Laughter is the Best Medicine

How Comedy Saved Free Speech | Americana

freedom of speech it’s a phrase that
gets a lot of attention these days in vacations of liberal philosophers come
up to defend that conservative speaker or defend that radical right-wing
speaker or wait I’m noticing a pattern here there are a lot of claims of
censorship wafting around the public discourse an article after article of
think pieces claiming that the right to speak your mind has become embattled to
give this context let’s talk about a different case of free speech and
censorship situation where someone faced criminal charges for being offensive in
America this is the story of Lenny Bruce the stand-up comic that went to bat to
fight censorship maybe through his story we can see how to save freedom of speech hi I’m Tristan is to step back
subscribed at the Bell notification to get history every week Lenny Bruce the
famous comedian was born in a Jewish family in Manola New York at five as
parents divorced and throughout his childhood he lived with various
relatives most famously his mother was Sally Marr who was a stage performer and
during his comedy career would be a regular part of his life often giving
him opportunities and helping him get his foot in the door so to speak at the
age of 16 in 1942 he joined the US Navy and saw active duty fighting for the
Allies in North Africa and Italy his time was cut short however when in 1945
he performed dressed in drag for a bunch of shipmates and that got the commanding
officers very upset the ship’s medical officer was convinced
that Lenny Bruce was a homosexual and discharged him although they didn’t know
enough evidence to give him a dishonorable discharge in 1945 and
afterwards that is when he decided to get his career started he settled down
in New York City with the dream of wanting to become a comedian however he
found differentiating himself in the very crowded realm of New York comedy a
little difficult until he met a mentor named Joe Ansis who helped him develop
his stream-of-consciousness style and riding that line of vulgarity in just
two years later he had his first stand-up gig but it was a very
millennial stand-up gig in which he was basically performing for $12 and a plate
of spaghetti and also during his life he got in trouble for a whole bunch of
things one case was where he worked at a laundry in which he managed to nick a
few priests collars and used those colors to run a scam for raising money
for a leper colony he gave out $2,000 of what he raised to a leper colony which
apparently saved him from prosecution but still yeah Lenny Bruce also had a
lot of trouble with drugs in 1961 he was arrested for drug possession but that
wouldn’t be the only time that drugs would play an important part in his life
but I think the most famous thing that Lenny Bruce is known for is obscenity he
had a very open free style form of comedy that integrated satire
politics religion sex and vulgarity and this is the time when people were doing
simple jokes about their cars or their wives or whatnot he would go on these
long rants he would do comic routines or do satirical interviews on themes that
other comedians weren’t touching he talked about jazz and then would move to
moral philosophy which would then move to politics that moved to patriotism
religion law race abortion drugs and sometimes even talked about the Ku Klux
Klan in 1957 he got a job for a nightclub and was fired on his first day
because of his material often reviewers of Lenny Bruce called him a
quote-unquote Sick comedian and not not in like the modern day like oh man
that guy’s sick it’s like he’s sick and perverted Lenny Bruce responded of
course by saying that it was the society that was sick not him he was blacklisted
often from TV with only a few exceptions in which some of his famous friends
would call in huge favors to let him go on TV but they would be with big
concessions to broadcast standards he was also banned from several towns
and even barred entry to the United Kingdom things really started to turn
bad for Lenny Bruce though when he was arrested in 1961 on obscenity charges it
was in San Francisco and he was acquitted but afterwards never since
then the FBI and various undercover cops would be watching his shows and waiting
for him to step out of line and this happened for several years until in 1964
Lenny Bruce was arrested charged and convicted in an obscenity trial based on
a show he did in Greenwich Village that was heard by undercover cops who went to
his show which if you’re like an undercover cop I imagine is one of the
better assignments you can get like go to a comedy show and then arrest the guy
afterwards I mean don’t harass people but the other
part sounds fun when his trial came up it was a test of
the limits of these obscenity laws and people challenging their
constitutionality so many people came out to support Lenny Bruce even lots of
famous entertainers artists writers and educators even a high-profile
sociologist named Herbert Ganz it was a big trial if he had been found
guilty Lenny Bruce would have lost everything and everybody knew that the
New York City intellectual community rallied behind his cause founding
something called the Emergency Committee against the harassment of Lenny Bruce
over 80 celebrities sign this with the statement whether we regard Bruce as a
moral spokesman or simply as entertainer we believe he should be allowed to
perform free from censorship or harassment some of the famous people who
cited included celebrities like Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Taylor and Norman
Mailer and Susan Sontag even gore Vidal and Woody Allen except there is a bit of
a sad ending to all this which is during the trial on August 3rd of 1966 Lenny
Bruce was found dead in his hotel room he had apparently died of a morphine
overdose and even today there is debate over whether this was an accidental
overdose or suicide apparently the trial itself had done quite a number on Lenny
Bruce’s psychological health and he had been suffering in the months before
after he died the funeral held forum was massive there was over 500 people who
came out to pay respects maybe because somebody with a sense of humor actually
put out ads that encourage people to bring noisemakers and a packed lunch in
order to turn the funeral into a jovial experience one of his friends Dick
Schaap who wrote for Playboy eulogized Bruce with a memorable last line one
last four letter word for Lenny dead at 40 that’s obscene and people have been
thinking a lot about it ever since to the point where in 2003 this being a
first in New York’s history George Pataki actually gave him a posthumous
pardon for the obscenity crime and so Lenny Bruce had quite a legacy he’s
