Laughing in the King’s Face: Five Comedians Who Entertain and Inspire

In folklore, there’s an archetype called “The Trickster,” who acts as both comedic relief in a story and as the catalyst for the hero. At times, the Hero and the Trickster are one character.

The Trickster is a grinning cynic who steals from the Gods and fools the Kings, he shows Heroes where to find their boons so that they may overcome an evil power. The archetype has survived up until the present day, as seen in characters like Jack Sparrow (from Pirates of the Caribbean) and The Doctor (Doctor Who.)

This tells us that the ancients knew the power of the comedian and his/her role in society. What separates the Greats from the Clowns is the ability to not just make people laugh, but to provoke thought from the audience.

Here are some funny people who managed to speak truth with a laugh and a wink.

Note: If you are an aficionado of comedy, this won’t be a revelatory post. (Also note, Louis CK and Stephen Colbert are not mentioned, not because they are not extremely important to this tradition of politically insightful comedians, but because everyone knows they’re geniuses already.)

George Carlin

B. 1937 D. 2008

“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.”

George Carlin is widely considered one of the greatest comedians of his generation, a direct disciple of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. His journey from radio comedian, entertaining people in suits and stiff conservative people with cute little puns, to being a raging, radical, anti-authority counter-culture icon, is a fascinating example of an artist’s epiphany and evolution. Though many of his later routines may strike the viewer as pessimistic, he described himself as a “disgruntled optimist.” His major topics of discussion included language, the Big World (politics, culture, etc) and the Little World (our day to day existence.) He tackled many controversial subjects, such as religion, dirty words, and abortion. Carlin, a self-described “working rage-a-holic” died of a heart attack in 2008, at the age of 71.

For more on Carlin, check out “7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin” by James Sullivan, and “Last Words: A Memoir” by George Carlin.

WE LIKE WAR (1992’s “Jammin’ in New York,” considered by Carlin to be his best show)

THE DEATH PENALTY (from 1996’s “Back in Town”)

THE AMERICAN DREAM (from 2005’s “Life Is Worth Losing”)

Bill Hicks

b 1961 d 1994

“(Talking about the Gulf War) This needs to be said: there never was a war. “How can you say that, Bill?” Well, a war is when two armies are fighting.”

Bill Hicks is considered by many to be the Comedian’s Comedian. He found great success over in the UK and Australia, but never reached the same level in America, where he often found himself touring small, backwater towns, performing in front of unreceptive audiences. A steadfast believer in comedy as a platform to promote change, Hicks’ act was often ignored by network television. His appearance on Letterman, shortly before his death, was cut entirely because he discussed abortion and Easter. Hicks’ topics of interest were hallucinogenic drugs, the War on Drugs, politics, music, and religion. Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, at the age of 32.

For more on Bill Hicks, see “American: The Bill Hicks Story” documentary.

The War in Iraq (“Relentless” recorded in 1991)

On Jay Leno, Artistic Integrity (from the 1994 album “Rant in E-Minor)

Interview on his comedy (1992 or 1993)

Lenny Bruce


Considered the forefather of political comedy, Bruce was one of the first comedians to do monologues instead of “jokes” (along with Woody Allen, although his comedy was not as politically charged.) He worked during the time of blacklists and anti-communist propaganda, and was arrested several times on charges of obscenity. He attacked religion, censorship, racism, free speech, and pop culture, back when knock-knock jokes and Leave It to Beaver-esque comedy was the norm. He never reached commercial acceptance, and to this day, it is his disciples that take credit for breaking the barriers for comedians. Bruce died at the age of 40 in 1966, and was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity charge… in 2003. A bit late. Upon discovering his body, a police officer was quoted as saying “Nothing sadder than an aging hipster.”

For more on Lenny Bruce, see “Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as a Social Critic and Secular Moralist” by Frank Kofsky, and the documentary “Looking for Lenny.”

On Obscenity (from “Let the Buyer Beware”)

All Alone

Richard Pryor

“You work your butt off and somebody says you can’t have your record played because it offends them. Tyrants are made of such stuff.”

b. 1940 d. 2005

Richard Pryor was a controversial figure who unapologetically exposed racism in America. Like Carlin, Pryor began his career as a simple non-offender, and found his voice as a social commentator, humorist, and provocateur by exposing his guts to the audience. In 1977, Pryor was given his own show, which was swiftly canceled after four episodes because of his unwillingness to censor his material. Towards the end of his life, Pryor suffered from MS, and was left paralyzed until his death in 2005 at the age of 65. Comedians from Chris Rock, Dave Chappell, to Patton Oswalt and Louis CK.

For more on Richard Pryor, see the documentary “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” and his autobiography “Pryor Convictions.”

On the “N” Word

“America, Do You Know Who You Are?”

“First Black President” (He was pretty optimistic; in his version of history, the 40th president would be the first black president)

Doug Stanhope

b. 1967

“Drugs support terrorism? No, your SUV supports terrorism.”

Stanhope is from CK’s generation, and recently appeared in an episode of Louie. Like Hicks before him, Stanhope has spent most of his career touring dive bars, and only recently achieved anything resembling mainstream success. His comedy is extremely bitter and crass, tackling human nature, religion, nationalism, society, drugs, and racism.

On Nationalism:

America Is Great:

On Occupy Wall St:


Russel Brand

b. 1975

He can be annoying – no question there. But Brand is intelligent and cutting, and not afraid to send up people in power.

Russell Brand mocking MSNBC… on MSNBC:

Interviewing the Westboro Baptist Church:

On Politicians

What comedians do you enjoy watching?

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