The Killing Joke

Lenny Bruce is arrested for obscenity


I spend quite a lot of my time writing jokes in one form or another and so I suppose it’s kinda natural that the same question comes up over and over , “What’s your favourite joke”. It’s a hard question because there are so many that I love. Jim Holland‘s “I was grilling mackerel the other day, they know nothing.” once left me entirely disabled with giggles just as I was walking on stage (I’m a sucker for a mighty pun) but if I’m pushed to pick what I think is the best joke ever written then there’s one that I generally go with (it has a bit of a backstory to it, so bear with me).
In 1961 Lenny Bruce was arrested on stage for obsenity, sparking a debate over what a comedian can and can’t say on stage that continues today. The very next night the Second City improv club in Chicago (a wicked group that’s spawned the likes of Bill Murray) ran a joke about it, it went like this: The entire cast would assemble on stage for the start of the show minus one member. The missing actor then ran onto the stage, interrupting the sketch that was going on and shouted “Did you hear? Lenny Bruce just got busted for swearing onstage!” without missing a beat, another cast member replied “No shit!?”
This tends to confuse people a bit and yeah, it probably doesn’t sound that great when it’s written down, but it’s one of my favorite jokes, not just for what it represents (which was essentially the opening of the floodgates in terms of free speech in comedy) but because it’s one of the most superbly intentioned uses of provocative material that you’ll ever hear. In two lines the joke manages to totally undermine the credibility of the idea of profanity – it’s a supreme dismissal of the idea that language can be controlled and a snub to the people trying to do so. This is what comedy should sound like! It’s what comedy does better than anything else. Sure, we can make deep cutting comments about hypocracies and injustices, we can tell people they’re wrong and we’re right, but so can poets and musicians. The true power of the comedian lies in our ability to give these subjects the kind of patronising condesention that they really deserve. I’m not saying there’s no place in comedy for direct statements or seriousness, but they’re not our only weapons.

The Second City today

I often hear comics talk about how powerful jokes are, but in reality joke’s themselves aren’t powerful or political; they’re just cleverly constructed sentences thrown out to a bunch of people who laugh at them and then throw them away. What’s powerful is the fact that as comedians we can transform any topic we like into one of these jokes, stripping it of it’s credibility and turning it from a big scary monster to something we’re all laughing at. When Second City made that joke, they weren’t saying “Profanity laws are wrong!” they were saying “You still think swearing’s offensive? That’s funny! Anyway…” If in the great house party of life, it’s that easy to relegate anti-free speech advocates to the kitchen, think about what jokes like that can do to racists or biggots of all kinds. That’s why comedians are so scary to these people, they’re not monsters to us, they’re just a fucking joke.

When Second City told the Lenny Bruce gag they brushed away decades of outdated thinking about free speech and nearly fifty years on they’ve been proved to be right. That is a fucking good joke…though I’m sure it would have been better in pun form. 😉


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  • Fiona Penny December 2, 2010  

    Your post reminded me of an exert from the book I am reading, “Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee”. Gypsy (aka Louise Hovick) began as a stripper, then went on to become an actress, writer and artist. Throughout her career she was haunted and irritated by journalists who couldn’t refer to her without referencing her stripper history. Gypsy was known as “the intelligent stripper” for her wit and comedy timing both on stage and when speaking to the press. She was renowned for disarming journalists and other critics with her cynicism and dry humour.

    In addition to the press, the introduction of the Production Code in the 1930’s, meant that many forms of entertainment were censored on the grounds of suitability and obscenity: “Hense the sensitivity of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong doing, evil or sin”.

    Gypsy was a direct victim of the censorship, as her stripper-past meant that any small mention of sex or exposure of skin in her movies was pounced upon as sordid and indecent, as the regulators feared she was tarnishing the gloss of Hollywood. A number of restrictions were put on her performance as well as how she was to conduct herself in public, including a less “provocative” walk, what she could wear, changing her name and who she was seen with so that audiences would not associate the movie star with the stripper.

    One of the things she is famous for is her role in the MPAC (Motion Picture Artists Committee) heading the clothing relief division to aid Republican Spain, which opposed the fascist takeover in the 1930’s. Even in this, the press found opportunities to comment on her “sordid” past, with headlines such as “Appeals for Clothing for Spanish Refugees … and she’s not teasing!” or “This Artist who has given her ALL on stage now asks you to give”. Her efforts did not go down well, and she was accused of being “Anti-American” and ordered to attend a meeting about her fund raising for Spain. She managed to turn the situation around, avoid any meetings and embarrass the entire committee with just a few sharp remarks to the press. She in fact thanked the committee for inviting her in shortly after they had approached the young Shirley Temple, and stated that thanks to their publicity they had given her her first joint billing with Temple. She then agreed to an interview where she would “bare all” if they came to see her in her dressing room – an offer which they declined. Shortly after the papers were plastered with the headlines “Red Prober gets publicity by phoning Gypsy Rose Lee”. She was a master of self publicising, and knew exactly how to bring anyone down using satire and cutting remarks.

    I know this is a totally different scenario to the joke you have described, but it just goes to show how powerful humour can be when used in the right way. People who take themselves too seriously don’t know how to deal with it, and as a result end up crumbling without a response. I say keep it up!

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