Mo’s History of Alternative Comedy, Part 3

Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy

We continue our look at alternative comedy (in the broader, and perhaps truer, sense) with chapter three of contributor Mo Diggs history, this time looking at the 1970.

Wild and Crazy: ‘70s

By the early ‘70s, George Carlin seemed to be spinning his wheels in the mud. Nightclubs like the Copacabana wanted nothing to do with the bearded Dionysian madman with a foul mouth and a distaste for authority. Carlin wanted to play coffehouses and colleges, growing tired of the clubs, but hippie bastions like The Bitter End and The Troubador were also not embracing the new George Carlin (the Troubador eventually gave him a chance). Many hippies thought he was trying to hop on the bandwagon.

The release of his 1972 album, FM & AM, would change that. Spending thirty five weeks on the Billboard pop charts, the album was as important to comedy as Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home was to rock. Much like Bringing It All Back Home had one familiar acoustic side and one electric side, the AM side of the record had parodies of pop culture ephemera. The FM side showcased the new Carlin: the Carlin that talked about drugs, profanity and birth control.

Carlin was now welcome everywhere, including the coffeehouses and colleges that he loved so much.

Carlin wasn’t the only one frustrated with the establishment. In 1967, Richard Pryor (who smoked weed with Carlin in the back stairwell of Cafe au Go Go) was performing in front of a sold-out crowd at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. While onstage, Pryor underwent every comedian’s worst fear: he froze. He saw Dean Martin in the crowd. Up until this moment, Pryor was staying away from race in his act, much like Bill Cosby did (Cosby briefly touched on race in his early days in Greenwich Village, but he almost immediately switched gears). But Pryor, looking at the crowd, said “What the fuck am I doing here?” and stormed off stage.

This was the birth of the new Pryor. The new Pryor would reach full maturity in 1974, with the release of That Ni**er’s Crazy. Pryor didn’t tell jokes on this album, opting for autobiographical stories and observations. Pryor brought the winos and junkies of his old Peoria neighborhood into the living rooms of middle class white people.

While Pryor and Carlin were known for their rebellious content, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Andy Kaufman played with form. Steve Martin would tell silly jokes without punchlines. In his most amazing feat, he   led an audience into McDonald’s, ordering 300 hamburgers before changing the order to one small fries. Albert Brooks would pretend to be a delusional sideshow act (a ventriloquist that would have the dummy drink water while Brooks was singing was one of his many bizarre acts).

But no one before or after would be as radical (or, in the alternative world, as influential) as Andy Kaufman. As Foreign Man, as “himself” and as tacky lounge singer Tony Clifton, Kaufman’s brand of Dadaist performance art made the audience’s reaction the punchline. Whether he was eating ice cream onstage, telling bad jokes about President Carter or pouring a pitcher of water over an “audience member’s” head (it was often his friend Bob Zmuda) Kaufman would relish the awkwardness that he would create, paving the way for the cringe-inducing comedy of Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen as well as the surreal performance art of Brett Gelman and Reggie Watts (who won the Andy Kaufman award in 2006).

Bibliography: Richard Zoglin, Comedy at the Edge

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