Monday, May 12, 2008

"A Provocative Insight About Comedians"

A group of writers, sitting in the commissary, having lunch. The discussion turns to comedians, at which point a smart and respected writer expresses a highly provocative opinion:

“All comedians are conservative.”

To many at the lunch – especially me – those are fighting words. Comedians, conservative? No way! Comedians are firebrand revolutionaries, irreverent challengers of the status quo. Not to mention my personal heroes.

Lenny Bruce, conservative? He railed against censorship. Richard Pryor? He blew the lid off race, as Chris Rock does today. Bill Hicks? George Carlin? Sam Kinison? Conservative? Are you kiddin’ me?

Unlike the Vegas mainstreamers who wore tuxedos and talked about their wives, cutting edge comedians broke down walls, attacking traditional values with dangerous language and incendiary points of view. Even the tuxedo guys weren’t totally toothless. When the airlines lost their luggage, they spoke up.

“Where’s my luggage!”

No. Comedians are the anti-establishment Voices of Truth, angry, courageous and unquestionably ahead of the curve. The writer claiming they’re conservative was totally out to lunch. So to speak. Because we were, y'know…at the time…out to lunch.

A small point there, but, you know, we mustn’t be sloppy.

For years afterwards – I wasn’t that busy – I thought about that discussion and you know what? I came to agree with the smart and respected writer.

Comedians are conservative.

Even the drug users.

Maybe especially the drug users.

You can tell comedians are conservative by what they choose to talk about in their acts. No, that’s wrong. It’s not what they talk about; it’s the underlying reason they talk about it.

The comedian’s richest terrain is the screaming chasm between the way things are supposed to be and the way things actually are. What comedians champion are the principles we were trained to believe in as kids, taught to us by our parents, our teachers, what we read in history books, or the Bible, all, you will notice, powerful reservoirs of traditional values.

Comedians contrast America’s loftiest principles with life as we hypocritically live it.

Comedy’s primary message?

“This country has incredible values. How come we don’t live up to them?”

Your father says he’ll take you to the circus and then backs out. The kid cries,

“But you promised!”

And that’s the ballgame. Where does comedy come from?

It starts with a broken promise.

Lenny Bruce’s spotlighting censorship cried, “Hey, America. First Amendment. Whadaya say?”

“All men are created equal” – Declaration of Independence. Comedians – particularly non-whites and women – base their entire acts on a one-word rebuttal:


Even the old-timers dealt with broken promises.

Old joke:

“My wife told me she wanted to go someplace she’d never been before. So I took her to the kitchen.”

What was Henny saying? He was saying that in traditional marriages, women were expected to cook, and his doesn’t. Since that joke gets a laugh – mostly from men, I imagine – it appears a lot of other wives don’t cook either.

“But you promised!”

Today’s comedy is both different and the same. Identity Politics has multiplied the points of view; the comedic outcome, however, remains constant. Whatever your perspective, you’re inevitably doomed to disappointment.

Two comedians, one female and one male, telling the same story.


“Last night, I fixed my boyfriend dinner. I marinated, I chopped, I diced, and I sautéed. I serve him this magnificent feast. And what does he say?


No ‘Thank you.’ No ‘Great dinner, honey.’ Not. A word. That night, we’re making love, and he’s pulling out all the stops. He’s patient, he’s considerate – I have to look twice to make sure it’s him – he was magnificent. Finally, we finish. You know what I say to him?


End of joke.


“Last night, my girlfriend fixes me dinner. Well, whoop-de-doo. My father got dinner every night. Of course, I can’t say that to her. It would spoil the “treat.”

In fact, whatever I do here, I’m screwed. If I don’t say anything, I’m taking her for granted. If I say, ‘Great dinner, honey’, she won’t hear ‘Great dinner, honey.’ She’ll hear ‘Why don’t you do this more often?’

I can’t win!

I come up with a solution. I’ll show my appreciation in the bedroom. I decide to be the perfect lover. I’m patient, I’m considerate. It’s a top-of-the-line sexual ‘Thank you.’ Finally, we finish. And you know what she says to me?


End of the other version.

What’s going on here?

Dueling Disappointments.

The Double Let-down.

Unmet expectations. It’s the rich fodder for comedians, both sides crying

“But you promised!”

And where do these thwarted expectations evolve from?

Conservative values.

The woman expected appreciation for her cooking; the man expected what his Daddy had.

They both got


The smart and respected writer was right. But also a little wrong. The values comedians champion are conservative. But the insistence they be lived up to, that’s revolutionary. Why?

Because throughout our history,

they never have been.

And they should be.

Whoops? That’s me being conservative.


Two things I’d love to hear from you about:

Thing One: Do you think the smart and respected writer was right? Are comedians essentially conservative?

Thing Two: If self-labeled conservatives believe in traditional values, why don’t they insist they be lived up to?


MikeThe Blogger said...

Interesting take on the conservative idea. But I think you were right in your initial reaction. It is not the Comedian who is conservative. I believe it is the comedian who is playing to the conservatism of the audience. I don't think the wife's cooking humour would go over well on a young, liberal, modern, shared marriage couple type audience. But it would have played well to an older, more conservative generation who believed in those "traditional" values. The performer is using the deep seated traditional, conservative role definitions that exists in the audience. So, no, I do not believe our comedians are conservative, but they do know how to play to that audience.

Also I think the comedian has that rare insight to see the dichotomy that exists between any promised value system and our actual practice. By holding the mirror of reality up to us you get our humourous reaction - when you make us aware of and recognize our inconsistencies we can only laugh at ourselves through your truths.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, when you put it that way, I guess I'd have to agree, they are conservative.

As to why self-labeled conservatives don't live up to their values, isn't that just simple human falibility?


Moi doth comedy, e.g.,
soooooo what does that make moi except first on the "Do invite" list.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Anonymous said...

Mike the blogger, you really perceive it in an interesting way...playing to the conservatism of the audience. That's more detatched than I see it. I think Earl's right, that comedians are deeply conservative, because many come from a pained background, using humor to overcome their personal tragedies. And when you come from tragedy, I think there's a strong sense of justice in you wanting to come out, a sense that tradition and a conservative spirit can balance or counter the extremes of emotion or unstable family-life that caused the disruption in the first place. I blame it all on God.

Anonymous said...

And Mike the blogger, since you bring up so many interesting mention the impact of such humor on a young, liberal, modern, shared marriage couple type audience...

Personally, I've valued that type of humor for its teaching. I remember getting the joke at a very young age and being intrigued by the nuances of it. If ever I groaned at the implications, something inside me also clicked...both men and women have needs that aren't being met, and what can we do to bridge the difference. Sometimes the short end of the stick turns out to be a really powerful weapon. I wish old brands of humor would work their way back into the economy.