I also felt a bit like crying.
I felt a bit like crying because while the premise of comedy and the role of the comedian are to evoke mirth, it also evokes (in some cases) a vicious backlash. That’s because those who anally adhere to certain institutions don’t like to be mocked. The job of the comic, like the jester of old – whence comedians came – is to mock. It is to put that giant banana peel under the foot of the pompous and self-righteous asses we are supposed to (but rarely do) revere.
This particular episode (it’s a multi-parter) revolved around the revolutionary and ‘finger-to-da-man’ comics of the 1950s and ‘60s. In truth, ‘comedian’ doesn’t describe such people as much as ‘satirist’ does.
So, we saw snippets from the ‘new wave’ of the day like Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Nichols and May, the beleaguered Smothers Brothers (victims of corporate censorship) and right through to the beloved and still sadly missed George Carlin who wondered why we could say ‘boobs’ on TV but were forbidden to say ‘tits’.
But the two that struck me with poignancy and emotion were Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
Pryor for both a childhood that was so wretched it would be beyond comprehension for most of us. He had problems later in life with substance and so forth? Of course he did. Raised (in a manner of speaking) in a whorehouse and brutally abused as a child, his brilliant mind allowed him to surmount and become the man who, to many others, and me became one of the most brilliant social-satirists and performers of any era. He was a man who could evoke pants-peeing laughter from presenting such brutal episodes in his life as a premature heart-attack, and lighting himself on fire. He was to comedy what Hogarth was to socially motivated art.
Bruce, on the other hand, never did capture the mainstream and was almost literally hounded to death by those who couldn’t bear his mockery and mischief around the establishment pillars of government, church, and sexual mores. Yes he was crude and frank in a manner previously unheard. He was, quite frankly, not as lovable as Pryor. But, he was also incredibly funny.
Coming into his own at the tail-end of the ghastly red-baiting McCarthy era it’s understandable why he was reviled by those stalwart maintainers of the status quo in America. He tells a tale of Christ coming back to Earth and appearing at the door of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC and how Cardinal Cushing and an archbishop conspire to keep him out of the church because he looks like a bum, what with the sandals, beard and long hair and all. What would the good uptown parishioners think?
And so it went. Bruce was often his worst enemy because he refused to waver from his path. Also hugely addicted to drugs he ultimately dies of an overdose at an early age.
One of the saddest pieces was an interview with him near the end of his life in which he, obviously stoned, explains himself thusly: “We were just trying to have fun.”