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