely mad."502 If, as Gilman says, "the mad are perceived as the antithesis to
the control and reason that define the self," then stand-up becomes a testing grounds
on which the individual asserts self-control via irrationality.503 Pryor's usage of the
word "mad" invokes both this sense of craziness and more than a hint of anger. That
Nigger's Crazy comes out in 1974 with Pryor not yet a superstar, but a marginal figure
of dissent, protesting on the sidelines without any indication that he would be allowed
into the mainstream. On the contrary, the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles was
released that year. Pryor was as a co-author of the film but the starring role went to
Clevon Little as the studio considered Pryor to be overly volatile, both in terms of his
reliability on-set and their ability to sell him to a mainstream audience.
Use of a term imbued with so many deeply negative images of African
Americans raises questions concerning the stand-up comic's use of stereotype.
According to Foxx and Miller, Pryor's "performances are made up of different
variations on the same theme—the nigger. It's the poolroom nigger, the barbershop
nigger, the hustler nigger."504 As discussed in the previous chapter, such portrayals
were invariably framed within the context of Pryor as person. So, did Pryor's
Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness, 136.
Pryor, That Nigger's Crazy.
Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness, 24.
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 208.
characterizations of working class black life run the risk of reiterating images of
conniving, lazy African Americans? Did his use of the N-word encouraged some
whites to utter the word themselves, ignoring the context of Pry or's usage?
Josephine Lee notes how the performance of stereotype by a traditionally racial
body can "disrupt the field of what is ' natural'... set[ing] up a key tension between the
stereotype and the performer."51'5 Comedy, very proficient at repeating such
stereotypes, can also overload them to the extent that the process of stereotyping
becomes the laughable process. For example, when Pryor delivers his routine off of
That Nigger's Crazy called "Black vs. White Lifestyles," he includes social critique on
cultural differences from a black perspective and also mocks the very existence of
these differences. Stand-up can counter stereotype with the story of lived experiences,
as Pryor also does with his tales of life growing up in Peoria. There exists the potential
for the comic to rewrite past experiences in a new present. Indeed, live comedy is one
of the most effective means for this sort of unveiling, as the solo comic body provides
an intervention into the mass market nature of stereotypes, the very ease of
reproduction which makes stereotypes so powerful.
For Carpio, it is Pryor's skill at embodiment that enables him undermine
stereotypes: "The fact that Pryor plays all of the roles.. .emphasizes the transferability
of stereotypes and therefore frees the black body from the cliches of sex and race to
which it is so often bound."5,lfi Pryor's management of his body was certainly central to
Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Temple
University Press, 1998), 101.
Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, 86.
his encounters with stereotypes and his success as a performer. Commentators
frequently comment on his physical self. Foxx and Miller describe Pryor as
long and lean, almost cadaverous in certain poses with his long, thin
arms protruding awkwardly from his jacket. His fingers are also long
and tapered and he uses them to great advantage as he expresses
himself.... Often he'll remind you of Chaplin. He is a brilliant
Williams and Williams express similar praise, speaking of an idiosyncratic dexterity:
there had to be movement, and as women noted, he moved well. He
had a sinewy body, more half-miler than boxer. It seemed windresistant, light-boned. He was on the stage what Dr. J was on the court;
he mimicked middleweight boxers, the smooth gait of Billy Dee
Williams, the cowpoke saunter of John Wayne, the stutter step of a
The conundrum for Pryor (which extends to many stand-up comics) is that he had
exquisite control over his body, but being a solo performer also makes it easier for
audiences to view him as a stand-in for all blacks. Homi Bhabha informs us that
The stereotype is not a simplification because it is a false representation
of a given reality. It is a simplification because it is an arrested, fixated
form of representation that, in denying the play of difference [...]
constitutes a problem for the representation of the subject in
significations of psychic and social relations.509
It is that fixity which grants stereotype much of its force, against which Pryor rebelled.
With Pryor, we see that the comic's body constitutes a means to subvert and
contextualize stereotype, even as it is the main image by which the comics are
themselves fixed within that system of stereotypes.
Foxx and Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, 208.
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 12.
Bhabha, "The Other Question...Homi K Bhabha Reconsiders the Stereotype and Colonial
Discourse," 27.
The apex of Pryor's attack on the country's history of racism and the minstrel
stereotype comes in the title track of 1976's Bicentennial Nigger, in which Pryor
demonstrates that the further one pushes the opposing scripts powering humor while
maintaining a coherent narrative, the deeper the comedy. In this case, the force of
paradox stems from the opposition of an insipid nationalism with the pain of slavery.
Now fully famous, Richard Pryor closes the album with the title track, discoursing on
black humor: "You all know how black humor started? It started in slave ships, you
know—cat was on his way over here rowin', and dude said, 'What you laughing
about?' He said, 'Yesterday, I was a king.'"510 Isolated, the joke is more traditional
than Pryor's standard fare, but derives a subversive spark from the bravery of tackling
such a subject amidst the patriotic nostalgia of 1976 and the context of the entire
routine. Pryor's historical contextualization recasts the United States' celebration of
200 years as a blackface jubilee: "They're gonna have a bicentennial nigger—they
will, they'll have some nigger 200 years old in blackface, with stars and stripes on his
forehead. With eyes and lips just all shiny—and he'll have that lovely white-folks
expression on his face."511 Pryor's use of "nigger" here harkens back to the pejorative
sense of the word as employed by whites, as he purposefully invokes the Sambo
stereotype. Pryor heightens the man's happiness and love of country, coupling each
ironic expression of gratitude with a reminder of the legacy of slavery, recalling those
who died during the middle passage and families captured and divided. With each
ascending level of chuckling, one senses an increasing pain and effort behind the
Pryor, Bicentennial Nigger.
convulsions. Pryor pushes the precarious correspondence between comedy and
tragedy to near breaking point.