considered the inspiration for many of the counterculture comedians that
started to pop up after this period people like George Carlin people like
his contemporary Richard Pryor even Robin Williams and Chris Rock
he became a label of the counterculture any symbol of the 1960s a time of social
and political upheaval because of his trial the obscenity laws that
he fought against were quickly seen as a contradiction with the first moment the
Constitution and comedy was never the same his story’s been immortalized time
after time in film onstage and in print rolling stone and 2017 declared him the
third best comedian of all time the effects of Lenny Bruce’s of Sandy trial
was much more significant than just the realm of comedy it was part of a
shifting consciousness in the 60s towards the First Amendment of the US
Constitution itself a thing that has always been and still is evolving to
talk about that I’m going to introduce danielle from the channel the origin of
everything to talk about it thanks Tristan so the meaning and
interpretation of freedom of speech outlined in the First Amendment just
like the rest of the US Constitution has had varying meanings over time but at
its heart the portion of the First Amendment that relates to free speech
clearly says that Congress cannot pass laws abridging the freedom of speech or
of the press although the law reads as extremely broad there have been notable
exceptions to this rule over time like children in school perjury or lying
under oath and you guessed it obscenity but Bruce’s struggles with the
restrictive obscenity laws of the 1960s also parallel a time of increased
interest and activism regarding free speech in the US for example in 1964
students at the University of California Berkeley were active in the Free Speech
Movement on their campus that was largely centered on the freedom to
promote share and spread ideas about the civil rights movement happening across
the country but the current standing rule for obscenity laws and obscenity
decisions in the u.s. regarding free speech is determined today by the US
Supreme Court’s ruling in 1973’s Miller versus United States which established a
three prong test to determine if material was considered obscene first
whether the average person applying contemporary community standards would
find that work taken as a whole appeals to the pure interest second whether the
work depicts or describes in patently offensive ways sexual conduct
specifically defined by the applicable state law and third whether the work
taken as a whole lack serious literary artistic political or scientific value
well that’s it for now and I’ll turn it back over to you Tristan thanks Danielle
after you watch like share and subscribe to this channel be sure to go over and
go check out a few episodes of the origin of everything if you like step
back it will be right up your alley now Lenny Bruce has become an icon in
modern day discussions about freedom of speech that we really need to discuss if
we’re going to do the whole conversation justice if you’ve spent any time on the
Internet in the last few years you might be under the impression that freedom of
speech and comedy itself is under threat because people are censoring them this
suppression comes in the form of criticizing them on Twitter or not
asking them to come speak at their venue or by protesting when their money pays
for you to come and talk anyway despite their objections however this isn’t a
fair comparison Lenny Bruce’s obscenity charges weren’t just because he was a
high-profile comedian who used foul language it was also because he spoke
frankly about his experiences enduring anti-semitism he spoke in his acts in
support of the civil rights movement he even brought Lo and critiques religious
authorities Lenny Bruce talked about how people didn’t see the oppressed and
lacked empathy for their position you know what was not considered obscene in
this period racist characters for one or overtly sexist tropes and stereotypes
those were completely family-friendly content the 60s like now were a time
when language and cultural norms were experiencing a major overhaul today
marginalized people are increasingly getting a voice and may seem pretty
significant ch’s down on the most vulnerable they want a comedy that makes
the comfortable uncomfortable and not one that mocks the already nervous and
freedom of speech has done a lot of good even in these times it protected Stephen
Colbert as he mocked the President to his face on live television in 2006 it
saved the Dixie Chicks when they criticized a war
it even kept Kathy Griffin out of prison for what I would think is a tasteless
joke government censorship is real it exists and it is terrifying but putting
a gag rule on climate change in a state that is less than a hundred years from
being underwater and getting called out for oppressive language on Twitter are
very different things and these call-outs are leading to productive
public conversations anyway speech is a powerful thing it’s why we need to
protect it from government censorship and also use it responsibly I’ll put a
link to a conch points video series on free speech I think you will really like
if you are interested in this discussion however I will give the last words on
this to a quote from GQ magazine from Patton Oswalt a lot of the arguments and
tantrums that I’m hearing from the so-called Un-PC crowd are not different from the arguments from baggy pants seltzer bottle comedians when people like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor came along why don’t
we got to talk about the president and stuff like that why can’t you just talk
about my mother-in-law my new car that doesn’t work basically someone going I
don’t want to be reminded of where my talent and creativity has plateaued so
now I’m gonna fight to stop time so that I can still be relevant and that exact
same is happening now with the unpeople my comedy career got ruined because of
political correctness no it didn’t you just weren’t funny and now you’re trying
to find an excuse as to why it got shut down
just a reminder if you haven’t yet you should check out the origin of
everything over there they unpack things taken for granted in modern society and
unwrap its historical roots it’s one of my favorite channels on YouTube and I
really think that if you like step back you will love the origin of everything
I want to thank twelve-tone for the theme song thought slime for the voice
of Patton Oswalt and patrons Don and Kerry Johnson : money Garrak Kwan
Michael Kirchner Scott Smith and James McNiece come back next time for more
step back if I could get the audio by about Monday that’d rule oh sorry
Tristan I probably wasn’t supposed to read that part

