Back in 1977, more than two decades after the word “pregnant” stunned the censors of “I Love Lucy,” dirty-mouthed comedian George Carlin performed his stand-up act on the small screen. Disclaimers appeared not once but twice, freezing the finale of his routine with an apologetic warning of what was to come.
The nervous-Nellie network behind this abundance of caution? A little start-up called HBO.
The show may have been a tipping point, the midpoint of a revolution. In between Bob Newhart and Chris Rock, Phyllis Diller and Margaret Cho, American comedy changed dramatically. It coarsened, expanded, and sharpened thanks to new freedoms. Gone were one-liners about nonexistent nagging wives, replaced by true tales of ghetto life, sexual frustration, and a certain seven dirty words.
“The old comics made jokes about real life. The new comics turned real life into the joke,” writes journalist Richard Zoglin in his sharp, perceptive history Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America.
Zoglin tracks about a dozen comedians including cultural shock troops (Lenny Bruce), class clowns (Steve Martin), cerebral wordsmiths (Carlin), slice-of-life observers (Jay Leno) and Mr. Indescribable (Andy Kaufman).
Behind the scenes, comedians lived lives of rejection and poverty. Until they went on strike, many comedy clubs didn’t even bother to pay them.
But an agent might drop by during a performance and arrange an audience with the kingmaker, aka Johnny Carson. Carson didn’t embrace as many women or ethnic comics as some might have liked, and his tastes could be parochial. But his guffaws had the power to ignite careers.
Zoglin provides some gossip about drug use and bad behavior, but not too much. Especially fascinating are tales about the inner politics of comedy clubs and the struggles of female comedians.
Younger readers might feel lost amid some recaps of one-liners and trademark bits. But certain moments need no explanation, like the time Eddie Murphy asked a “Tonight Show” audience to yell out an ethnic slur, then told Carson, “Last time I was out here, they screamed it before I asked ’em.”
It was a case of reality meeting comedy. And the censors, for once, were silent.