If you think funny folk have it rough today, consider that comedians in the mid 1900s were jailed, fined, sued, and harassed for the offensive things they said during performances.
By now you probably have an opinion on Jerry Seinfeld's recent political correctness comments. Think about that for a second. A few years ago, if I'd told you that you would read, write, or argue over something Jerry Seinfeld's said, you would have asked me who the ad wizards were who came up with that. This is Jerry Seinfeld we're talking about. He's the Target-brand khakis version of people. He doesn't get political. He doesn't try to dissect race. His hottest takes are reserved for the plastic doodads on the ends of shoelaces. Hell, the last thing he said in the infamous ESPN radio interview he's currently weathering the storm from was literally: "I talk about the subjects I talk about because for some reason I can make them funny. If I can't make them funny, you don't hear 'em."
Jerry's not alone. Comedy giants of all stripes, when not busy staying silent on the numerous sexual-assault allegations of their peers, have recently come out in full force decrying "kids today," how they are "too PC," and how it's hurting or even killing comedy. These attacks on comedy must be at their most punishing, since it's all people can talk about now, right? Well, in Chris Rock's own words about stuffy college crowds, "I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing."
George Carlin died almost a decade ago. I've been using comedy to pay the bills for the last few years, so I have a vested interest in this. With cell-phone cameras capturing every moment a comedian steps out of line, and Theodore Thinkpiece pouncing on tweets from a whole president ago, is 2015 the most difficult time to be a comedian?
To get some perspective, I reached out to the Human Encyclopedia of Comedy, Kliph Nesteroff. I'd heard his fascinating stories of mob-era comedians being beaten half to death for heckling the wrong person on Marc Maron's podcast, and have since become a voracious devourer of his articles on WFMU's blog. His forthcoming book, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy (you can preorder it here), shines a light on the comedy's rocky past.
I wanted to find the first mentions of " PC sensibilities"—or whatever the code words were back then—in comedy's history. Nesteroff traced it back to vaudeville, when "instead of doing impressions of celebrities, people did impressions of ethnicity. Sometimes the act playing the Jew comic was Jewish and a lot times it was somebody putting on a fake nose." He pointed out that Charlie Chaplin, who is often mistaken for a Jew (but isn't actually Jewish) used to play a character named Sam Cohen who was a Jew, "with a fake nose and a wide, black brimmed hat. That was really common back then, and it was also kind of a response to increasing immigration."
As cultures began to blend together in America, that kind of thing didn't fly anymore. By World War II, ethnic comedy started to become less acceptable, and "after World War II, Hitler kind of made the idea of ridiculing races distasteful," Nesteroff explained. "You very rarely saw blackface after 1945. But there were people that reacted negatively to those depictions, and we often don't hear about them. Often we'll hear about blackface being apologized for, saying it was 'of its time,' but there were a lot of people at that time who were reacting against it."
In Nesteroff's book, he offers this example:
Vaudeville comedians Harry Hershfield and Peter Donald made their living with racial caricature. When former [vaudeville] players Groucho Marx and Walter Winchell found themselves in a position of power years later, they waged a battle to have racial caricature erased from vaudeville. They used Hershfield and Donald as examples of undesirable comedy. Hershfield and Donald defended themselves, telling the press that racial caricature "if done well is not offensive." In an open letter to Variety they argued, "the most dialectically used and abused nationals were the Scots and the Swedes—who have never complained." Groucho Marx shot back angrily, "The Sandy McPhersons and Yonny Yohnsons were not a minority being subjected to oppression, restriction, segregation or persecution."
So there was a sort of organized campaign to get rid of this ethnic comedy. I wondered if there were also early examples of comedians being "attacked" by people they would describe as "oversensitive" in the audience.
Nesteroff told me there was a woman named Belle Barth, who was sued by two audience members in the mid 60s. "They said that her material had corrupted them morally and sued her," to the tune of $1.6 million. Compare that to today, when a comedian says something offensive and it ends up in an editorial on some website about how the joke "went too far," and then after a week, it's all forgotten. "In these instances," Nesteroff said, returning to cases like Belle Barth, "there's people being arrested, booked, fined, jailed—being dragged to the courts."
He mentioned the famous example of Lenny Bruce, who faced numerous obscenity charges for using certain four-letter words and was outright banned from several cities. But, Netseroff said, "there were a number of comedians who were arrested prior to Lenny Bruce. There was this very obscure guy named George 'Hoppy' Hopkins. He was arrested right around the same time as Lenny Bruce actually, in 1961, in Anaheim. [It was] a citizen's arrest by a guy in the audience who was offended by his material... [The guy] called the police, and the the police booked him... He spent two nights in jail, and he had to pay a fine for lewd and lascivious behavior based on whatever language he used."
These examples are actual violations of free speech. Comedians (and people in general) today say things like, "Ugh! My free speech is being violated," but nobody's actually being sued by a Ned Flanders in the audience.
"Nobody is being blacklisted in comedy," echoed Nesteroff. "Show business is so atomized that even if you were blacklisted, say, from the major networks, there's enough comedy fans who aren't watching the major networks that you can still find your audience with your podcast or your YouTube channel or whatever. So even if somebody's platform is being violated, they can easily find another platform and their audience will follow them. It was much more difficult several years ago or several decades ago."
That's kind of an understatement. Here are just a few hard-to-believe but true accounts from Nesteroff's book:
- Burlesque comic Jimmy Savo was arrested by plainclothesmen in 1942 after an organization called the Catholic Theater Movement complained about his performance at the New York Ambassador Theater. The summons said "the show violates the penal law prohibiting indecency on the stage."
- Comedians Mickey Diamond and Jack High were arrested for obscenity in 1946 in Philadelphia. They were removed from the stage at the Silver Fleet Inn and held on bail.
- Marty Wayne had problems with a Philadelphia judge who said "nightclub operators should compel comedians to submit scripts before allowing them to go on." An arresting officer read portions of Wayne's act and Judge McDevitt called the material "an affront to public morals." The details of that have yet to surface, but for the charge of "lewd entertainment," Wayne served six months in prison.
- In 1949 comedian Lenny Ross was arrested in Atlantic City on charges of being "smutty." The State Department demanded Ross be "dismissed and barred from working" based on a previous conviction "for using blue material and obscene language in his act, for which he served a prison term." Ross told the judge, "I resort to smut only because patrons demand it."
The definition of lewdness was completely arbitrary. The offending material was never quoted in the newspaper, so it's hard to determine what was actually said. But knowing the restrictions of the time, it's unlikely it would be considered offensive today. Variety pointed out at the time, "Under the present attitude, any routine except tap dancing is eligible for the tag 'lewd entertainment.'"
Hearing this, it seems like 2015 is actually the ideal time to be a stand-up comedian. The PC uproar cited by guys like Seinfeld doesn't seem to be bent silencing the freedom of speech, it's more about the fundamental desire people have to see comedy they can identify with—even if they're not white, male, or straight. Who knows what comedy happening right now will be looked back on in 90 years with the same disgust that we have for blackface? The only thing I do know is that as a comedian, I'd much rather deal with the PC Police than the actual fucking police.
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