The audience laughter here is, as described by Glenda Carpio, an
"acknowledgment of the deep irony [of] Pryor's superimposition of minstrel
celebration onto mournful remembrance,"512 which she relates to Ralph Ellison's
description of blackness as containing "a tragicomic attitude toward the universe."513
Stand-up comedy, with its dichotomy combining the individual body with the
community of spectators, is well-suited to channel the weight of that deep irony. The
track ends on a serious note as Pryor transitions from the voice of the Bicentennial
Nigger into his own somber statement: "Y'all probably done forgot about i t . . . But I
ain't never gonna forget it." The entire routine is an astounding indictment of laughter
and the last seven words again testify to the tragic possibilities set up within comedy.
Indeed, they leave the audience with a chill rather than comfort, as Pryor's skill allows
him to forego traditional comic closure, in which the world returns to a harmonious
state. Pryor selects the importance of sharp memory over the fractured beginnings of
the nation, rather than the gentle fog of nostalgia. The routine is not strictly stand-up
insofar as Pryor spends most of it playing a character, but it still depends on the
framing of Pryor the comedian, and the ending involves Pryor dropping the act and
speaking in his "own" voice.
Pryor's stand-up offended some listeners and he was attacked for his use of the
N-word by those, mostly in the black press, who felt its usage reinforced negative
stereotypes, repeating the hatred and harm embedded within the word. The Williamses
Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, 11.
Ellison, Shadow and Act, 131.
write that, "Black publications.. .did not excuse its use; their writers did not attempt to
rationalize or psychoanalyze it; for them the word was what it was, and that was
precisely why so many white people stopped using it publicly."514 According to this
view, stand-up's license to confront the taboo was being used to reiterate stereotype.
The Williams' book on Pryor is mostly full of praise, but they remain angry at what
they feel his use of the N-word did to a black audience, forcing them to hear that
hateful and hurtful word uttered by a man so many of them loved and admired, and
quote an unnamed black college professor expressing a questioning anger:
When I was young I went to see Jean-Paul Sartre's The Respectful
Prostitute. That was the first time I'd ever heard 'nigger' spoken out in
a very public place. I was angry that I'd paid my money to go and hear
that, and I am still angered when I hear Pryor—I am also puzzled that
he seems to get such a positive response whenever he uses the word in
those things he does.515
The suggestion here is that Pryor would have been okay if he had kept that particular
word hidden and only used it among his black friends. In this sense, public usage was
capitulation to white power.
Indeed, the Williamses argue that "White people had found a black man who
could call other black people 'niggers' for them," but they also assess that Pryor's
move can't have been "to make white fans smug" or for "greed" as he was already
doing well.516 They ignore his expressions of wanting to rework the N-word, and only
recognize two possible functions for it: among blacks as self-hatred and by racist
whites. They fail to recognize that Pryor began experimenting with the N-word after
he had dropped out of the Bill Cosby superstar track and long before he made it on his
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 93-94.
Ibid., 95.
own, when it was far from clear that he could make money by breaking this particular
taboo. Pryor also had no way of knowing he'd be saying the word at widely successful
stadium concerts with integrated crowds, so it is unlikely that he ever deliberately
decided to engage in its utterance as a way to delight white people. Pryor used it to
confront the country with its own racism and attempt to wrest ownership of the word,
successful or not.
As it happens, Pryor famously decided to give up the N-word on his own. The
decision was a key routine in his 1982 concert Live on the Sunset Strip:
I looked around and I saw people all colors and shapes and the voice
said 'Do you see any niggers?' I said 'no.' Said 'you know why?
'Cause there aren't any.' 'Cause I had been there three weeks, I hadn't
said it. And it started making me cry, man, I said holy shit, all the acts
I'd been doing as a artist, a comedian, and the speaking and trying to
say something and I've been saying that and that's a devastating
fucking word. That has nothing to do with us.517
Pryor appears to now agree with the Williamses, who state that fans applauded his Nword abandonment "because they understood, however dimly, the political
ramifications of the statement."518 It certainly was a strong statement on Pryor's part,
although it did little to nothing to banish the word he had introduced to stand-up
comedy. It actually reinforces the recognition that language acts have different
meanings at different times in different contexts. There had never been vocal audience
resistance to Pryor's use of the N-word and the audience here applauds a proclamation
made after an extended, occasionally sentimental narration on the epiphanies of going
back to one's roots. If Pryor had resurrected "Super Nigger," they may well have
celebrated that, as well.
Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, 1982.
' Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 95.
Some of Pryor's more radical friends expressed displeasure when he disowned
the N-word and Pryor got pushback from those who thought he'd "gone soft, sold out,
turned my back on the cause, and all that political, militant shit."519 Writing partner
Paul Mooney was asked if he was disappointed and answered: "I was, yeah, because I
knew the power in it. He was giving up his throne. I loved it when he said it and he
was very funny when he said it."520 Although he lapses on occasion, Mooney himself
gave the word up in 2006 after Michael Richards broke down and yelled it repeatedly
at the L.A. Laugh Factory,521 a further testimony to the centrality of the word's legacy
in stand-up comedy, as bequeathed primarily by Richard Pryor. Mooney's change-ofmind and subsequent back-and-forth vouches for the difficulty at pinning down a
single meaning for the epithet. Glenda Carpio views Pryor's abandonment of the most
taboo of words as a moment when he "ultimately recoils from his power as
conjurer... .Pryor became temporarily caught, like a tar baby, by his ability to
transform stereotypes into objects of laughter."522 That is, the combined power of the
word and Pryor's skill escalated the situation until it grew out of his control. Pryor did
not drop the word because he found his voice powerless on stage; he did so because he
found that it brought him too much power. He could partially reshape the stereotype
he unleashed, but he could not control the ways in which it was interpreted nor empty
it of past signification.
