While speaking to veterans in August of this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld drew parallels between critics of the administration’s strategies and those who looked to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II. This calculated attempt to silence his and his cohorts’ numerous detractors was more than a bit hyperbolic. In 1938, Germany had the world’s most powerful armed forces. Its industrial base was ranked second only to the United States, whose military at the time was smaller than that of Finland’s. Rummy’s request that Americans view a dispersed network of terrorist cells with the same concern one would give a global power with massive reserves of wealth and firepower was, quite frankly, laughable. Without hesitation, programs like The Daily Show, Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher began utilizing the defense secretary’s statements as comedic fodder. It was business as usual, employing a little derisive wit to deflate a balloon carrying so much hot air.
Sitting in his New York apartment a day after Rumsfeld’s fascism speech, Daily Show contributor and stand-up comedian Lewis Black shared his thoughts on critics of the administration being aligned with those who appeased Hitler. “He’s insane. He’s completely insane,” lamented Black in an unusually sedate fashion, completely opposite to his stage persona. “His enemy is Osama Bin Laden, and now he’s yelling at me.”
Only a few years ago, audiences that sensed something was amiss with the Bush administration's agenda, but found little resistance in commercially driven mediums like television and radio, rallied around stand-up comedians who infused their acts with pointed political commentary. With a stool and a microphone instead of an acoustic guitar, comics like David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Lewis Black became the new folk singers. If music was the art form speaking truth to power in the turbulent 1960s, stand-up comedy seemed poised to become the preeminent voice representing the disillusioned in the early years of the 21st century.
Power and the politicians who wield it have been lampooned throughout our history. From Jonathan Swift to Mark Twain, the comedic voice has long been a subversive force, but it’s commonly accepted that the confrontational stand-up of today has its roots in America’s post-WW II counterculture.
It was during this time that the legendary Lenny Bruce abandoned the rigid “setup-punch line” structure of traditional stand-up and developed a free-form style of improvisational riffing that combined the poetry of the Beats with the stream-of-conscience approach of bebop musicians. Crass, uninhibited and frequently employing personal experiences and imitations of stodgy authority figures, Bruce took society’s hypocrisies and made them his predominant motif. “All my humor is based upon destruction and despair,” he famously said.
But by the early 1960s the comic’s shtick made him a target of public censors—his flippant use of the word “cocksucker” proved especially sticky. Faced with obscenity charges and mounting legal fees, the iconic stand-up —either out of desperation or sublime inspiration—transformed his act into First Amendment performance art by reading his trial transcripts onstage and providing firsthand commentary on his persecution. His struggles came to an end in 1966, when beaten and tired, Bruce overdosed on morphine, ending a visionary career and leaving a cautionary legacy.
Thanks to the sacrifices of Bruce and others, the price comedians pay for free speech is not nearly as severe as it once was. Yet in early 2003, as the invasion of Iraq seemed more and more imminent, comedians like Black, David Cross and Patton Oswalt, who questioned the government’s march toward war, faced serious financial and popular fallout. With a distinct us-against-them mentality obstructing the nation’s flow of rational thought, those in the public eye who bucked prevailing opinion put themselves in a awkward position.
In February 2003, Oswalt began a performance in Pittsburgh without any idea that people would ask him about the night for years to come. After getting laughs for most of his set, he began spouting off about President Bush. Minutes later, objects were being hurled at the stage and the club’s owner was forced to escort him out of the venue through a back door.
“I got booed off stage. People were angry with me,” recalls the Virginia native. “It was during the lead-up to the war. I understand why people were freaked out. They were nervous and got riled up because things were being questioned.”
Undeterred, Oswalt returned to the same material time and again throughout the rest of the tour, some of which appears in his 2004 special, No Reason to Complain. Though his act is also devoted to such disparate topics as ‘80s heavy metal music videos and gut-busting steak houses, Oswalt felt the need to address the impending invasion out of annoyance, fright and fascination.
“[Stand-up] is a pretty primitive art. It’s just a guy with a microphone on the stage,” says Oswalt. “There’s nothing to distract, so your words had better be really strong and clear and true, especially if you’re going to go after what’s going on politically.”
Oswalt’s friend and fellow comedian, David Cross, had a similarly defiant approach when it came to performing controversial material in the wake of 9/11 prior to the launch of the latest Iraq campaign. Much of it can be heard on his 2002 album, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby, and 2004’s It’s Not Funny. “It was just a natural reaction to what was going on. It wasn’t truly dangerous,” says Cross. “What’s dangerous is not saying anything and allowing society to envelope itself around you and cocoon you. If you’re fine with everything, then you’re fine with everything–but I wasn’t, so I said something.”
