Following my recent article on the dust up over the use of the word “gay” in a joke in the movie “The Dilemma” I engaged in an e mail discussion with Big Hollywood editor John Nolte. The question that John posed to me was in the new era “everything is deeply offensive to someone” could guys like Sam Kinison, George Carlin and even Saint Lenny make it today? Could three of the greatest comic voices ever survive in today’s comic environment?
My first impulse was to say a quick yes, give John a virtual eye roll, and get back to making funny Facebook status updates about the TSA. Then I considered his question a little more deeply. I was too young to have known or seen Lenny Bruce and only got to meet Carlin three times so I didn’t know him well. Sam, that was different. I got to know him pretty well back in the late seventies in Texas. We stayed friends and even worked together a few times through the years. I’ll get back to Sam in a minute.
Lenny Bruce got arrested a number of time for his language. Back in the sixties few people objected to making jokes about ethnic jokes. The word “gay” still meant filled with joy and to most Americans a “fag” was a Lucky Strike. Lenny got in trouble for his scatological references. “Cocksucker” was a big one. Most of the stuff Lenny suffered for seems mild in comparison to today’s cable fodder. However, one of Lenny’s greatest bits, which heavily features the notorious “N” word, couldn’t be broadcast today even on cable. Today it couldn’t even be written in a transcript without serious repercussions. It is however one of the most brilliant bits of comic social commentary ever performed. Dustin Hoffman does it justice in the movie, “Lenny.” Lenny also foreshadowed today’s political correctness in another bit featured in the movie when he substituted the word “blahblah” for “cocksucker.” Quoting Hoffman as Lenny in the movie, “It’s the dirtiest bit I have ever done and they can’t touch me!”
Carlin had his transformation for the slick ex-adman comic the hipster we all know in the late sixties and early seventies. His most famous piece featured the “seven words you can never say on television.” Ironically, all seven are now heard with regularity on television, in movies, on Broadway and in teen conversations. Later in his career the seven words became about seven hundred. I heard him do an extended version of the original which took at least fifteen minutes on stage. If he did the bit today he would have to change the bit to , “ There are only five words you can’t say on TV , “N” word, “F” word, “R” word, “G” word, “ and Islamic Extremists!”
Sam was different. He seemed to invite harassment. Reviews of his show that called him obscene and offensive he wore as a badge of honor. He sometimes sent them out with his press kit! He defied authority at every chance. Once, at The Annex, a small club where we started he smashed a wooden stool on stage during a bit. The club manager told Sam he had to pay for the stool and warned him that he would be charged for future damages! The next time Sam went up he took the new stool and smashed it against the wall and flipped some money down on the stage. He told the manager to get a few stools because he would need them! As I remember it that event which led to Sam being banned from the club for awhile and the infamous “crucifixion for comedy” incident.
At times I think he wanted people to hate him, it was good for business! He would antagonize those who protested his antics and language. He demeaned women onstage because he knew how it enraged NOW and other feminist groups. They would scream about it and the tickets to Sam’s shows became the hottest around. Some of his most famous bits sent howls of through the gay community even back then. His famous “Rock Hudson” bit where he imitated Mr. Hudson performing numerous acts of filatio and then regretting the last one which Sam imagined gave him AIDS was universally panned by the politically correct even back then.
If Sam were starting today would he have a chance? You know it! Genius is a hard thing to stifle and Sam was a comic genius. Sam also would have succeeded today because back in the eighties he was already aware that those who presumed to speak for “the masses” were usually out of touch. He never worried about what people thought of him. He spoke his mind and used words he knew his audience would understand. As I am traveling today I am imagining what Sam would have to say about the TSA and enhanced pat downs. I would give just about anything to watch him go through an airport today and “engage” the security. That would be national news.