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Blog June 24, 2022

Free Expression Walks into a Bar, Part 2: How Stand-up Comedy Became the Target of Censorship


Historically, stand-up comedy has pushed expressive boundaries and found itself at the forefront of battles over free expression. In Part 1 of this series, I made the case that stand-up comedy, even the deliberately offensive kind, can tell us something important about free expression. 

Stand-up comedy helps identify the boundaries of free expression in any society. Further, while it’s tempting to argue that protection for expression should be dependent on its real or perceived social value, stand-up comedy that grates our moral sensibilities often plays a vital role that may not be obvious or appreciated at the time. 

In this part, I want to take an historical look, especially given recent events, such as the controversies over Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais’s most recent Netflix specials and Will Smith’s infamous slap of Chris Rock during this year’s Academy Awards. At a time when stand-up is perhaps too easily a target of censorship due to its potential discriminatory effects, it is important to reflect upon how misguided censorship efforts have been.

The Comedic Anti-Heroes of Free Expression

Like every subculture, stand-up comedy features enduring legends whose artistic contributions are a window into its history. A brief look at three personalities (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor) who consistently rank among the greatest comedians of all time illustrates the degree to which free expression has been well-served by stand-up comics. 

If one is charting the trajectory of subversive comedy that pushed boundaries for expression in North America, they will eventually find Lenny Bruce, arguably the godfather of social commentary delivered from a stand-up stage. Bruce’s stream of consciousness style spared no sacred cow. An important prelude to the countercultural insurgency of the 1960s, Bruce’s incisive and satirical jokes grated the Victorian sensibilities of post-war America. Although he was the target of a raft of different expressive bans – ranging from airwaves to cities – his greatest enemy was the then self-professed enforcer of all that was decent: the American government. 

During his heyday, Bruce was obsessively followed by undercover agents and prosecuted for language that wouldn’t manage to get a teenager suspended from high school now. His 1964 conviction for obscenity is a landmark free speech case in American jurisprudence. Bruce was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison. He died while out on bail, waiting for his appeal to be heard. To his credit, New York State Governor, George Pataki, posthumously pardoned Bruce in 2003. More than anyone, Bruce set the scene for stand-up comedy becoming an explicit front against puritanical social mores and state censorship. 

While his tumultuous life is far from unblemished, to put it mildly, he remains an enduring legend whose art has inspired stand-up comics across North America and around the world. Further, his numerous run-ins with law enforcement and an overzealous state fostered a link between comedic art forms and subcultural subversion in the popular imagination, one that still pervades depictions of stand-up in popular culture. 

In the 1970s, George Carlin picked up Bruce’s torch and started sprinting. A protégé of Bruce, Carlin’s various routines similarly consisted of training an audience’s ear to the absurdities of ad-hoc censorship, particularly the alleged power of specific words to corrupt the morals of American society. 

Carlin’s infamous ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television’ routine became another landmark free speech case in American jurisprudence, following directly in Bruce’s footsteps. Carlin was also arrested while performing on stage, but it was an official complaint to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that set off a chain of events beginning with an FCC decision that broadcasting the routine on the radio (even if preceded by a disclaimer) was indecent and ought to be censored as a part of its statutory authority. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruling in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation narrowly found that the FCC could legitimately impose expressive restrictions based on notions of public decency. 

The imperviousness of the public airwaves to the spirit of the First Amendment did not mean that Carlin would suspend his subversion of linguistic norms and social mores. Instead, his routines consistently targeted the purveyors of censorship – at that time mostly puritanical crusaders motivated by evangelism – like the catalyst for the initial FCC complaint, Reverend Donald Wildmon. Casual quips during his routines included, for example: “Now I don’t know how you feel about it, but I have personally just about had it with these fucking church people.” His incisive social commentary held up a massive mirror to American society and endures as some of the most poignant and insightful contributions to the genre. Like Bruce, Carlin has inspired countless other stand-up comics to carve out new space for critical, observational routines, and has essentially become a pop culture archetype as a result.

