Monday, August 30, 2010

Liberal victory week continues:
The dismantling of the obscenity laws

We often hear the critics of the current administration talking about "taking our country back", which implies that the people running it today don't deserve it, despite winning in a landslide. There is also an implication that the country does NOT belong to the winners of the election, that the REAL America got gypped in 2008 just because their guy got about 10 million less votes than That Guy and missed getting an electoral majority by 97 electors.

A fair question to be asked when they want to take "their country back" is, exactly how far back? There is a nostalgia for the good old days felt by a lot of people who weren't there during the good old days or who have very bad memories.

Let me be honest and say I'm old enough to have been there. Let me be immodest and say my memory is much better than most.

Many people decry the crudeness of our society, and I would not argue that point. My point is that we have gained in freedom and made a more just society, but that did not come without a cost. I am glad to live in a country where you can't be arrested for buying or selling a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer. When I was a boy, there were places where that was against the law.

Censorship against the written word had been going on for a very long time, but when I was a kid the battle went from print to performance. While some of the Beat Poets were harassed by the law, one of the first performers known to the general public as a threat to the public morals for having a dirty mouth was Lenny Bruce. He had been a comic for quite a while, working in burlesque houses and nightclubs. There are old recordings of his act on TV, and his stuff was both clean and stale, the usual uninspired collection of mother-in-law jokes. But his nightclub act began to extend into what we now call observational humor, with lots of observations about sex where using dirty words was close to mandatory. Swearing in a nightclub act wasn't completely unheard of, but most "blue" comics told dirty jokes with a minimum of actual obscenities. Bruce crossed that line, and did so frequently. All around the country, police departments and district attorneys decided that he had to be arrested if he said those things in a nightclub, as though he had a bullhorn and was swearing in front of a schoolhouse or church. He was first arrested in 1961 in San Francisco, the first of many arrests around the country. He would not compromise on his act, hoping to be the vanguard, but he did not have the strength for it. He was tried for obscenity and lost in 1964. He died in 1966, ruined by drugs and a well-founded feeling of persecution.

If I may use a religious comparison sure to offend, Bruce was John the Baptist, paving the way for the one who would come. That young man actually was in the audience one night when Bruce was arrested. He told the police he did not believe in government-issued IDs, a position that should endear him to many Tea Party stalwarts. He was arrested and taken to jail with Bruce in the same vehicle. His name was George Carlin.

Carlin was actually still a clean-cut kid whose act was perfectly acceptable to Ed Sullivan when Bruce was still alive, but within a few years he took a left turn, started dressing like a hippie and letting his beard and hair grow. It was six years after Bruce died that Carlin was arrested yet again, this time for performing live in Milwaukee one of his most famous routines, The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television. Here is the famous preamble to that clarion call to freedom.

"There are seven words you can't say on television: Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war."

Between 1964 and 1972, America underwent massive changes. In the earlier trial in New York, a three judge panel threw the book at Lenny Bruce and sentenced him to jail time in a workhouse. He was still free on bail with the conviction being appealed when he died. In 1972 in Milwaukee, the judge at the Carlin case decided his work was indecent but Carlin had the right to say it as long as he caused no public disturbance.

Carlin's comedy album also changed the airwaves. A father was listening with his son to Pacifica radio's WBAI in New York when the Seven Words skit was broadcast over the air. The man sued and the case went to the Supreme Court. The 5-4 decision was that routine was "indecent but not obscene" and the F.C.C. had the right to ban it at hours when children would be likely to listen. This meant that late night radio could be much more free.

It is true that the world has become more crass because of this, but free speech is meaningless if no one takes offense. If entertainment offends you, don't watch or don't listen. For me, American False Idol is a disgusting obscenity even if no one says anything more coarse than "Gosh!" On the other hand, I like it when Peggy Olson on Mad Men says "chickenshit" and means it.

Some localities still try to block stuff, but the Internet is hard to control. The greatest song of the Summer of 2010 is currently available only on The You Tubes, Cee Lo Green's infectiously catchy and upbeat new tune called Fuck You!

This is because liberals stood up for free speech when conservatives tried as hard as they could to deny it. When these self-professed rodeo clowns say they love the constitution, it's a still a pretty good bet that they don't.


47th Problem of Euclid said...

Lenny Bruce has been my hero since I was 16, and saw Bob Fosse's movie "Lenny" with my mom on cable. When it was over, we both sat and sobbed together. It changed me. I went to the used record store and bought everything of his I could, and found out that Lenny was a lot funnier than Dustin Hoffman. I love George Carlin, and I love Richard Pryor, but both men owe their careers to Lenny Bruce. Did you know that NY Governor Pataki (R), from Howard Stern's urging, pardoned Lenny for all his obscenity convictions?

Matty Boy said...

I'm a little older than you and I listened to comedy albums incessantly as a kid. It may not be the popular view, but I always considered him second rate.

Let me continue with the John the Baptist theme. What I have written, I have written.

sfmike said...

Second-rate? Blasphemy, though I agree with you. Wonderful essay, by the way, and the link to "FUCK YOU!" is just great. The use of type in that video is one of the simplest, most artful uses of text and music I've ever seen. And "FUCK YOU! OOH OOH OOH" is some kind of genius.

Anonymous said...

Let's be honest here. The REAL America wants to take the country back to when there was a white President. That's all folks!

Matty Boy said...

sfmike: I do have artistic opinions of my own, but I always feel like they must be right if you agree with them. I'm glad you enjoyed the Cee Lo song. I'm using a line from it as my sub-header right now.

Z&M: That is about the size of it, isn't it?

namastenancy said...

I remember all the "x-rated" records that my friends and I used to pass around - Red Fox way before TV days and a woman whose name I forget but whose use of four-letter and cuss words made George look like a first grader. Then, there was Moms Mobley and a host of others. The facade of conservative behavior was broken a long time before those cases reached the Supreme Court.

Matty Boy said...

Nancy - You are correct, there were several black comics who did "blue" material and a woman named Rusty Warren who also put out dirty comedy records. I've checked around on the Internet and I can't find any record of them getting busted for obscenity. I don't know exactly what distinction the police made between them and the people they did bust.

namastenancy said...

I think that Lenny might have been too much "in your face." Of course, I don't have any proof but his heroin addiction, public fights with girlfriend/or wife and a "f-you" come and get me attitude probably brought a lot more trouble on his head. Red Fox and Rusty Warren (thank you for the name - I remembered Rusty but not the rest) were real down and dirty but they may have played to private clubs and kept a lower profile when they were not performing. I read a bio of Lenny once and thought that he had a huge self-destructive streak.

Kate said...

I don't think rodeo clown is the correct metaphor: their job is to draw danger to themselves and away from a person who has fewer resources to get away. Imagine a bull riding loses their seat and the pissed off bull (because they apparently tie up their testicles and make them uncomfortable?) goes after the rider who's now on the ground, maybe having trouble getting up. The rodeo clown distracts the bull so the bull rider can get up and exit. Sometimes the bull goes seriously after the clown who might have to engage in some crafty escape tactics.

Yes, I know. This was awhile ago but something else caught my eye. and this really needs my comment.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Hi, Kate, thanks for stopping by. I agree with your complaint about my metaphor. "Rodeo clown" sounds like it should be an insult, but it's a tough job for brave people.

Kate said...

They probably have as many broken bones, sprains, damaged tendons, etc. as some studies found out squirrels have.