Interestingly, while the Williamses deny Pryor's ability or intent to rework the
N-word, elsewhere they write that "Pryor imbued words with intonation so that the
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 176.
Smeaton, Life of Pryor: The Richard Pryor Story. Part 5, 6:40.
This incident is discussed in Chapter Two.
Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, 80.
meaning and intonation mean different things, as with bitch."523 The B-word may not
be the singular anti-female term that the N-word is for blacks, but Pryor did much to
make it the main term of misogyny on the stand-up stage. He was frequently accused
of disliking black women in particular. With the B-word, Pryor clearly does not
attempt to rewrite the term. It is not his to claim, and he uses it to reinforce stereotype.
He appears unaware of the damage it could do. Mooney, when he swore off the Nword in 2006, coupled it with a declaration that he would also forsake the B-word.
Derogatory terms and the broad brush of stereotype, which Gilman defines as
"a crude set of mental representations of the world," closely connects to the more
detailed portrayal of the individual found in stand-up.524 Writing in a psychoanalytic
mode, Gilman asserts that the "creation of stereotypes is a concomitant of the process
by which all human beings become individuals."525 That is, part of understanding
oneself as a self involves conceiving of others as different and this process can result
in the reductiveness of stereotype. If so, then stand-up's exploration of personhood
does not contradict its embrace of stereotype; the two go hand-in-hand. The political
problem comes when stereotypes are not contextualized or broken down, when
comedians reiterate them and use laughter to bypass thinking.5261 do not deny the
efficacy in some situations of diluting stereotypes via silence, but warn against a
blanket ban on their use by those who have had to live encumbered by said
Williams and Williams, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 106.
Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness, 17.
526 Writing on the relationship between laughter and thinking, Arthur Koestler argues that laughter
arises when comic thoughts move so quickly that emotions cannot keep pace. NB Koestler, The Act of
Creation, 58.
There is a long tradition of fighting back using the tools of the master. As
Lawrence Levine attests, "Marginal groups often embraced the stereotype of
themselves in a manner designed not to assimilate it but to smother it."527 Pryor
apparently plays with fire, both figuratively and literally. He recasts himself as a
jester-like commentator, drawing upon comedy's license to speak outside the normal
bounds of discourse. The phrase "that nigger's crazy" is normally used to dismiss a
black man's personhood or "defie[s] the dictates of convention" but, as Keith Harris
argues, "being declared a 'crazy' nigger bestowed a reckless freedom upon him, and
an abandon which he embraced."528 Pryor takes this sense of agency one step further
by embracing and bestowing the term on himself.
Pryor was not always successful in his subversion, and knew that he could be
criticized for complicity with the white male power structure in Hollywood. When
discussing his breakthrough film, 1977's Silver Streak, Pryor said: "Gene does a scene
in black face, and they felt that having a real black actor in the movie would sort of
make it all right. So I'm the token black, a modern Willie Best. It was a career move,
and I'm not sorry I did it."529 Known for picturing stereotypically ignorant and lazy
black film characters, it could be argued that Best did the best he could given the
restriction on African American actors in the first half of the twentieth century,
although he's an odd choice for Pryor to cite, given that a drug bust curtailed Best's
career in the 1950s and he died in near obscurity. The most embarrassing of Pryor's
financially motivated moves was probably 1982's The Toy, in which Pryor is
Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 336.
Audrey Thomas McCluskey, ed. Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of A "Crazy" Black Man
(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,2008), 1.
Williams and Williams, If I Stop Til Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 88.
essentially bought—or rented, if you prefer—by a rich white man to be a toy for the
white man's son. The culminating fight takes place at a party which turns out to be a
fundraiser for the Klu Klux Klan. The Grand Wizard gets dumped into pudding,
winding up looking like he's wearing blackface, and the fight against racism turns into
a pie-throwing extravaganza of no consequence. Indeed, comedy can be used to
reinforce the fixity of stereotypes just as it can be used to undermine them. It is not
happenstance that Pryor's least radical work was done when he abandoned the
empowered control of stand-up comedy for film and the act of self-othering involved
in playing a foreign character.
We do not, of course, have to choose between Pryor's use of the N-word as
revolutionary re-appropriation of a stereotype versus its utterance as a painful
repetition of historical wrongs that continue to have a material impact on the present.
Words have multiple meanings and so do actions, including Pryor's stand-up comedy
speech acts. Pryor's racial language and his racial topics remain central to
contemporary stand-up comedy, which continue to ask the questions: how much of the
investigation of stereotype is a critical examination? How much of it is reinforcement
through repetition? The answer varies depending on the comedian and the context; it is
the questions which persist.
Race as Performance: Revealing Whiteness
To Mel Watkins, Pryor was precisely at his most pioneering when it came to
divulging African American humor on the national stage:
Pryor's disclosure of previously closely guarded comic referents,
racially based attitudes, and cultural eccentricities that were often
'embarrassments to the black middle class and stereotypes in the minds
of most whites' was untried on the mainstream stage. Pryor was not
only challenging traditional show business assumptions about the
viability of ungentrified black material and an unmoderated black voice
but also breaking with blacks' long-standing tradition of subterfuge and
concealment of inner-community customs.530
The revelations of race may be the biggest set of taboos Pryor used to power his
comedy as he marked whiteness by unveiling black stereotypes of whites. In order to
constitute the violation of a taboo, Pryor's play of blackness needed to be presented
before white viewers, and he did so by continuing to also play majority-white clubs
even before breaking out as a national star in 1974.
To be black in America is, of course, to some extent, to entail a relationship
with whiteness—and vice versa, although one could argue that white awareness of
blackness tends to be less conscious. Born in 1940, Pryor's humor was influenced by
white television artists including Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, and Sid Caesar, all of
whom he credits in his 1995 autobiography. Throughout his life story, Pryor oscillates.