Along with Bruce and Carlin, Richard Pryor is consistently cited as one of the most influential stand-up comics of all time. As a black man in America, he broke countless barriers and revolutionized a less than diverse industry. But it wasn’t just Pryor’s presence on stage that pushed boundaries. He was unafraid to plumb the depths of human ignorance and hypocrisy, simultaneously exposing the irrationality of racial prejudice and shedding critical light on otherwise banal (and sometimes ridiculous) subjects. Although Pryor’s career was not marred by as many high-profile incidences of censorship as were those of Bruce and Carlin, his risqué sensibilities were firmly antithetical to dominant culture. 

In 1977, a short scene was cut from the inaugural episode of his series on NBC, a decision he described as “a violation of an artist’s right.” The Richard Pryor Show was unduly short-lived, mostly because its unsparingly critical approach to sociocultural issues did not bode well for mainstream audience engagement, nor network executives and advertisers. Pryor’s infamous ‘word association’ skit on Saturday Night Live with Chevy Chase in 1975 endures as one of the most provocative segments ever aired on television. Notably, Pryor was the first black man to host the show. 

Although Pryor’s status as a countercultural icon is undeniable, it was far from immediate or predictable. During his coming of age, Bill Cosby’s anodyne comedy routines still loomed large in American culture. Although Cosby undoubtedly broke racial barriers himself, his comedic approach was marked by a noticeable aversion to social issues (especially race and racism), providing comfortable opportunities for (mostly white) audiences to identify with otherness on stage.

Pryor dramatically changed all of that. In 1967, he muttered “What the fuck am I doing here?” to a sold-out crowd in Las Vegas. That infamous and impromptu stage departure signaled his evolution towards comedic territory that he found more artistically exciting and fulfilling. Pryor went on to immerse himself in the countercultural insurgency of the 1960s, including the Black Power movement, reading Malcolm X, and rubbing elbows with Huey P. Newton. 

When Pryor evolved from clean-cut performances to a full-fledged gritty and vulgar approach, his on-stage vernacular frequently included the n-word, setting him markedly apart from his contemporaries. For Pryor, at least at the time, this was a powerful act of reclaiming and reframing a word heavy with pain and suffering. But he eventually reconsidered his approach after visiting Africa in the late 1970s, vowing to completely ditch his use of the word. He worried that audiences would fail to grasp the complexity and nuance of his symbolic act. Although elements of his routines may not have aged particularly well – like virtually everyone else of the previous era – Pryor demonstrated an admirable capability for personal and intellectual growth and was, in multiple senses, ahead of his time. 

Does Canada Have a Comedic Deficit?

You’re probably wondering what three American comedic legends can tell us about free expression in Canada. For both good and bad reasons, American cultural exports have had profound influences on Canada, including Canadian comedy. Canada has a bustling stand-up comedy scene – often associated with the annual international festival, Just for Laughs, in Montréal. But it is sometimes hard for Canadian comedy to stand out in the shadow of an overwhelming cultural tsunami. Nonetheless, despite a not insignificant amount of comedy clubs across Canada, the country isn’t particularly well known for dark, edgy, and subversive comedy, which is at least one reason why Mike Ward has found himself at the centre of a legal case and controversy that would not likely have happened elsewhere. 

Although there are observable influences from British dry wit in Canadian humour, our humour is comparatively tame and risk-averse across the English-speaking world and most of Europe. This is more of an observation than a judgment, as there have been multiple long-running franchises in Canadian comedy that are still rightfully cherished, including The Kids in the HallThe Rick Mercer ReportThe Royal Canadian Air FarceThis Hour Has 22 Minutes, and SCTV. That said, comedy that explicitly provokes and pushes boundaries seems to be the exception and not the rule. Among these Canadian exceptions are Kenny vs. SpennyThe Tom Green Show, and Trailer Park Boys, all of which owe their fame to significantly departing from mainstream Canadian humour. 

