5 Sea-Change Historical Moments in Comedy
The great philosopher Samuel L. Jackson once said, “Making history is extremely cool.” But I’m not sure that all comedians would agree. There are hundreds of hilarious moments in comedy, but only a handful that feel like they changed everything — and creating a sea-change sometimes meant being dragged down by history’s undertow.
Here are five moments in comedy that rocked the world, including a few that shook the comics as well…
1964: Lenny Bruce Goes to Jail
Well before 1984, Lenny Bruce proved it was possible to be imprisoned for word crimes. Some might have said Bruce was asking for it, performing routines that took on taboos like religion, sex and drugs. Folks in the 1960s were just warming up to these subjects, but Bruce was on the bleeding edge of the conversation, getting himself banned from clubs and entire cities for bits that the locals deemed dirty, smutty and downright dangerous.
Bruce regularly had run-ins with the law but in 1964, The Man finally got him. He was arrested on obscenity charges after authorities secretly recorded him in a New York club. Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and others testified on Bruce’s behalf, but no matter — he was sentenced to six months in a workhouse. When he got out, no club would hire him, leading to a downward spiral that ended in a drug overdose.
Comedians who complain they can’t say anything anymore? This is what cancel culture really looked like. But Bruce’s nervy comedy inspired other comics to follow in his tradition, opening up a whole new world around language and the things we were willing to discuss in public.
1975: ‘Saturday Night’ Goes Live
Yeah yeah yeah, it’s been on television a long time. It’s the show that brought John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig into our comedy lives. But neither longevity nor the talents who graced its stage are the reason SNL changed everything.
It was the comedy, stupid. Saturday Night introduced National Lampoon sensibilities to a national audience, something that the magazine never managed beyond a niche following of pot-smoking college dudes. Belushi flat-out died in the show’s first-ever sketch, something America never saw Harvey Korman do on The Carol Burnett Show. There were drug references, sex stuff that leered more than winked and general anarchy. These dark, chaotic qualities soon transferred to the movies via Animal House and became the general tone and language of comedy for at least the rest of the 20th century.
1978: The Supreme Court Wrestles with George Carlin
Getting arrested for provocative language didn’t die with Bruce. Carlin performed his “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” bit at an outdoor music festival in Milwaukee in 1972, and like Bruce, he was arrested. Unlike Bruce, Carlin was set free after prosecutors played the routine in a courtroom, leading to giggles that proved the community’s sensibilities would survive. The judge threw out the case.
One year later, an enterprising DJ on WBAI played that same bit on the radio, leading to an FCC complaint from a listener who was shocked by the routine while driving in a car with his 15-year-old son. (Wild guess here, but a 15-year-old in 1973 had likely heard the word “shit” before.) The FCC punished the radio station, leading to a series of appeals that resulted in a showdown at the Supreme Court.
The bad news for the radio station: The Court ruled that the FCC could restrict radio station broadcasts based on “indecent” language and the time when the material was aired. But the justices missed the entire point of Carlin’s routine — what were the words considered “indecent”? Which ones were “obscene”? Carlin was simply trying to clarify the list of the words he couldn’t say — the Supreme Court ruling wouldn’t say, leaving it to the FCC to decide all that after the fact.
“FCC vs Pacifica has become a standard case to teach in communications classes and many law schools. I take perverse pride in that,” Carlin wrote in his 2009 autobiography. “I’m actually a footnote to the judicial history of America.”
1989: ‘The Simpsons’ Premieres
Thirty-five seasons in, it’s practically impossible to remember just how subversive The Simpsons was considered when it burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. America’s Dad (at the time) Bill Cosby was dismissive, calling the "angry, confused, frustrated" Bart Simpson a lousy role model for kids. (Could Cosby’s finger-wagging have had anything to do with The Simpsons making a huge dent in his ratings?)
But Cosby wasn’t alone. The entire First Family felt a need to get in on the act. You’d think a sitting president like George H.W. Bush would have bigger fish to fry than a satirical cartoon, but Homer became his public enemy #1. “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family,” Bush pledged, “to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” First Lady Barbara Bush joined in the culture wars, describing the show as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The main thing to know is there weren’t many sitcom kids spouting quips like “Eat my shorts” prior to Bart Simpson. Eventually everyone calmed down, but the seismic launch of The Simpsons paved the way for adult humor in animation like South Park, Family Guy and Rick and Morty.
1997: Ellen Comes Out
Comedy hasn’t exactly been shy about the topic of homosexuality, but until recently, it was always the butt of the joke. The only way Jack was allowed to live with two female roommates on Three’s Company was by pretending he was gay, a trait Mr. Roper imitated by pursing his lips, mincing on tiptoes and ringing an imaginary Tinkerbell. Archie Bunker was repulsed by the mention of gay people. There’s an episode of Cheers where Diane announces the bar has gay patrons, leading to panic among the regulars trying to identify the sexual mutants.
So yeah, it was a big deal when Ellen DeGeneres decided to come out, both as a character and a comedian. She named the landmark installment “The Puppy Episode,” based on a network suggestion that her Ellen character shack up with a puppy to boost ratings as opposed to another kind of companion.
We’d like to say that everyone loved the episode, but it was met with as much backlash as applause. Some sponsors pulled their spots. The station in Birmingham, Alabama refused to air it. Laura Dern, who isn’t gay but played Ellen’s love interest, claims she had trouble getting work after the show aired.
But the episode got huge ratings, paving the way for change. Gay characters took front and center in comedy shows like Will & Grace, Glee and Modern Family. And Dern won an Oscar in 2019, so take that, haters.