On the one hand, he recognizes the ridiculousness of racism and the shared humanity
between all people. He sat in the movies, where: "My brain didn't segregate people by
race. My eyes didn't see any one color.... I lost myself in the fantasy projected onscreen. My heroes included Tarzan, Rhonda Fleming, Milton Berle, Kirk Douglas, Sid
Caesar, and Boris Karloff. I loved Jerry Lewis."531 On the other hand, racist behavior
sparks a heightened consciousness of race. Forbidden to join white spectators in the
front section of the theater in the 1950s, he leaves in protest. His departure from
Watkins, On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, 544.
Pryor, Pryor Convictions, 44.
mainstream television in the 1960s could be seen as a similar move, so that "[ijnstead
of adapting to the white perspective, he forced white audiences to follow him into his
own experience."532
Pryor himself was frequently worried that white audiences were too
appreciative of his work. According to Blue Collar director Paul Schrader, the "more
successful he is in the white world, the more resentful he becomes, the more afraid
that he's not being black enough."533 To say that one can change their behavior to be
more or less black, implies that race is, at least to an extent, performative. In Live and
Smokin\ Pryor speaks openly of his attempts to escape blackness when younger.
Claiming that there were about three Puerto Ricans in 1950s Midwest, Pryor says that
he tried to pass as one of them in order to make it with girls, but he is very clear that
wanting to avoid blackness is not the same as wanting to claim whiteness: "I always
wanted to be something, I never wanted to be white . . . No, I always wanted to be
something different, you know, than a nigger, because niggers had it so rough."534
Pryor's 1977 NBC television show promoted racial understanding, particularly in its
skits with children of various races, but did not try to erase race. Consider the skit in
which Pryor plays a black President of the United States who begins with a somewhat
stiff and generic white poise, becoming increasingly less tight and more aggressive in
response to prodding from reporters. The skit tackles the association of blackness with
belligerence by contextualizing the anger as an understandable response to
inappropriate questions on the part of white reporters.
Als, "Profiles: A Pryor Love."
Rovin, Richard Pryor Black and Blue, 152.
Blum, Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin'.
To a large extent, what I call Pryor's "White Person's Voice" is the antithesis
to this ethnocentrism—it is the representation of the generic white mainstream. It is
the voice of the television announcer we hear on "Super Nigger," informing us that
"We find Supernigger with his x-ray vision that enables him to see through everything
except Whitey....shuffling in to Perry White's office."535 Perry White lives up to his
name, and Pryor uses very much the same White Person's Voice for both the
announcer and Mr. White, whereas Super Nigger shares the jive-talkin' voice Pryor
uses on the rest of the album when performing his standard stage persona. The
announcer and Perry White represent whiteness as blandness, as the disembodied
voice of American national discourse. It is the voice that has often erased the black
voice. Indeed, after NBC censors cut the planned opening of Pryor's TV show, he
began the third show ranting and raving about their treatment—only he had the audio
replaced by the voice of a white announcer expressing Pryor's pleasure at working for
Pryor's standard generic white character is stiff, a conformist who is distinctly
uncomfortable with the biological functions of the human body—with being a body,
one might say, rather than just an abstract universal. Pryor's routine "Black and White
Lifestyles," which is also from That Nigger's Crazy, mocks the white man's
relationship to the body. He makes the white universal strange, marks it as odd, stating
incredulously that "They eat quiet." His White Person's Voice is steady and heavily
enunciated, with distinct pauses that the audience fills with laughter. Playing the white
man at a dinner table, Pryor says
Pryor, Richard Pryor.
Pass the potatoes, [audience laughter] Thank you darling, [audience
laughter] Could I have a bit of that sauce? [audience laughter] How are
the kids coming along with their studies? [audience laughter] Think
we'll be having sexual intercourse this evening? [audience laughter]
We're not? Well what the heck.5™
Whiteness has desire that it does not know how to fulfill, and this is tied to a lack of
play: Pryor-as-Pryor says: "See white folks don't play enough, they don't relax. They
don't know how to play the dozens or nothin'. Right, they get uptight. You tell a white
dude go fuck yourself, oh fuck you motherfucker, they get very offended." Switching
to a White Person's Voice, Pryor continues: "I beg your pardon. I mean, as supervisor
here, I don't believe that kind of language is necessary. We can certainly communicate
on a higher plane than that." White individuals—white men, in particular—are not
individual bodies but instruments of whiteness itself. White people do play, but they
are stiff and conservative, playing good citizens greeting the police, proper fathers and
husbands, and office supervisors.
Pryor races whiteness, associating it with both power and emasculation. Take,
as a prime example, the entire routine entitled "Shortage of White People" from
1975's Is It Something I Said?:
Good God. Oh, a lot of niggers here today. Some white folks, too.
Lookit here. You motherfuckers come in a bunch, didn't ya?
[Switching to a White Person's Voice:] Stick with me, don't worry
about a thing, just come on. [Switching back:] Shortage of white people
lately. I ain't seen no white folks no more. Y'all stop fuckin'? White
folks into yoga. You can't get no nut doing no yoga. You got to get the
puss-ay. They stopped fucking cause some rich white man told 'em,
said. [Switching to a White Person's Voice:] But come on, cut the crap.
Jesus Christ, there's too many people on Earth. I have no place to ride
my horsie. [Switching back:] There will be no shortage of niggers.
Niggers is fuckin'. We got to have somebody here to take over.537
, That Nigger's Crazy.
Richard Pryor, Is It Something I Said? (Warner Bros., 1975).
