Comedy today: Unsafe at almost any speed

Once upon an eon, when Lenny Bruce [1925-1966], born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York, still plied his trade, subject to frequent arrest and actual imprisonment for his norm-crashing brand, “comedy” had to be sought out, as it was available in precious few venues outside of pricy nightclubs in rarified resorts. 

That brand of post-prandial humor was birthed in the Borscht Belt, referring to the Jewish genealogy of the hotels catering to the largely ethnic Hebraic gentry in the Catskills..  

Comedians who flew blue and trail-blazed for the funnymen and -women of more recent vintage at that time also included a baker’s dozen of Jewish comics like Milton Berle, Jackie Mason, Henny Youngman, Shecky Green, …and black comics Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Godfrey Cambridge, Redd Foxx (John Elroy Sanford), “Moms” Mabley and pre-sex-scandal Bill Cosby. 

Back in 1962, George Schultz, a former stand-up comedian himself, opened Pips on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Located across the street from the Bay itself, this dark, dingy cave was called Pips—perhaps referring to the British slang for ‘to kill or slay,’ especially when the target was notably successful and one stole a march over him. That's my theory, anyway, of the origin of that nomenclature. There was a sense of adventure going into that basic dive, where actual humor and comedy were committed. You could laugh along with your quaff of choice.

And the jokes? Whether they yawed to the set-up and punchline, or the yee of shaggy-dog situational, even the purplest of these comic offerings were affably, mostly . . . merely naughty. Rare it was to sit and cringe in disgust and even regret for having sat down. 

Comedy duos like Nichols & May, or Lucy and Ethel or Desi, Gleason and Carney, Amos ‘n’ Andy, went leagues without embarrassing the viewer. Nobody demanded their time—or money--back with these laugh-meisters. 

If one randomly enters a ‘comedy club’ now, not only is the tariff head-spinningly airborne, forcing the patron to drink and chow down at platinum echelons, there’s a seething fury that oozes out of the routines mic’ed in one’s face for the cost of a small limo. Even the plethora of relatively new non-ethnic, black or female comics set our teeth on edge, hewing to the crudest bills of fare. You don’t sit near the stage, either, for fear that you and your date will become the ready butt for a fusillade of steady mockery. Sit, if you must, far back in the shadows. 

The advent of a Jerry Seinfeld and his eponymous series, which even today is inoffensive, hilarious and still up to date, frankly, is no more. As opposed to its co-creator, Larry David, who is unmistakably brilliant, too, but, since his Curb Your Enthusiasm, now almost incessantly crosses the line into sketchy turf that is welcome to a deracinated audience eroded by contemporary standards. 

Today’s Saturday Night Live, an oceanic galaxy from its beginnings in the late ‘70s -- October 1975 -- still fronts ostensibly talented comic folk under the savvy helmsman, Lorne Michaels, at NBC. 

But the matrix of the skeins of skits, including Weekend Update, is malformed. The ‘humor’ is ever-anti-Conservative, distorted such that this viewer smiled exactly almost-once at the most recent episode, the season finale, featuring the talented ensemble, several about to absquatulate to greener or fresher pastures: Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, Pete Davidson (youngest ensemble member) and Kate McKinnon. SNL skits now skirt almost-“S” or –“T,’ from yesteryear’s comfort zone of “R” material. 

Bringing us to the intolerably crude, bankruptedly vulgar, acting, or whatever, of Ms. McKinnon, who is a tolerably gifted mimic, singer, actor and comedienne. But she performs her gritty, unpleasantly unfunny scripts with a glee that can only mean she endorses, maybe co-wrote, or agrees with it. 

What, you’ll ask, is the harm in a few dozen sketches that are irretrievably referential to female sluttishness and body parts?  Crude beyond crude?  

In a crime-drenched time of dishonor, under a regime that will not look at its own scatological obscenities of policy choice and sequelae, crimes against children and women are often now far more than just sad or contemptible. They are horrific. Treating women as if they are clotheslines for nasty self-abuse and vile putrescence, perpetrated no less by a female who presumably defends women’s rights (right?), her ugly scathe is homely with invitation to further erosion of respect for the embattled sex. 

Copycat crime is a growth industry. Has been for decades. Monsters of criminal action don’t need blue apoplectic ‘humor’ making women objects of tawdry derision—which is what we become under these sketch bits aimed at out-declassing other ‘comedy’ shows and stand-ups. The SNL writers, scriveners who help define the unfortunate zeitgeist, alas, are lazily couching themselves in anti-Republican values, anti-societal brickbats, militantly anti-women. 

And some people still yuk it up in the paid audience. And ditto, for the minions who tune in to imbibe issue parodies and musical guests.  

Even when the hosts are well-loved, as are many featured time and again, such as Steve Martin and the ever-obnoxious Alec Baldwin, and the musical talent—such as melodious Japanese Breakfast whom we heard on May 21 evening hosted by actor Natasha Lyonne, Orange is the New Black, and Russian Doll, season finale (TTFN) -- we find our face fixed in a soured grimace. Not a single laugh can be wrung out of this long-run comedy program with its huge ensemble and mucho-buck budgets.     

Net-net, Kate McKinnon’s exit, welcome though it is to many of us disgusted with her seething vulgarities, will not clean up the determined SNL anti-GOP, anti-Trump, anti-family-fare agenda. 

But maybe it’s a meritorious start. 

Image: Brule Laker, via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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