Mo’s History of American Alternative Comedy, Part 2

Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy

Contributor Mo Diggs continues his look at the churn of alternative comedy as a reaction against the mainstream.

Beatschtick: ‘50s-‘60s

Time magazine ran an article in 1959 on the new wave of comedy. Entitled “The Sickniks,”  the article profiled a comedy scene rife with jokes on sex, drugs and the civil rights movement. Mort Sahl would read the newspaper onstage without wearing a suit and tie, obliterating the comedy dress code once and for all. Jonathan Winters was obsessed with psychosis. But Lenny Bruce would be the most influential, saying whatever came to his mind.

Bob Hope would riff on current events and pop culture but Bruce changed the game by:

  • writing jokes about everyday life; whereas previously comedians told fictional comedic anecdotes, Bruce would use everyday life as his inspiration
  • making it ok for comedians to use profanity
  • writing his own jokes; comedians before Bruce often used joke writers
  • being determined to shake the audience out of its complacency

From the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, Bruce was the hippest comedian around. In one of his bits, he mimicked Vegas comedians. This parody of the nightclub comedy world (which would feature comedians like Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle) would later be done by Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and countless comedians afterwards.

Bruce was so monumental, his legacy overshadowed another great comedian: Lord Buckley.

A Native American, Buckley’s retelling of classic tales in jazz argot (like “The Raven” or the story of Jesus Christ [called “The Nazz”]) were popular with the hipsters of the day. Buckley would often begin his sets by saying “Me lords, me ladies” in a British accent and he would give friends aristocratic titles. Buckley enjoyed marijuana and LSD much like The Beatles, who were reportedly huge fans of Lord Buckley—so much so that, in the ‘70s, George Harrison would write a song about Buckley’s estate, Crackerbox Palace.

Though the ‘60s were a tumultuous time, the beatnik comedians like Bruce and Buckley were more vocal and popular than the hippie comedians. George Carlin was famous for his Hippy Dippy Weatherman character, which he would perform in clubs. But hippies were not fans of this character.

It wasn’t until the ‘70s that Carlin and Richard Pryor would bring the energy of the ‘60s counterculture into the world of comedy.

Bibliography: Richard Zoglin, Comedy at the Edge

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Posted by kreisler on 05/01  at  12:09 AM

Mo!  I’m loving these. 

A comic by the name of Robert Mac put together tours of San Francsico called FootTours, and I had the honor of running one in North Beach, home of the legendary Hungry I, Vesuvio, Purple Onion, etc. when legends of this era played.  I’m totally in love with the moments of Bruce, Sahl, et al. - major part of the reason I got into comedy, major part of the reason I started in San Francisco.

In odd timing coincidence, just got back from S.F. where I had a weekend of sold out shows at the (relatively) newly re-opened Purple Onion.  First time playing there.  Needless to say, I’m glowing.  And these postings are reminding me why.  Thanks.

Looking forward to more posts…

Posted by Mo Diggs on 05/01  at  04:17 PM

Congrats. That sounds amazing!

Posted by Abbi Crutchfield on 05/02  at  09:07 AM

This is where history class gets confusing.  Hippies were bucking against The Man, and early “alt” comedians were bucking against the trend of Hippies.  So who was alternative?  Where do beatniks fit in?  I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye bucking against a pair of giant rose-tinted glasses.

Posted by mo diggs on 07/16  at  10:25 AM

Mort Sahl was the first comic to write his jokes. Sorry.

-Mo Diggs, author of this article

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