Striking Back at the Empire

How comedians throughout history have raged against the machine

Bruce, Pryor, and Carlin / By Jeroen Koolhaus

Lenny Bruce earned $108,000 (US) in 1960. In 1964, he made only $6,000. He was bankrupt by 1965, and by 1966 he was dead. The police found him lying on the bathroom floor of his Los Angeles home on August 3, 1966, with a needle in his arm. He had overdosed on either morphine or heroin. It was a tawdry end, but the police felt compelled to add their own personal touches. They moved his body to a more dramatic position, found a package of syringes, and placed them under the sink near Bruce’s body. Then they called the press and brought photographers in, two by two, to capture the death tableau on film.

To those in power it was important that news of Bruce’s death circulate worldwide. He wasn’t just a comedian, as he often told his audiences; he was “Lenny Bruce,” a citizen who never bought into the Cold War, mainstream sexuality, racism, or religion. Bruce once said, “If communism cooks for you—solid, man. But I’m not gonna try to free anybody.” In fact, he questioned the very notion of American supremacy. “I’d walk in any country, I don’t need a visa,” he said. “But I would shit to walk in Mississippi with a sign on my back: ‘I’m from New York.’ ”

Talk alone didn’t make him dangerous. It was the fact that people listened that made Lenny Bruce lethal. He was a Pied Piper, a philosophical enemy of the state, hounded by the religious right, the police, and the fbi. They accused him of obscenity, but Bruce knew the truth. When a New York City court found him guilty, he answered: “The issue is not obscenity, but that I spit in the face of authority.”

Bruce’s death made him a martyr for free speech, a distinctly modern one. Stand-up comedy was perfected in America, springing out of vaudeville and minstrel shows. Prior to Bruce, comics such as Henny Youngman recited strings of mother-in-law jokes, and others such as Danny Thomas told innocuous comic stories. Bruce began his career doing the same sort of mild-mannered routine, but soon adopted a more improvisational approach. He was the first to use stand-up as a means of personal invective. To him, it was a tool with which to attack those in power. His comedy existed in the grey netherworld between the way things are and the way they are supposed to be. “Let me tell you the truth,” he often said. “The truth is—what is. And what ‘should be’ is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.”

While Bruce may seem like a twentieth-century original, his comedy and that of the adversarial American stand-ups who have followed him—comics such as Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, and Lewis Black—are, in fact, distant cousins to a breed of satirists who assailed another political colossus: the Roman Empire. These ancient satirists practised their acerbic arts just prior to and during the age of the Principate (27 bc to ad 235), when Rome changed from a republic governed by the senate to an empire ruled by a single man. Then, as in Bruce’s heyday, the shift from a state responsible to its citizens to a state maintained for those who wished to expand and rule it created a climate in which the individual’s right to object became a sacred calling. “It’s hard not to write satire,” wrote Juvenal, arguably Rome’s greatest satirist, “for who is so tolerant of this unjust city, so unfeeling, as to hold himself back?”

While the Romans borrowed theatre and literature from the Greeks, satire was theirs alone. The first satire was written by a Roman named Ennius and only fragments of his work still exist. He was followed by Lucilius, who targeted both private figures and Roman society, which he described as “disgruntled, hard to please, scornful of good things.” Horace (65–8 bc), one of Rome’s greatest poets, fought on the side of Brutus during the civil war. He returned, defeated and bankrupt, and turned his hand to writing. “Why may not one be telling the truth while one laughs,” he wrote, “as teachers sometimes give little boys cakes to coax them into learning their letters?”

It is important to recognize that Roman poets not only wrote their satire, they spoke it, in public. Tony Perrottet, author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, notes that poets would speak at the villas of the rich, art galleries, and even during intermissions at sporting events. Readings could last for days, and the wine-soaked crowds, much like contemporary stand-up comedy audiences, were expected to be vociferous in their praise or distaste.

The early years of an empire inevitably trigger, in certain individuals, the need to call that empire’s weaknesses to account. One quality both Roman satirists and their latter-day American counterparts share is an idealist’s nostalgia for the past. Bruce was a true believer in the US Constitution, just as Lewis Black is today. “It’s a damn fine piece of writing,” Black says during his stand-up performances. “But we shit on it all the same.” This romanticism is almost always punished. Wrote Frank Kofsky in Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist, “Lenny was betrayed by his faith in the power of truth and reason as weapons, and his corollary tendency to underestimate the extent of official venality and incompetence.”

In essence, the same can be said for Rome’s most notorious satirists: Petronius and Juvenal, both of whom wrote and declaimed during an age of bad emperors. Petronius (ad 26–66) was a nobleman “learned in luxury” and a favourite of the emperor Nero, who gave him the title “the Arbiter of Elegance.” Petronius was the author of Satyricon, only a small portion of which survives. The Satyricon follows the exploits of two adventurers making their lascivious way through Roman society. It is a meandering, smutty tale filled with homosexual rape, anal dildos, incest, pederasty, fellatio, heterosexual anal sex, and virtually any other wrinkle one can conjure up. “She mixed the juice of watercress with absinthe,” Satyricon’s hero, Encolpius, recounts, “and after soaking my genitals in it took a bunch of stinging nettles and started gently lashing my whole body from the navel down.”

