Lenny Bruce is not afraid
Recently, when I watch standup specials through online services, I think about Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
As I have explained before, a foundational part of my critical Self was established during my teen years through listening to the comedy of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Along with them, The Firesign Theater and Steve Martin also had a profound impact on me, but Carlin and Pryor led me to studying the life and comedy of Lenny Bruce.
Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor were incredibly important voices for free speech and the power of words, including the power of offensive words and the sacredness of those words.
So there is more than a bit of nuanced irony to the evolution of standup comedy in the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter era, an evolution that looks to me like the death of comedy.
Standup comedians — especially white male comedians — are quite predictable now; they turn immediately or eventually to the anti-cancel culture bandwagon that appears to be mandatory for a standup routine in 2020.
There’s a lot of “Don’t judge me because the line has moved” and “Comedy is a ‘joke,’ right?” kind of laziness in the routines. While contemporary comedians seem to be joining a tradition found in Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor, the ugly truth is that these routines are lazy and angry responses to a mostly mangled and even fabricated message about “cancel culture.”
Comedians have joined a backlash against cancel culture, and these challenges to cancel culture come from people who already have amplified voices, including outsized privilege in those voices as well as histories of skirting by with little to no accountability for their insensitivity and bigotry.
While the letter itself, published by the magazine Harper’s, doesn’t use the term, the statement represents a bleak apogee in the yearslong, increasingly contentious debate over “cancel culture.” The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.
This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.
The panic over “cancel culture” is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis. The Harper’s statement, like nearly everything else written on this subject, could have been more efficiently summarized in four words: “Get Off My Lawn.”
Along a spectrum from Louise CK to Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, I want to know: Who among these men has been canceled?
Louise CK had his career temporarily interrupted for many years of sexual harassment and inexcusable sexual aggression. Allen hasn’t missed a beat in his career.
And Harvey Weinstein is a convicted sex criminal.
Is a temporary moment of mild accountability “canceled”?
Is rumor, innuendo, and published accounts charging someone with sexual assault “canceled”?
Is being found guilty of sexually violent crimes “canceled”?
The implication about and direct challenges to cancel culture seem to suggest that “cancelling” is unfair, widespread, and poised to end free speech.
This cartoon version of cancel culture is hyperbole, Urban Legend. It suggests a cavalier and indiscriminate assault on good and descent (white and male) people.
None of that is true, however.
As a white male, Louise CK will survive the brief pause to his career with excess wealth and fame; he will likely experience a rehabilitation phase and find a place where people just forget about everything he did.
Allen has never really suffered anything more than the stress of being accused publicly of sexual assault.
And being found guilty of a crime is not some sort of “canceling”; it is justice.
Some of the problems with standup comedy are simply being exposed by the cancel-culture backlash. Smart and culturally critical comedians often perform for audiences less informed or sophisticated than their material.
Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor could never know if their audiences were just cackling like children because of the cultural taboo around “fuck,” for example.
None the less, Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor were using words in order to interrogate not only those words but the failures of humans to interrogate their own biases and blind spots.
And none of these men were perfect; although all of these men faced genuine threats of censorship and career-ending consequences throughout the mid-twentieth century. Those threats, however, were directly about their language and critical comedy, and not about their personal behavior or failure to acknowledge bigotry in their routines.
It is a sad thing. The comedy levee is dry it seems.
We are left with the hollow ring of laziness against the childish laughter of an audience prodded with “Fuck cancel culture.”