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The new wave of satiric comedians hailed from college campuses and cellar nightclubs, such as San Francisco’s “the hungry i” (named for its “hungry intellectual” clientele). These comics attracted younger, more affluent, more educated, more self-consciously “hip” audiences than those for whom comedians trained in vaudeville performed. Critic Ralph J. Gleason commented that the new comedy “bears a strong resemblance to jazz. It is rooted in the same dissent, nurtured in the same rebellion and articulated in the same language in which the priorities of the Establishment have no standing at all.” When the new comedians reached the mainstream through comedy albums and appearances on television variety shows, they often had to moderate their iconoclastic material to suit national tastes. In adapting, they relied on comic talent that transcended politics, and in so doing, became part of the mass culture they once had satirized.

Satire is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover everybody’s Face but their own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it.—Jonathan Swift, 1704


“I Am Not a Nut”

Lenny Bruce was Bob Hope’s favorite of the new comedians. Bruce was “pure show business. . . . He talked our language.” After attending one of Bruce’s performances, Hope said “he asked me seriously if I had a spot on my TV show for him. Now I admired the man but with that kind of material? I thought fast and said, ‘Lenny, I think you’d do better on educational television.’” Walter Cronkite was less enthusiastic, as indicated in a letter to cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

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Nichols and May

Mike Nichols (b. 1931) and Elaine May (b. 1932) began their performing careers as members of the Compass Players, an improvisational comedy troupe situated within the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park community. Forming a team in 1957, Nichols and May moved to New York, where, in the words of critic Robert Brustein (b. 1927), their routines satirizing “false piety, cloying sentiment, and institutional stupidity,” found success in nightclubs, television, their own Broadway show, and, especially, comedy albums.

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Dick Gregory

While not the first black comedian to perform before integrated audiences, Dick Gregory, in the words of author Mel Watkins (b. 1940), “avoided most of the superficial mannerisms and traditional subjects that overtly defined old-time African American humor, concentrating on the irony and satire that undergirded it.” Ebony magazine credited Dick Gregory’s success in mainstream show business venues with opening doors for other black comedians, such as Nipsey Russell (1918–2005), Slappy White(1921–1995), Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894–1975), Timmie Rogers (1914–2006), George Kirby (1923–1995), Redd Foxx (1922–1991), Bill Cosby (b. 1937), Godfrey Cambridge(1933–1976), and Richard Pryor(1940–2005). Gregory’s commitment to social activism became apparent with the release of the album My Brother’s Keeper, the proceeds of which funded a food bank in Mississippi.

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Mort Sahl at Sunset

Taped in 1955, Mort Sahl at Sunset was released after Mort Sahl had gained national renown three years later. Sahl’s conversational style relied on an improvisational approach similar to that of a jazz musician. “I never found you could write the act,” he told an interviewer. “You can’t rehearse the audience’s responses. You adjust to them every night.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917–2007), believed “Sahl’s popularity is a sign of a yearning for youth, irreverence, trenchancy, satire, a clean break with the past.”

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The New Frontier

After years of satirizing the Eisenhower administration, Mort Sahl wrote jokes for Senator John F. Kennedy’s (1917–1963)1960 presidential campaign, when the candidate’s father requested his assistance. During the Democratic National Convention, however, Sahl announced, “It is not my ambition to become court jester to the Democratic candidates for President.” Sahl satirized the Kennedy administration pointedly, to the displeasure of Kennedy’s father and White House officials, who, Sahl claimed, pressured club owners not to hire him.

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A Fan’s Support

Mort Sahl (b. 1927) directed his iconoclastic darts not only at politicians. Distinguishing his style of political humor from Bob Hope’s, Sahl remarked: “I do satire and satire is essentially subversive. To do satire you have to be on the outside.” After the telecast of Hope’s 1969 Christmas show from Vietnam attracted more viewers than any previous entertainment show, Sahl appeared on a Los Angeles talk show and insulted Hope, stating “Bob Hope sells Christmas to the highest bidder,” prompting this letter of support from a fan.

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The First Family

Vaughn Meader (1936–2004) achieved instant fame impersonating President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) in The First Family, a record album that playfully spoofed the Kennedy clan “as though they might be anybody’s next-door neighbor,” Meader explained. The recording sold 7.5 million copies in the year before Kennedy’s death. Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978) celebrated the album’s welcome within American culture: “This making fun of people in authority is very healthy. It is the difference between democracy and tyranny.”

Vaughn Meader, November 20, 1962. UPI Photo. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division , Library of Congress (025.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24368]

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United States History in Satire

Unlike his comedic contemporaries Mort Sahl (b. 1927), Lenny Bruce (1925–1966), and Dick Gregory (b. 1932), who improvised onstage before live audiences, Stan Freberg mastered the aesthetic opportunities of the sound studio for his satires. In Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Vol. 1, The Early Years, he created a musical revue that lampooned events from 1492 to the Revolution, while satirically commenting on contemporary times. Time called the work “arguably the best comedy album ever made.”

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George Carlin

George Carlin (1937–2008) stated he was “changed forever” by the comedy of Lenny Bruce (1925–1966): “The defiance inherent in that material, the brilliance of the mimicry, the intellect at work, the freedom he had.” In Carlin’s early career, he believed that the role of a comedian was to speak out against authority. Carlin’s approach mellowed on his television appearances, but by the late 1960s, he had regained the role of social satirist.

George Carlin, ca. April 1967. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24366]

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Return to Political Humor List Previous Section: Breaking with Tradition | Next Section: The Dangers of Satire

Sections: Political Humor | Causes and Controversies | Blurring of the Lines