28 thoughts on “How Comedy Saved Free Speech | Americana

  1. 7:02 I think posthumous pardons are deeply problematic because the person is unable to decide whether they want to accept it or not.

  2. American history gets ever weirder and more interesting. Watch some more discussions of American history and culture here:

  3. right winger free speecher what they say: all speech matters!
    what they are really saiding: I really want my speech to be all apporved and get a shit ton of money from. also i don’t cared if left wing speech getting censored becuase alot of it cultural marxist!!!!!

  4. That what I say thag humor is the most powerful thing in language. It eases is into territory that we don’t like.

  5. The arguments being made about current censorship and freedom of speech center around freedom of speech as an ideal rather than freedom of speech as a law. Yes, many people say "first amendment" when it is clearly wrong. Being banned from Youtube or having a hundred protestors show up at your church and scream so loud you can't be heard are not violations of the first amendment because they aren't being done by a government.

    However, when people say this, what they are actually meaning is the concept of freedom of speech as a social good that we as a society (not a government) should uphold. In the example of Lenny, it was bad that he was convicted of obscenity and harassed by the government. However, it was also bad that he was blacklisted from TV and driven out of cities. While being convicted of obscenity was a violation of his legal rights, shutting him out of all venues was a violation of the social contract which says we as a liberal western democracy value freedom of speech (no matter how untrue that may be at times).

    It boils down to whether people are just not wanting to listen to you or people are making sure that others don't get to listen to you. In Lenny's situation, those who were offended at his comedy routine could choose not to watch him and that is great. However, when they said "I don't like it so no one should be able to see it" they were violating his "freedom of speech" from a social (not legal) point of view.

    Sure, punching down is bad and we don't like people who are racists, but the entire point of freedom of speech as a concept is that it is wrong for the majority (or a loud minority) to decide what other people get to say. It doesn't matter whether we agree with the majority's decision. In fact, in order to fight our own tendency to agree with people we like, those dedicated to a free society should be more strident in protecting the social freedoms of those they disagree with.

  6. Were you planning on making a video about Saudi Arabia's current dispute with Canada? Would love to get your take on that!

  7. I'm curious if you're speaking intentionally slower in newer videos? I noticed it in the non-animated videos first, and it seemed there like you were just kind of tired, like fed up with the kind of bullshit happening in the world and unhappy to be talking about it yet again. I thought maybe that was an intentional rhetorical device there, a performance to convey your dismay, but in an animated format like this (which I do like that you've brought back!) I'm getting a bit of tone mismatch, like the video looks like it should sound snappy and upbeat but you still sound tired and dismayed instead.

  8. But…but…Jordan Peterson and Alex Jones told me cultural Marxist feminazi oppressed white male conservatives something something the West….so yeah!

  9. I don't know if you watch TIK's history YouTube channel, but I think you should do a response to his 'National Socialism IS Socialism' video. I do respect TIK and love his channel, but I seriously think his video on the topic requires a response from other history YouTubers because even I can see some serious flaws in the argument. If it was a case of another alt-righter making baseless claims I wouldn't, but in this case I do.

  10. The college campus free speech issue today was manufactured by a few right wingers. In reality, people on the left are much more likely to be censored, especially those who support BDS.

  11. I do believe deplatforming is a form of censorship in a world of social media removing someone from platforms is silencing them. Free speech goes both ways it allows everyone no matter the identity to speak. No matter if your Nazi, Commie, Left, Right as long as you are not inciting violence no matter how offensive it is your right of free speech will not be infringed. The government is there only to protect your rights, with the Alex Jones Situation (not a fan but doesn't matter) a government body needs to step in to protect people being deplatformed based on they do not conform to a company's ideology.

  12. This reminds me of Tom Lehrer's song *Smut*, which was inspired by a different trial, but still, obscenity laws. Lehrer may have sung about then-current events, but his songs have aged remarkably well. Sadly this is in part due to us not having solved the problems of the sixties to the extent I wish we had…

  13. I m a comedian in strong favour of free speech. Coincidentally I was born the very day Lennie Bruce died. I didn’t know this information until now . . . .and- I’ve been in real trouble for speaking out too! And this was before I knew anything about him! We need some twightlight zon emusic.

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