Once again, Pryor centers blackness while acknowledging (and decentering)
whiteness, which has little room for difference. Indeed, there is no difference in this
routine between the average white audience member and the apocryphal rich white
man. The flip side to Pryor's portrayal of white weakness is his depiction of black
resilience: "Niggers never get burned up in buildings. They know how to get out of a
motherfuckin' situation. They do. They —white folk just panic, run to the door, fall all
over each other. Choke to death and shit."538
Many of his routines on That Nigger's Crazy are compare and contrasts
between blacks and whites, such as "Exorcist," which describes how blacks would
behave differently when confronted by a child possessed by the devil. According to
Pryor, the movie would have been over "As soon as the devil spoke. [Pryor speaks in
the Devil's voice:} Hellooooo? [Pryor drops the Devil's voice:} Goodbye."539 In
"Niggers vs. the Police," Pryor contrasts blacks with whites who are both the enforcers
and beneficiaries of a racist power structure, saying: "White folks don't believe that
shit, don't believe cops degrade."540 Here, Pryor switches to a version of what I call his
"White Person's Voice," for the generic white reaction of "Oh come on, those
beatings, those people were resisting arrest...."541 Pryor drops back into his regular
stage voice, explaining: "Cuz the police live in your neighborhood, see. And you be
knowing 'em as Officer Timpson."542 He then returns to the white character: "Hello,
Office Timpson, going bowling tonight? Yes, uh, nice Pinto you have. Huh huh
538 Pryo^ fhat Nigger's Crazy.
huh."543 Throughout the album, Pryor centers blackness while acknowledging
whiteness—the use of the pronoun "you" when referring to white people also serves to
establishes their presence in the audience and adds an edge to his racial material as he
reinforces its public nature. He marks whiteness, making it visible and race-ing it. The
extraordinary impact of Pryor's image-making can be seen in the extent to which
subsequent black comedians, from Eddie Murphy to Dave Chappelle, when presenting
characters, engage largely in an imitation of Pryor's particular performances of
The blackface of minstrelsy was the first mass entertainment form of American
comedy, and the American stage has long had white entertainers presenting their
versions of black song and dance—and humor. Pryor revolves the whole structure.
From the redneck sheriff of "Prison Play" to the suburban white of "Black and White
Lifestyles," Pryor flipped a centuries-old American performance tradition of blackface
on its head. By inhabiting whiteness, he mocks its traits and decenters it as a norm
while he empowers and contextualizes blackness, allowing it previously forbidden
public expression. Pryor's approach to whiteness was revolutionary both in the sense
that it was a first, and in the sense that it involved a 180 degree reversal of the history
of race on the American stage.
If Eric Lott is right in saying that minstrelsy was in part the maintenance of
control over the performance of blackness, "the danger of the simple public display of
black practices, the offering of them for white enjoyment," then Pryor provides the
tests of what happens when you put the major means of this into black hands.544 The
combined lineage of Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor established black
men as the predominant voices of stand-up comedy, but it was predominantly Pryor
who shifted the performance movement back onto the track pioneered by Bruce, with
open explorations of race and ethnicity, a testing ground of taboo language and topics,
full of confessions and an intimately personal relationship with the audience. For
white audiences, it was a chance to relinquish some power in exchange for greater
racial understanding and admission into the cutting edge of urban culture represented
by Pryor, reminiscent of the jazz cool prized by Lenny Bruce. For black audiences, it
was the first opportunity in the nation's history to be represented with such humanity
by a black comedian on the main stage, and laughing with Pryor became part pleasure
and part protest.
Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, 113.
America's five hundred or so comedy clubs have become^ree speech
zones, public places where First Amendment freedom is virtually
unrivaled. It is a given of contemporary American culture: only in a
comedy club can one get a full and saucy taste of freedom.545
—Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover
Bruce, Gregory, Cosby, Pryor: The Legacy
The burgeoning fixation on individuality in the United States following World
War II has often travelled hand-in-hand with a decline in broader social assistance.
Emily Martin's 2007 text, Bipolar Expeditions, describes the phenomenon in
economic terms, portraying how a society increasingly ruled by neo-liberal doctrines
has led the individual to "creatively pursue his or her own development with the aid of
fewer supports than ever before....In this environment, the individual is responsible
for his or her own success or failure in a high-stakes and ever-changing set of
arenas."546 Caught between demands to conform and the pressure to express
individuality, we seek a model of performative being that is highly adaptable. Robert
Lifton calls this individual a "protean self.. .buffeted about by unmanageable historical
forces and social uncertainties," leading to a "mode of being [which] differs radically
from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal
experiment."547 Stand-up comedy provides one possible paradigm, illustrating how the
Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, 431.
Emily Martin, Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (Princeton
University Press, 2007), 41.
Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1993), 1.
solo person can operate amidst apparent entropy with the security of an ironic
outlook.548 It is an update to the traditional structure of comedy, focusing on what it
means to be an individual in the modern age.549 The stand-up comic fits the image of
personhood outlined by Linda Martin Alcoff, who writes that her:
concept of cultural citizenship is meant to counter a model of the
abstract individual citizen who participates in civil society as a rational
agent imagined to have no gender, race, or cultural background....In
actuality, the public arena is a space where women and men of various
races and cultures negotiate with one another.55"
Not abstract citizens, stand-up comics are individuals extraordinarily sensitive to their
gender, race, and cultural background, potentially reminding of us of what it means to
be cultural citizens.
It is against and with the audience that the stand-up comic stands up,
simultaneously one of the crowd and yet distinct from it. The intimacy of the
relationship is literal as well as metaphoric, affecting the very shape of comedy clubs,
where comics frequently reach the stage by making their way through the house. This
movement echoes the passage of the personal into the public, accentuating the
impression of comics appearing on-stage as if rising from amongst the ranks of the
audience. On a 2004 visit to the Punch Line in Sacramento, my companion expressed
surprise when an audience member walked next to our table, headed to the stage, and
turned to face the crowd, only to transform into Margaret Cho. A number of clubs seat
Lifton quite explicitly connects the protean self to comedy, stating that the "protean self lives in a
realm of absurdity, embraces a tone of mockery and self-mockery along with a spirit of irony, and often
bathes its projects in humor." Ibid., 94.
