In the 1950s, a new generation of comedians produced political satire that was biting, experimental, and irreverent. Comics like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Dick Gregory took Bob Hope’s topical style a step further by ad-libbing up-to-the-minute material in front of live audiences. The new political satirists, along with comedians specializing in social commentary, were dubbed the “sick comics” by the press. The “sick” label, cartoonist Jules Feiffer has argued, was mistaken: “A humorist will hold up a mirror, look at its reflection chuckle warmly and say ‘Well it’s silly but it’s not such a bad reflection after all’; a satirist will have a darker view.” These satirists, Feiffer contended, “weren’t sick. But they had to be handled, tagged, pinned down somehow because they were dangerous.”
I admire Mort Sahl. . . . the beatnik Will Rogers. . . . Mort’s not a sick comic. I think he’s a well comic with a sick audience. —Bob Hope, 1959
Steve Allen (1921–2000), comedian, musician, songwriter, author, and an innovator in the television talk show format, gave many of the new wave comedians, including Lenny Bruce (1925–1966), their first television exposure on the live prime-time show he hosted from 1956 to 1959. Known for his spontaneous irreverent wit, verbal dexterity, and experimental ethos, Allen in this letter commends Village Voice critic Nat Hentoff (b. 1925) for his support of Bruce, whom Allen considered “a true social philosopher.”
Letter from Steve Allen to Nat Hentoff, April 14, 1960. Reproduction. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0015]
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Critic Ralph J. Gleason (1917–1975) wrote that Lenny Bruce’s humor “is the seminal influence of his generation.” Bruce (1925–1966) and the comedians he influenced, such as Dick Gregory (b. 1932), Richard Pryor (1940–2005), and George Carlin (1937–2008), employed satire to reveal hypocrisies underlying conventional ways of life. Bruce professed that the “world is sick and I’m the doctor. I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values.” Bruce’s sketches satirizing racial, religious, and sexual mores, provoked more outrage than those of his contemporaries.
Lenny Bruce. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1965. General Collections , Library of Congress (027.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0027]
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Mort Sahl (b. 1927) debuted as a stand-up comedian in 1953, after writing plays for an experimental theater in Los Angeles. “I had a holy grail attitude about satire,” he recalled, “but people who should know better kept saying it would ‘never sell.’” Sahl dressed informally and created sharp impromptu monologues based on items in the newspaper he carried onstage. “He totally reconstructed comedy,” Woody Allen remarked of Sahl.
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Comedians of the 1950s
Mainstream magazines discovered the new wave comedians by the late 1950s, after their comedy albums became bestsellers. In July 1959, Time dubbed them “The Sickniks” in an article that highlighted their hefty salaries and their “highly disturbing hostility” that distinguished them from the previous generation of comics. New Yorker, Newsweek, Esquire, Look, and other national magazines soon profiled the leaders. “Suddenly satire had become commercial,” cartoonist Jules Feiffer observed.
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Zany satirist Stan Freberg (b. 1926) made comedy recordings and humorous radio and television advertising his forte. Freberg’s audio parodies beginning in the early 1950s drew on his previous experience as a creator of cartoon voices and his expertise in creating aural worlds of technical and artistic virtuosity in the sound studio. Despite his popularity, Freberg’s topical satires on recordings and radio faced strong resistance from bureaucrats worried about lawsuits and offending listeners.
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Dick Gregory—From the Back of the Bus
Growing up poor in a St. Louis African American community, Dick Gregory (b. 1932) gained his improvisational skills trading insults on neighborhood streets. He honed his ironic barbs in Chicago’s black nightclubs before crossing over to mainstream venues. His success at the Playboy Club led to bookings at nightspots around the country, network television exposure, and a recording contract. His first book, From the Back of the Bus, offered satiric observations on race in America in the midst of the civil rights era.
Dick Gregory. From the Back of the Bus. New York: Avon Books, 1962. Courtesy of Betsy Nahum-Miller (016.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0016_01]
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