For Lewis Black—also never one to hold his tongue–the power of words is everything. After receiving his Masters from the Yale School of Drama, he spent much of the 1980s as a struggling playwright in New York City. By the early `90s, Black began performing his own material, only occasionally dabbling in political bits. Around 2001, his focus drastically changed.
“All of the sudden, all I had to do was stand up on stage with the front page of the newspaper and say, `Read this’,” exclaims Black, who recently released a DVD called Red, White and Screwed. “I wished there was something that could be done, even though I take it as a given that there really hasn’t been any interest in what the American people have thought since I was a kid.”
It’s not just what the newspapers said, but what they didn’t say that made Black irate. The concerns of government insiders like CIA agent Joseph Wilson (no Iraqi WMD), General Eric Shinseki (more ground troops are needed) and diplomat John Brady Kiesling (there’s been a systematic manipulation of American opinion) weren’t being vocalized. Instead, blatant misrepresentations like “you can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror,” (President Bush, September 2002) landed on the front page. “I read USA Today a lot,” says Black. “It gives me a pretty good idea of what the American people know.”
For Oswalt as well, the media’s mistakes –combined with America’s unquenchable thirst for distraction—fueled his material at the time. “I thought after 9/11 celebrity news would go away,” he pines. “I honestly thought people would stop caring about celebrities and gossip. Boy, was I stupid.”
Both Oswalt and Cross cite media critic Mark Crispin Miller as a major inspiration whose work has informed their stand-up. Miller dissects celebrity, advertising and various other pop culture beguilements in books like 1988’s Boxed In: The Culture of TV. One of Oswalt’s favorites, it’s a collection of essays that sums up the reductive, mentally incapacitating effect television can have on the viewing audience.
“Boxed In was so influential on me,” explains Oswalt. “That really changed a lot of my stand-up. It’s so eerily prophetic. It’s all about where we’re going to end up.”
When talking about the administration’s missteps, Cross admits to speaking in generalities and references Miller’s later books, including The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder and Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order, as a more articulate form of what he was driving at.
“When I think about Mark Crispin Miller and numerous other people who were pointing things out before we even went into Iraq–they were all right,” says Cross. “It makes you see a side of America that’s very disheartening…Even now, there’s no sense of recrimination or even contrite apology.”
In the words of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore, “Some day this war will end.” If you happened to catch a performance by Oswalt or Cross in recent months, you might wonder if it already has. September’s Comedians of Comedy Tour hit major cities, with Oswalt joined by Brian Posehn, Eugene Mirman and friends. For New York’s Irving Plaza gig, Cross was invited to share the stage. Strangely, there was hardly a mention of Iraq, Afghanistan or President Bush throughout the night.
At this point, says Oswalt, discussing the administration’s flaws amounts to beating the proverbial dead horse. “You’re not going to suddenly get people to start going, ‘Oh, wow, you’re right about them.’ Most people are just resentful.”
Cross has an even more cynical view. “Millions of people around the world have demonstrated against this war and that didn’t affect anything. It didn’t save one life, so no matter what, [the Bush administration] will shunt it aside and dismiss any sort of popular resistance in public opinion.”
There may also be another reason some stand-ups have decided to leave politics behind for the time being. With alternative new programs continuing to garner ratings and raise their profile (in the last few months The Daily Show has booked eminent guests like former president Clinton and Pakistani premiere Pervez Musharraf) the ability to be edgy and confrontational in a stand-up capacity is inhibited. With audiences able to get their daily dose of dissent by doing a little channel surfing, much of the rebellious excitement is sapped from live performance. And while that may not be good for comics trying to stay fresh, it may be good for the rest of us.
“If you stop looking at how hideous things are right now and look at it in terms of where we were when we were in Vietnam, we’re way far ahead,” exclaims the rarely optimistic Black. “At least half the people get it now. Back then, only about 20 percent of the people got it.”
With the 2006 congressional elections and 2008 presidential election looming, we will soon see who gets it—and whether mainstream acceptance of anti-establishment humor leads to action or apathy. Change is sorely needed for an array of reasons, not the least of which is protecting the safety of American troops and the United States’ standing abroad. Even if things continue down the same path, we can be sure of one thing—there will always be those blasting the status quo in order to provide the rest of us with some sanity-reassuring laughter.