There is, of course, a lengthy history of fascination with self-fashioning. NB Stephen Greenblatt's
assertion that "in the sixteenth century there appears to be an increased self-consciousness about the
fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process." Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance SelfFashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 2.
Linda Martin Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York City: Oxford
University Press, 2006), 40.
ticket holders at tables which press flush against the main stage; during a 2007 show at
Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale, comedian Dana Carvey stowed his water bottle on
one such occupied table, motivated by the practical need for space, but playfully
acknowledging that he was taking advantage of stand-up comedy's license to breach
the proscenium and address the audience directly. The stand-up club is a public arena
of negotiation, a space in which the audience unites around the person of the
performer and also divides, as iteration of stereotype can be aimed at members of the
audience, changing the way that they view themselves and others.
Despite being largely overlooked in the academy, stand-up comedy continues
to play a pronounced role in the staging of contemporary popular culture in the United
States. Stand-up comics have achieved widespread success in live performance at
comedy clubs, night clubs, casinos and concert stadiums. In addition, their skill at
fashioning persona allows them to prosper as artists in other media, including film
stars Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy; auteur director Woody Allen; sitcom icons Bill
Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, and George Lopez; and talk show hosts David Letterman, Jay
Leno, Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres. Following a 1979 strike by comics
against the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and the rise of chain comedy clubs in the
1980s, the art form became a more viable career. One need only watch one of the six
seasons of NBC's competition show Last Comic Standing"1 to recognize that there are
thousands of aspiring stand-ups across the country. The comedians discussed in this
dissertation comprise the key performers who shaped stand-up comedy in its formative
first decades; no subsequent stand-up comic has been able to escape the influence of
Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor.
Lenny Bruce's utterances remain embedded in the vocabulary of the comedy
club. Every time a comic like Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, or the myriad performers
on HBO's Def Comedy Jam drops a so-called F-bomb, they follow in Bruce's
footsteps. More significantly, his use of the medium to verbally dismantle taboos
emerges in the social criticism of comics like Bill Hicks and Dave Chappelle. It is also
difficult to imagine the stand-up comedy discourse without discussions of ethnicity, as
with Russell Peters. When Azhar Usman expressly utilizes stand-up comedy as a
forum in which to explain his religion to a non-Muslim audience, he borrows from the
Bruce playbook.
Every comic of color who chooses between an overtly racial act versus one
which downplays differences chooses, consciously or not, between the divergent paths
pioneered by Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby. Although he has been largely forgotten by
the public, Gregory's political commentary may be more influential, from Pryor to
Chris Rock, while performers such as Sinbad and Tim Allen have followed in Cosby's
family-friendly formula. Some comics have taken both routes. Eddie Murphy began
his career with very race-conscious material before his later film work went in the
direction of Cosby. From Katt Williams to Wanda Sykes, options remain those first
scouted by Gregory and Cosby.
The ghost of Richard Pryor, who used stand-up to explore the depths of pain
and confront the performance of race, continues to dominate the field. We hear Pryor
in Robin Williams when the former, who was a regular on Pryor's short-lived
television series, speaks of sex and cocaine use. George Lopez, whose stand-up
routines about growing up Mexican American harkens back to Pry or's tales of Peoria,
once re-traced the very route Pryor had run, on fire, after his suicide attempt. Pryor
himself felt that he had "passed the torch on to Chappelle," who replied that such a
compliment was "more pressure" than the $50 million dollar Comedy Central contract
Chappelle abandoned.552
At its best, stand-up troubles taboos, dissecting and destabilizing stereotypes.
The twenty-first century question is how possible it remains to do this on a wide scale,
as television and film continue to lure comedians away from life on the road. The
greater the ease with which stand-up comics can obtain television specials (let alone
internet appearances on sites such as FunnyOrDie), the less of a chance they have to
hone their on-stage personas in the clubs as did the subjects of this dissertation. It is
instructive that Chappelle, having achieved his greatest acclaim and financial success
on television, nonetheless abandoned that very lucrative endeavor in order to return to
the intimacy of the live, precisely because places like the Punch Line in San Francisco
and the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles grant him a closer connection with the audience
and correspondingly greater control over the reception of his performances of identity
and stereotype. He, like most top comedians of today, acknowledges the history of
those who paved the way. In the words of Margaret Cho, whose work plays out at the
intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, "Lenny Bruce gave me permission to do
what I do."553
Rebecca Leung, "Chappelle: 'an Act of Freedom'," CBSNews, December 29, 2004.
Quoted in Collins and Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,
Stand-up Comedy's Glass Curtain: the Gender Gap
The future of stand-up comedy will be related to its past, of course, but its
historically-based nature suggests that the form will continue to evolve, shaped by its
practitioners and the times. Stand-up has traditionally served as a forum for minority
voices, so the future may come to star those voices which have thus far remained out
of the spotlight. In particular, given stand-up's capacity to tackle social issues which
are both national and personal, one might have expected a gender breakthrough similar
to Bruce's introduction of ethnicity or Pryor's precedent-setting confrontation of race,
but when it comes to female performers, stand-up has been a let-down.