According to a writer behind a well-known Canadian comedy show with whom I spoke last year, Canadian stand-up comedy lacks the adventurism, creativity, and risk on display elsewhere because of a deep sociocultural conservatism and structural elements associated with the Canadian entertainment industry. Perhaps most notably, our entertainment industry tends to chase a prototypical ‘Canadian’ audience, albeit theoretical, which results in a bland and repetitive regurgitation of signifiers of Canadian identity (think Tim Hortons, cold weather, and politeness). 

As well, the culture of Canada’s economic sector isn’t conducive to artistic risk-taking. Compared to the plethora of comedy clubs that one could frequent across the United States, even an incredibly talented Canadian comic will inevitably struggle to make ends meet with limited range of venues here. This means that stand-up comedians must often supplement their income by taking on other kinds of work in the entertainment industry. Not being (that) funny routinely goes unpunished in the industry, as there is widespread recognition that the most gainfully employed in Canada aren’t exactly breaking boundaries. Add to this what was described to me as “cowardice” in the middle and upper management of the entertainment industry, and we have a perfect risk-aversion recipe for comedy that will rarely, if ever, be transgressive.

The contrast between these two comedic environments that share a border is important context for the Ward case. While the United States has a long history of legal cases involving stand-up comics that pushed expressive boundaries, Canada has relatively few. Ward is an important case not just because of the novel facts – related to both artistic and free expression and potential discrimination – but because it signals the degree to which Canadian law and society will now tolerate comedy in the name of free expression. 

It also means that the lessons gleaned from comedic history aren’t at all confined to America, because comedy that does its job by testing boundaries will eventually find itself on the receiving end of state power. Put another way, the social purpose of stand-up comedy steers it into a natural collision course with would be censors. The broader point, therefore, is that it took pioneers to carve out additional artistic space for edgy comedy, something for which comics fought and won, through the law and in society at large. 

Why Free Expression Needs Stand-Up Comedy (and vice versa)

Before Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor (among many others for which there isn’t enough space to do them all justice), stand-up comedy was more banal than it was challenging and less concerned about social commentary than about satiating conservative sociocultural appetites. According to Jason Zinoman in the New York Times – while eulogizing another comedic revolutionary, Mort Sahl – stand-up comics are now “philosophers, political sages, conspiracy-mongers, grumps, rebels and outcasts.” Without an appreciation of history, it’s all too easy to take for granted the artistic and free expression that’s the product of stand-up comics pushing our collective buttons, including finding themselves in courtrooms occasionally. 

As a result of stand-up comics serving as a bulwark against censorship efforts, a specific form of comedy – the artist as radical truth teller – has gradually gained cultural currency. In turn, that form of comedy has become a convenient target of ambitious censors everywhere, including authoritarians, puritans, and, perhaps more routinely and ominously, those who simply fail to grasp the meaning of an uncomfortable art form.  

As the preceding brief historical tour has shown, stand-up comedy sometimes finds itself at the crossroads of free expression and censorship. In hindsight, given the fact that society generally expects stand-up comics to push buttons in the public interest, yesterday’s censors were mostly wrong. 

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll walk readers through some of the more recent controversies associated with stand-up comedy and free expression and ask how and why demands for censorship have changed significantly over time. 

More specifically, I’ll make two related arguments. The first is relatively uncontroversial: stand-up comedy has undergone incredible changes in the past half-century or so, becoming more diverse and eclectic than ever. The second challenges the increasingly popular notion that censorship serves the purposes of anti-discrimination and greater diversity and inclusion. 

I’ll make the case that the history of stand-up comedy illustrates precisely the opposite. Even censorship based on good intentions did not necessarily have the effect of making stand-up comedy more diverse or inclusive. In fact, efforts to restrict artistic expression were often laden with unintended consequences, suggesting that the censorship of the past may have been just as misguided as the censorship of the present.