Will Rogers was the first popular humorist to tackle serious political and social issues, to make light of them and then put them in context of the times. He realized that “people are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke” which is still true today.
The comedian/political commentators of today started with Lenny Bruce who poked fun and ranted on about politics, law, race, religion, Jews and the Ku Klux Klan, sex, patriotism and abortion all in minute obscenity laden detail. The Establishment retaliated prosecuting him for obscenity; convicted when clearly innocent he died before being exonerated on appeal.
He was followed by George Carlin with his “7 [we all know them] Dirty Words”, that the FCC objected to which led to a Supreme Court decision which tried to define “indecent” as OK and “obscene” as criminal. His comment on abortion that fetuses have more rights than kindergarteners: “If you’re pre-born, you’re fine, if you’re preschool, you’re fucked” struck a raw nerve. He too was muzzled by obscenity criminal prosecutions.
Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Lewis Black followed. But they, like Will Rogers, were one show at a time phenomena, a concert here, a special there. They had a following but they lacked continuity and follow through, which brings us today’s established weekly and daily comedy shows Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.
Bill Maher reminds us too much of Jack Paar’s and Johnny Carson’ tired tame monologues interspersed with a couple of “fucks” and “shits” for flavor. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert push the envelope but not by much. It has taken HBO’s John Oliver, a buck toothed ex-pat British twit, to make This Week Tonight the current go to show for astute political comedic commentary that lives up to Will Rogers’ pronouncements such as “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for” and “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated”.
This Week Tonight weds American sensibilities with the outrageous burlesque of the old British vaudeville themed Benny Hill Show, full of pratfalls, visual gags and good old fashioned smut with Hill in an outlandish uniform ogling and then goosing a buxom broad with his sword.
Not to be outdone this past season TWT featured a gecko like thing in costume, a break dancing caricature of Uncle Sam, a Supreme Court made of cuddly canine, a dimwitted Miss America 2015, a plucked chicken doing a pole dance and salmon shot from cannons.
The issues that were diced, parsed, parodied and made laughingly relevant included but were not limited to the death penalty, student debt, civil relevant included but were not limited to the death penalty, student debt, civil forfeiture abuses, net neutrality, gambling, the lottery, the Supreme Court, drones, dietary supplements, the monarchy, LGBT rights in Uganda, income inequality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, incarceration in the United States, nuclear weapons, the Argentine debt restructuring, payday loans, police militarization, equal pay, Scottish independence, embargo against Cuba and the Kansas state budget shortfall. Quite a list if you ask me.
President Obama seems to have caught on: this past week he appeared parodying himself and Obama Care on the Colbert Show – the politician now taking on the role of comedian and poking fun at himself.
So keep laughing with the comedians but take their irreverent humor to heart: address the issues and demand change and do something about it.