Petronius, like Bruce, was obsessed by the notion of obscenity and led a life of hedonistic excess. His book is a blow not against sexual dalliance, but against bad taste and hypocrisy, an ironic twist considering his audience—Nero—was a man known for his vulgarity. Ultimately, Petronius fell out of favour and Nero ordered him to commit suicide. Even so, the Arbiter of Elegance did not lose his composure. He ran a bath, slit his wrists, and slowly bled to death. Periodically he stopped up his wounds and did some writing. By the time he was finished, Petronius had composed a volume detailing all of Nero’s bisexual encounters, making special effort to cite the names of each and every partner. He sent a copy to the emperor. “There is nothing more insincere than people’s silly convictions,” he wrote prophetically in the Satyricon, “or more silly than their sham morality.”

Juvenal, in contrast, lived a Spartan existence of broiling anger. Little is known of his life but most agree he was born some time around ad 60. The son of a rich freedman, he saw his society as a diseased mockery of the glory it had once displayed. He created sixteen blistering satires assailing everything from the city of Rome to women to homosexuals to patrons and judges. He wrote during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian when, though there was limited free speech, open attacks against the powerful were dangerous. “We live in the Ninth Age,” he wrote in Book Five of his Satires, “an era more evil than that of iron. Nature herself has found no name for its wickedness, no metal base enough to distinguish it.”

The rise of personal invective during the first bloom of a new empire is visible throughout Western history. Each time there comes a period in which individual malcontents feel compelled to express their criticisms with humour, satirists adopt the most efficient means of disseminating their message. In Rome, it was the art of declamation. In Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the printing press used by satirists such as John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, who published cutting parodies of their era’s foibles, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. For Bruce, it was the microphone and the record album.

It is fair to say that America’s ascent to empire was complete by the end of the Second World War. And, like all successful empires, it had an adversary with which to justify its expansion: communism. In 1945, Leonard Alfred Schneider left the US Navy and by 1947 had changed his name to Lenny Bruce. By 1957, he had become what then Tonight Show host Steve Allen called “the most shocking comedian of our time.”

Bruce inevitably was intrigued by the moral implications of words and their mainstream connotations. He said that if anyone “believes that God made the body, and the body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer.” He was famous for his riff on the expression “to come.” “If anyone in this room,” he would tell the audience, “or the world, finds those two words decadent, obscene, immoral, amoral, asexual—the words ‘to come’ really make you feel uncomfortable, if you think I’m rank for saying it to you, you the beholder gets ranked from listening to it, you probably can’t come.”

Bruce drew the ire of the Catholic Church, which he regularly attacked, as well as the government and pretty much every other establishment organization. It became fashionable for local forces to charge him with obscenity. Club owners became afraid to book him—all because he spoke openly about the realities he saw in America. “My humour is based on destruction and despair,” he wrote in his book, The Essential Lenny Bruce. “If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.”

Bruce’s death was ruled a drug overdose, but the genie had been released, and those who followed him were even more “obscene” and confrontational. By the mid-1970s, it became fashionable in the US to refer to the “imperial presidency.” The theory, one established in the 1970s by the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his book The Imperial Presidency, was that the powers of the office threatened the constitutional system. The Watergate scandal then helped set the stage for Richard Pryor and George Carlin, two stand-ups who both had problems with drugs. Pryor had an acute sense of comic timing. His albums, such as That Nigger’s Crazy, revolutionized popular culture. About drugs, he said, “They call it an epidemic because white people are doin’ it.” On meeting President Ronald Reagan he said, “The motherfucker looked at me like I owed him money.” Rap, hip hop—none of it would have been possible without him. Carlin, meanwhile, took a broad approach to the notion of what is, or is not, obscene. His “The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” remains a classic. Religion was another Carlin favourite. “Eating meat on Friday? Man, imagine—are there people in purgatory still doing time for a meat rap?”

In the 1990s, Bill Hicks became the standard-bearer for agitating comedy. Born in Texas, Hicks was the only one of a few comedians doing material that questioned the validity of the first Gulf War. “I guess the most amazing thing about the war is the disparity in the number of casualties, Iraq: 150,000. usa: 79. Does that mean if we’d sent over eighty guys we still would have won that fucking thing? People say: ‘Yeah Bill, but Iraq had the fourth-largest army in the world.’ Yeah, well, after the first three, there’s a real big fucking drop-off; the Hare Krishnas are the fifth-largest army in the world.” Hicks was frequently censored and bumped from American network television. He eventually found acceptance in Britain, but died in 1994 at thirty-two of pancreatic cancer. He had finally signed a deal to do an American television series.

Lenny Bruce, Petronius, Bill Hicks, Juvenal. The truth doesn’t pay very well and the hours are horrible, yet there are always a few willing to voice their outrage against the empire through comedy. At least, as long as the memory of better days gone by still holds. It may be a higher calling, or it may just be a matter of matching skills to job description. “What am I to do in Rome?” Juvenal asked. “I don’t know how to lie.”

Andrew Clark