By Greg Proops – The Scotsman – 1999

      They were harassed, reviled and even sent to jail, says Greg Proops. But when it came to stand-up, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks would let nothing stand in their way

      Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks are all names which we are familiar with on this side of the Atlantic. Bruce came to the UK and performed at Peter Cooks’s the Establishment Club; Hicks recorded a TV special in London and was becoming well-known to audiences here; Pryor is probably better known as a movie star than as a stand-up comic.

      However, they are the three American comics who stand out as the most controversial, outspoken and self-destructive in the last 40 years. Not only were they outstanding comics, but they were arguably the most influential as well. Let’s define our terms and state what stand-up comedians are, although maybe it is easier to say what they are not. Stand-ups are not movie comedians, such as Bill Murray or John Belushi, are not comic actors, such as Tom Hanks or Goldie Hawn, and are neither variety act jugglers, song parodists or mime artists. A stand-up is a man or woman alone on a stage with a mike in their hand, throwing down.

      Obviously the monologist is an old act. In Ancient Greece, if comics failed they were pelted with olives and beaten to death with a block of feta cheese by two well-oiled wrestlers. WC Fields, Bob Hope and zillions of others were huge live acts before success came in radio and pictures.

      But the old-time comics were storytellers or characters. For our purposes, stand-up starts after the Second World War with Lenny Bruce. The reason for this is not because Bruce was the first stand-up comic but because he brought authentic working-class attitude, jazz hipster sensibility and, most importantly, a point of view at odds with the status quo to the world of comedy. He was a moralist, a philosopher and a shit-disturber.

      America in the Fifties was a rich, conservative country (plus ça change, eh?) and it was not prepared for the frank honesty and spit in the face of convention that Bruce was about. He swore on stage. That may not seem like much now but then it repeatedly landed him in jail. My country, where freedom of speech is allegedly guaranteed by the constitution, saw fit to imprison a semi-obscure club comic for obscenity. He was hounded by cops and district attorneys for freely expressing his opinion.

      Thanks to Lenny and his like, we are now allowed to say what we want on comedy stages in the US, in the language of our choosing and on any topic. This is his greatest legacy. He felt deeply about freedom of expression and the destruction of hypocrisy, and he paid the price. We are all his children. Lenny Bruce came from a broken home in Long Island, New York. He did a stint in the Second World War and then gravitated towards jazz clubs, where he picked up the lingo and added Yiddish to the mix. Bruce split for the West Coast and started working joints. He invented hipness on the comedy stage. Imagine that. Before television, compact discs, video games and the birth of the alternative world, he was getting freaky for the freaks. No-one was ready for this: he scared us to death.

      Lenny used voices, characters and sub-references to literature and movies that put him way ahead of almost all his peers. He wasn’t for squares. He hated what they stood for. In his classic “How to relax your coloured friends at parties” piece, he says to the black guy: “I think these people are Hebers, you’re not Jewish are you? ‘Coz some of my best friends are Jews.”

      The power of language and the semantic traps therein were his field of play. He would repeat the word “nigger” on the stage until the meaning was drained out of it. To put this in perspective, Bruce was doing this at a time when Abbot & Costello were ruling the movies and Sid Caesar was doing funny voices on television.

      In all his years in showbusiness, Bruce never enjoyed mainstream success, partly because his material was too “hot” to put on television, partly because he was a drug addict and a lower-class sharpie. By the end of his career he had endured innumerable drug busts and was suffering from deep depression.

      At the end he was a police informant, and the latest best guess is that his overdose in LA in 1966 was not an accident but rather revenge by angry drug dealers. He was silenced at 40 and so we missed his views on Watergate, but he remains the most outspoken and courageous comic of his time.

      It took Lenny Bruce to bring us out of the comfort zone where the comedian seeks to put the audience at ease and bring us face to face with honest opinions. Check out the album, Lenny Bruce – American, and the book of monologues, Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce, to gain an idea of what all the fuss was about.

      Richard Pryor’s mother was a prostitute. He was raised on the fringes of the polite world. He started out as a clean-cut comic very much in the style of the beloved Bill Cosby, who was the first black comic in America to enjoy huge success on television and records. He was rolling along doing Vegas and being cute and he had an Epiphany. He walked off the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in the middle of his act. He decided to play to a black audience and be honest on stage.

