Some of the satirists from the 1950s used their entertainment platforms to do more than simply entertain. Following the assassination of President Kennedy, Mort Sahl, who had written jokes for Kennedy and had satirized him mercilessly, launched an attack on the veracity of the Warren Report that left his audiences unsettled. In the last years of his life, Lenny Bruce spent large portions of his act commenting on his own legal battles fighting obscenity charges. Dick Gregory’s career as a comedian often was interrupted as he became deeply involved in the civil rights, antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements, in addition to running for president. All wove political activism into their comedic performances at the risk of alienating their audiences.
When anyone publicly abuses another in a loud voice, or writes a poem for the purpose of insulting him, or rendering him infamous, he shall be beaten with a rod until he dies.—Roman Twelve Tables of Law, ca. 450 B.C.E.
Satire as a Weapon
As a 1968 presidential candidate, Dick Gregory (b. 1932) garnered 47,000 votes. Taking the oath of “President of the United States in Exile,” Gregory declared, “America is worth saving,” encouraging his youthful followers to “find out where the cancer is and cut it out.” Chicago Defender journalist Ethel L. Payne (1911–1991) commented of Gregory’s inauguration, “It was something like a satirical farce, only satire has become a deadly weapon of protest instead of amusement as it once was.”
Needed [Public Citizen #1. President of the United States in Exile. Inaugurated 3-4-69], 1969. Poster. Yanker Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00) [Digital ID # yan-1a37760]
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Satire on Trial
Lenny Bruce (1925–1966) was arrested on obscenity charges after performing at a San Francisco club on October 4, 1961. During the trial, Bruce’s lawyer invoked the tradition of Chaucer and James Joyce, arguing that Bruce employed satire to criticize a hypocritical society. Although the jury found Bruce not guilty, he subsequently faced similar prosecutions in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and died of a drug overdose while waiting for the appeal of a jail sentence.
Lenny Bruce booked on obscenity charges in San Francisco, October 4, 1961. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00) [Digital ID# cph-3c18200]
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