The relative dearth of major women stand-up comics is particularly startling
when one considers the amount of stand-up material which revolves around gender
stereotypes. The most common explanation for stand-up's fraternal cast has been its
concurrence of aggression and power. Philip Auslander wryly assesses that a
"performance genre that apparently depends on the dominance of the audience by the
performer through phallic assertion does not seem a promising candidate as a medium
for women's expression."554 Many practitioners agree with critics and theorists on the
subject. New York comedy club owner Cary Hoffman expresses views widespread in
the industry that "[s]tand-up comedy has a lot to do with control and power. And most
Philip Auslander, '"Brought to You by Fern-Rage': Stand-up Comedy and the Politics of Gender," in
Acting Out: Feminist Performances, ed. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan (Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan Press, 1993).
men seem to exercise it more easily than women."535 This precept would suggest that a
sufficiently aggressive female comic could achieve superstardom on the stage, but this
has yet to happen. In contrast, the fields of music, movies, and television all boast a
greater number of female stars. The most successful female stand-ups have left their
strongest mark in other media, including Joan Rivers guest-hosting The Tonight Show,
Roseanne Barr's groundbreaking sitcom, and Ellen DeGeneres's sitcom and talk
Resistance to female comics comes from multiple fronts, from club owners to
network executives, and from agents to audiences. Eddie Brill, who books comics and
serves as the warm-up act for The Late Show with David Letterman, speculates that it
is the audience in general and the male audience in particular who spurn potent
women, stating that: "My gut tells me that society doesn't like to see a woman in
power, and standing on a stage [telling jokes] is a powerful position... Some of the best
comedians on the planet are female. But a lot of men are afraid to laugh at a woman. It
sometimes can turn insecure men into even more insecure people."556 Accordingly, the
tight-knit feedback loop between audience and performer which powers stand-up also
provides the former with veto power over the comedic transaction, with female comics
at a palpably greater risk of rejection. Studies of laughter suggest that while men are
particularly resistant to laughing at female jokers, "neither males nor females laughed
as much at female as male speakers."557
Susan Horowitz, Queens of Comedy: Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, and the
New Generation of Funny Women (Amsterdam: Gordan and Breach Science Publishers, 1997), 4.
Paul Farhi, "Beaten to the Punch Line: The Odds against Female Stand-up Comedians Are No
Laughing Matter," Washington Post, March 31, 2007, C1.
Robert R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (U.S.A.: Viking Penguin, 2000), 28.
A number of female comics seek audience acceptance by propagating the
humor of conventional gender stereotypes, which typically entails a heightened use of
profanity and a steady dose of misogyny, frequently self-directed. A representative
joke from the trailblazing Phyllis Diller reads as follows: "Most people get an
appointment at a beauty parlor. I was committed. I spent seven hours there, and that
was just for the estimate. The receptionist told me, 'Lady, we do repairs, not
reclamations.' That ugly, insulting broad. She's had so many face-lifts, there's nothing
left in her shoes!"538 The pressure to adopt a male-centered approach comes from the
wings as well as from the floor; when discussing her decision to "play on the boys'
side and tell more R-rated jokes," aspiring comic Diane Cupps cites her male
colleagues' disparagement of women-centered comedy topics.559 Bruce underscored
the underlying antagonism between comics and their audiences, but in order to create
a friction that is generative rather than static, the comic must have reign to tap into an
acerbity that is endemic to their personal and social selves, rather than emulating the
anger of others. When adopting the preferences of male comics, female comedians run
the risk of losing the rich specificity made possible when fashioning material from
one's own life.560
558 Phyllis Diller, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse (New York: Penguin, 2005), 43.
Dusti Rhodes, "Funny Business: Playing with the Boys," Houston Press, May 24, 2007.
Some exponents of women comics protest that gender difference shouldn't factor into matters of
humor. Journalist Paul Farhi writes of Allyson Jaffe (part owner and manager of the D.C. Improv) who,
although "acknowledging that female comics do have to combat audience expectations that they will
present predictable 'female' material...says the best performers - male or female - have a universal
appeal. Jaffe cites a comedy-club veteran such as Kathleen Madigan: 'A man or a woman could say
what she does and it would be funny. It doesn't matter what sex she is. It's just funny.'" Farhi, "Beaten
to the Punch Line: The Odds against Female Stand-up Comedians Are No Laughing Matter," CI.
Leaving aside the questionable existence of "universal appeal," this well-intended inclusiveness
contains flaws similar to the embracement of predominantly sexist humor, in that both run contrary to
stand-up's dependence on the personal. To adopt the predilections of a group to which one does not
Of all the female comics who have attempted to storm stand-up's main stage,
Roseanne Barr (b. 1952) is the most financially successfully and the only to have
cracked the top ten of Comedy Central's "100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time," where
she occupies position number nine.561 Barr continues the tradition of female selfdeprecation, particularly when it comes to body image, but does so with a defiant
twist. Her HBO special On Location: the Roseanne Barr Show contains jokes such as:
"I go in this dress shop, I ask this brat, you got anything to make me look thinner? She
says yeah, howsabout a month in Bangladesh? Rude, you know. I hate them types
anyways, so I tell her, you know, hey, I eat the same amount of food that you eat, I
just don't puke when I'm done."562 Barr reiterates prevailing cultural attitudes
concerning women and weight, but also points to the negative repercussions of these
pressures, and verbalizes resistance.
Barr's meteoric rise to fame began with appearances on The Tonight Show with
Johnny Carson and continued with her ABC sitcom. Unlike Sahl, Bruce, and Pryor,
she had most of her greatest success on television and not via stand-up. Even her HBO
special belongs to the lineage of television variety shows as much as it does to
documentaries of stand-up such as Pryor's Live in Concert, given that it mixes footage
of live stand-up alongside scripted video clips of Barr and two "stage" families. On
television, her person and personality could be edited by a production team and diluted
with the presence of other characters, particularly the ubiquitous nuclear family. This
belong, or to speak in an all-embracing universal voice, is to abdicate the unique puissance of stand-up.
The reality is that women are often asked to laugh at male-centered humor and frequently do, even
while female-centered stand-up remains the exception.
56i Pryor tops the list, with Bruce third, Cosby eighth, and Gregory a lowly eight-first. There are nine
women on the list, which appears to gauge fame amongst audiences and fellow comics.
On Location: The Roseanne Barr Show. Home Box Office: 1987.
meant relinquishing some of the personal details which fuel stand-up. Most tellingly,
the series omits her background of growing up Jewish in Salt Lake City. We cannot
know how Barr would have developed as a more fully-developed stand-up persona,
because she found her audience support in the Nielson ratings, and not in the comedy
clubs. Her story suggests that stand-up success is not reliant solely on the performer even the most aggressive comics need audiences which are open, and up to the task. It
could also be that the unfulfilled opportunity for gender awareness to dominate standup comedy has been impeded by two trends begun in the 1980s: the cooption of
comics by television before they have a chance to develop more fully on the road, and
the leveling effect of chain comedy clubs.