      However, he wasn’t the first black comic to have done this. Dick Gregory, who remains a political activist to this day, was a very pointed social comic at the time. He was fighting the good fight back in the early Sixties. But when Pryor made the change, he revealed himself to be the keenest observer of the human condition which the craft of stand-up has ever produced.

      Pryor burned with rage against his managers and cronies, against the world and against himself. Because of this, he and his writing partner, Paul Mooney, were able to get down to what was really real. He took the vernacular of Bruce and illuminated the black underclass for whites. His painful and hilarious portrayal of junkies, pimps and drunks is some of the most devastating comedy you will ever experience and remains a revelation today. Pryor was probably the best actor of all the stand-ups, so he was able to bring his world alive for us. Dig him in Blue Collar or Lady Sings the Blues.

      Pryor elevated the words “nigger” and “motherf***er” to an intense form of poetry. The power of those words cannot be underestimated, as I’m sure they are not printed wholly in this newspaper. (Too right – Ed). After a trip to Africa he decided not to use the word “nigger”. He said: “We were the first humans. We were the first people to say ‘Where are we? And how do you get to Detroit?'”

      As was the case with Bruce in the Fifties, Pryor forced us to confront the elemental issues we like to pretend we have solved, issues such as race, class and religion. He was far too “real” for the box and his television show in the Seventies lasted four episodes. However, he was a superstar in his day and paved the way for the black comedy explosion in the United States. Eddie Murphy was compared to him when he first came to light, but Murphy does not burn with the same level of rage and loathing.

      The real descendant of Pryor in the US is a young man named Chris Rock. Rock has a TV career (pay TV, of course, allowing him the opportunity to swear and to do some extraordinary jokes on abortion, politics and racism without fear of the sponsors pulling the plug).

      Pryor has also had his fair share of drug addiction problems, culminating with his self-immolation while freebasing in 1981. Recently he has been slowed down by multiple sclerosis. Rent Live on the Sunset Strip on video and you will see why he is the man.

      Bill Hicks was also a drug addict who was full of rage. Paranoia, self-hatred and an unshakeable faith in the importance of what you are doing appear to be part of being a comic who tells the truth; a kind of Christ/junkie complex. Hicks died of cancer at 31, leaving a big hole in the conscience of the American stand-up.

      A Southerner from a religious family, Hicks started on stage at the tender age of 14. He developed over the years into the most fearless comedian of the Eighties and early Nineties. During the Gulf war he was the only comic I recall slamming us for being monsters. The crowds were very sensitive about the war and hated any dissent, but he stood tall. Hicks once did a pro-choice routine on the David Letterman Show which was pulled from broadcast. It was a cause célèbre in the US at the time because the producers had okayed the set and this was censorship, pure and simple. This happened not in the Fifties for saying fuck, not in the Sixties for bagging the government; not in the Seventies for talking about drugs but just a few years ago in the United States, the so-called “leaders” of the free world.

      The might of stand-up comedy is still in force: the ability to enlighten and frighten. Hicks said his ultimate goal on stage was “less jokes and more me”. Honesty and unpopular opinions are the toughest sell in a country with an irony-deficiency. Hicks never hit the big time before he died, but he was just about to. How cool it would have been to hear his opinion on Monicagate, Kosovo and the new Star Wars film. He looms large because he was willing to sacrifice for his beliefs. In showbiz that is virtually unthinkable. Buy any compact disc or videotape of Bill’s and laugh at how foolish what we believe is.

      I have, it goes without saying, not mentioned many comics who were also vital: Mort Sahl, Lord Buckley, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Roseanne, Jimmy Tingle, Will Durst and, of course, Ellen. Not so much for her stand-up but for her strength of character under fire. It is not easy to be queer on television in the US of A. I know all we Yanks appear to be slick, airline joke-telling schmoozemonkeys, but the best American comics have the proper sense of vitriol to warm the cockles, or should I say nettles, of the Scottish heart. By the way, grab the chance to see Rich Hall during this year’s Edinburgh Festival; he is a jewel, well under appreciated in the States.

      Greg Proops is an American stand-up comic who won’t give Scotland a rest. He will be appearing at the Fringe with the same old act.

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