This may be the same post I wrote recently but with different words. In the previous post, the issue was “Telling the Truth in Comedy” – which, for some recent practitioners means “Telling the Most Punishing Truth You Can Imagine In Comedy”, because anything less is construed as disingenuously pulling your punches. This post investigates a paralleling “end-game.”
Let me start with an incendiary pronouncement, so at least readers will be able to say, “It’s the same. But he never said that!”
Okay, here it is.
A little background.
Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) is the “Patron Saint of Truth-Telling Comedians”, breaking language and content barriers in his provocative comedy routines:
“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
“The only anonymous donor is the one who knocked up your daughter.”
Bruce paid for his deliberate outspokenness, suffering the legal consequences of the era, which are no longer in force substantially because of his courageous battles against them, thus paving the way for Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Louis Black, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, whoever takes comedy to the “Acceptability Limit” – quoting “Buzz Lightyear” –
… and beyond.
Here, belatedly, is my incendiary pronouncement:
Lenny Bruce destroyed obscenity.
Which, in fact, was precisely what he had in mind0. It was Bruce’s contention that the words themselves are entirely harmless, and that if you repeated those identifiable curse words often enough, they would inevitably lose their power to offend, they would eventually become common parlance, and you would consequently not be arrested for uttering them on stage, which he invariably was.
Handing Bruce a tailor-made hunk of material concerning free speech.
A propos of the preceding sentence, years ago, a colleague persuasively argued that all comedians are conservative. His rationale for this improbable assertion? Both comedians – especially the issue-oriented variety – and conservatives are disappointed that America is not keeping its legal and constitutional promises. Though they are, admittedly, rarely the same promises.
“Hey! States’ Rights!”
That’s not one comedians usually bring up, but some people insist that that promise was not entirely lived up to, due to the pesky demand for civil liberties. A promise simultaneously made to a different group, who had been disappointed for quite a while.
By de-stigmatizing curse words, obscenity becomes, to the delight of Lenny Bruce and his adherents, happily inoffensive. Or at least nobody called the police.
My question, reiterating the point concerning the trend of the “Comedy of Pain” becoming inevitably more painful…
I mean, sometimes you need to swear a little. Blow off some obscenatorial steam.
You strike your thumbnail with a hammer.
You are betrayed by a loved one, or a trusted friend.
You lose your life’s savings because some geniuses on Wall Street tried something tricky and it blew up in their faces.
How do you appropriately convey the agony, outrage and intensity,
When the profanity of the past has been effectively neutered?
(Thanks, essentially, to Lenny Bruce.)
We deride the goody-goody who says, “Darn it!” But since former expletives have turned into conversational punctuation, what have any of us got left to curse with?
Free speech is essential. But the liberalization of language has transformed – with apologies – “Fuck!” into “Darn it!”
I do not underestimate the human capacity for continuing invention. But how do you come up with new curse words? There are only so many sexual body parts and unacceptable activities between immediate relatives you can appropriate. After that, you are relegated to shaking your fist and sputtering…
I realize that there are more important things to worry about than “We have no words left to curse with.” Nor am I advocating a return to censorship, which in any case is not going to happen, because, like the progression in comedy, you can never go backwards. It’s just that I’m a “Words Guy”, and, as a result of their regularized usage, I am without some of the more colorful possibilities on my expressionarial palette.
Maybe you can suggest some replacements. Because we definitely need some.
I mean, when “hell” delivers the punchlessness of “heck”,