Margaret Cho (b. 1968) is a prime example of the protean self unable to
harness its fragmentation and achieve audience acceptance on a mass market level. In
contrast to Barr, Cho has maintained an extended stand-up career, returning to the
stage after a failed 1994 sitcom. In her breakthrough concert film, I'm the One That I
Want, Cho relates her struggles against television's tendency to simplify its
comedians. She tells of a writer named Gary [Jacobs] who:
took five minutes of my stand-up comedy and stretched it out into a
half hour pilot about a rebellious daughter growing up in a conservative
Korean household, when the real story was that I had moved back
home after a brief stab at independence, and I couldn't even live in the
house, I had to live in the basement, because my father didn't want to
watch me come down off crystal meth. [Audience laughter.] Now that
would have been a great sitcom. [Audience laughter and applause.]™
Cho and her stand-up audience share the implicit joke that the generalizing power of
sitcoms waters down complicated and troubling life stories, which are better-suited for
I'm the One That I Want, 2000.
the particularity of stand-up. Like Barr, Cho was obliged to excise key elements of her
performative self when transitioning from stand-up to the small screen and its
economy of scale. On the stage, she manifests her individuality through narratives
expounding on life in America as experienced by women, non-heterosexuals, and
people of color. In the mass market, her narrative identity continues to be perceived as
overly provincial, preventing her from standing in as an everywoman.
I suspect that the same personalization of the artist which drove the
development of stand-up can actually work against the affirmation of female comics,
which is why performers such as Cho still find themselves standing on the margins,
playing to smaller audiences. The contradiction comes into focus when comparing
criticism of Barr and Cho with that of Sahl, Bruce, and Pryor. Sahl was chastised for
venturing away from the jokes and demeanor of the traditional nightclub comedian,
with an early Time magazine review grumbling that he "freewheels through a
labyrinth of rambling asides to his punch lines," with "too much smugness and too
little showmanship"364; Bruce was attacked for his use of profanity and his portrayals
of religion; and Pryor was attacked for his use of the N-word. Despite their use of
personal material to make public humor, the men tend to be assailed for their actions
and utterances, rather than their person or body. That is why, when Bruce was jailed
for drug use or prosecuted for obscenity, it was done in the guise of combating a
societal ill. In contrast, Barr and Cho undergo vilification of what would commonly be
considered their person. For example, after Barr's controversial rendition of the
national anthem at a Padres baseball game, the front page headline of the San Diego
™ "The Tiger & the Lady," Time, April 21, 1958.
Union read "The Fat Lady Sings (Poorly),"565 while hate mail directed against Cho for
her 2004 benefit work on behalf of the political action group Moveon.Org "involved
people calling her a 'chink whore,' telling her to go back to North Korea, [and]
making fun of her 'slanty eyes.'"566
The double bind of the female stand-up comic is to work within a medium
built on performers using their private lives to craft highly individual public personas,
in a culture reluctant to accept this individualization in women playing themselves.
Excluded from the media mobility acquired by male stand-ups from Pryor to Seinfeld,
the exclusion itself becomes fuel for Cho's comedy. Thus far rejected by the vast
white television audience, Cho finds empowerment in the margins of stand-up. She
regularly privileges the gay men in her audience, situating herself as a heterosexual
woman in their midst, proclaiming that: "I am a fag hag. Fag hags are the backbone of
the gay community. Without us, you're nothing."567 Cho's affiliation with
disempowered groups helps explain the fervor of her audience, which has fewer public
individuals representing its collective voice. The urge to obtain the widest possible
audience remains. Before debuting her short-lived reality show "The Cho Show" on
VH1, Cho told The New York Times that: "I want mainstream acceptance, I want huge
success, I want to play huge stadiums.. .1 just do."56R The precedents of Bruce,
Gregory, Cosby, and Pryor, suggest that new bonds between mainstream audiences
and previously unaccepted minority subjects will continue to emerge. That the field
Buck Wolf, "Oh Say, Can't You Sing: Celebs Who Tortured the National Anthem," 1941484.
566 "When Comedy and Activism Violently Collide: Margaret Cho Sounds Off," Asia Pacific
I'm the One That I Want.
Mireya Navarro, "Returning in Her Favorite Role, Herself," The New York Times, August 8, 2008.
has yet to produce a female comic playing "huge stadiums" on the level of Pryor—or,
for that matter, Steve Martin—indicates that stand-up comedy continues to be in flux,
with plenty of opportunity for further development on the side of both performer and
Standing Up
I consider stand-up comedy the most potent vehicle in the contemporary
United States for comedy's traditional role in confronting issues of social importance.
In part, this is because, as a live act performed by a single body, stand-up can resist
commodification more effectively than comedic films or television sitcoms. The mass
market nature of Hollywood films, for example, dampens their ability to tackle taboos
with candor. Stand-up at its most complex does not simply repeat stereotypes but
questions them, revealing the processes by which they operate. As Homi Bhabha
argues, when dealing with stereotype, "the point of intervention should shift from the
identification of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes
of subjedification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse"569
The exceptional skills of Bruce, Gregory, Cosby and Pryor in this area accounts for
much of the scope of their influence, and also plays substantially into why I treat them
as representative of the best of stand-up comedy's potential. Appreciating the
seriousness of stand-up comedy acknowledges that there is no such thing as "just a
Bhabha, "The Other Question...Homi K Bhabha Reconsiders the Stereotype and Colonial
Discourse," 18.
joke" but thanks to their skill, even when one recognizes this, the laughter and the
revolt both remain.
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