Laughing In the King’s Face Part III: Agents of Change

Don Rickles mocks Ronald Reagan

Colbert roasts George W. Bush.

A king was a vertebrated animal, like anyone else; and as such be could not live by pretense alone. Once in a while, probably, he had to brace up on a little refreshing go at fact and truth.” – HARPER’S MAGAZINE, 1928

Lenny Bruce became a known entity as the government became more restrictive on what was considered moral, a time when Catholism and Red Fever had a stranglehold on a large portion of the country. Carlin and Pryor came to prominence when the culture was at a turning point: No to Racism, No to Homophobia, Yes to Free Love. Comedians are voices for generations, catalysts for change, and promoters of subversive ideas.

Most of the comedians we’ve talked about so far are dead. Now, for some live ones, and how they are, in tiny ways, creating change all around the world.

Doug Stanhope and the Athiest Fundraiser

The tornado in Moore, OK blew down houses and tore apart lives. On 5/21/13, a woman named Rebecca Vitsmun, a victim of the tornado, was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. During the course of the interview, Blitzer asked if Rebecca had “Thanked God” for sparing her life. She responded, “I am an atheist,” prompting awkward silence and some outrage from the public.

Doug Stanhope has been a comedian for twenty years. He is known for his pitch-black humor and comedically dark imagery. He is also an outspoken atheist. Upon seeing the Blitzer interview, Stanhope took to Twitter and Facebook to get Rebecca Vitsmun’s story out. He set up an Indigogo Fundraiser Page, “Atheists Unite,” with the goal of raising 50,000$ for Mrs. Vitsmun.

It’s important that our community shows that we have your back when you come out publicly as an atheist.

Let’s show the world that you dont need to believe in a god to have human compassion nor does all charity fall under the banner of religion.

Let’s get this courageous woman and her family back in their own home.”

Miracle of miracles, it worked. They exceeded their goal, ending at 126,000$, which went directly to Rebecca’s family. With the use of social media, Stanhope proved to the world that religion and compassion are not co-dependent upon one another.

Stanhope talks at length about charity and his problems with the concept of charitable events here. He is also a vocal defender of gay marriage in his home state of Arizona.

Russell Brand and Slow Steps to Revolution

Warning: Long Video. Worth watching.

When we last left Russell Brand, he was making headlines for what the media has dubbed “a call for revolution.” In some ways, one could call him a physical manifestation of Occupy Wall Street: Brand’s political statement is similar, as is the response. The Irish Times‘ Donald Clark says that Brand is espousing “Childlike simplicities in a convoluted language;” the World Socialist Website hailed Brand as a populist hero. The Guardian asks whether or not Brand is “Bad for democracy.”

The response has been mixed, another words. Many in the Old Media – many people who have a stake in the system, to be precise – have called Brand a phony and a pseudo-intellectual. Many in the New Media see him as a modern day revolutionary.

He is a man who came from the lower class and made it to the upper echelon of society, who, it would seem, has not sold himself out. He has sparked a renewed interest in the same ideals and topics that Occupy spoke of two years ago.

Just like Occupy, he has people talking. It still remains to be seen whether or not people will stop talking and start acting. The ball’s in your court, as the expression goes.

Louis CK says I’m Doing Things My Way

You can’t talk comedy these days without bringing up CK. Hailed as a “comic’s comic,” CK has been a working professional for over twenty years. He has proven his ability to create material that entertains and challenges his audience. His bit on cell phones became a viral sensation – a welcome break from the drama of the Amanda Bynes/Miley Cyrus/or insert celebrity here Sagas that often get shared.

But Louis CK is also a quiet business revolutionary.

His stand-up special LIVE AT THE BEACON THEATER is the first of its kind, in that it was produced independently, and released digitally, directly to the individual, for a fraction of the cost of a regular stand-up special. Comedians such as Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari have taken this model and used it, cutting out the corporate middleman altogether.

This indie spirit is prevalent in all of CK’s work. His television show is produced, written, and edited by the comedian himself, with minimal intervention from network suits.

This comes on the back of the digital revolution, where content can be created and distributed by anyone. Having a well-known comic join the ranks of the do-it-yourself creative workforce adds heft to the growing movement. CK, and everyone else who chooses to put their content online, sends a clear message the corporate interests that control entertainment: we don’t need arbiters of taste. We decide what content we want.

Ellen Vs Homophobia

Ellen DeGeneres has been called one of the nicest people in show business. She’s also a lesbian. Apparently, sexual preferences is more important than the quality of the human being.

In 1994, Ellen got her own show, the eponymous “ELLEN” about a neurotic, 30-something bookstore owner. The show was playful and quirky, much like Ellen’s brand of stand up comedy. The show was well-received by viewers and critics, until the infamous 1997 episode, “The Puppy Episode,” in which Ellen’s character came out as gay. This is the first episode in the history of television in which a character comes out of the closet.

A s**t storm ensued. While the episode was a ratings success, advertisers, viewers, and religious groups created an enormous amount of backlash which resulted in the show’s cancellation. Clearly, a large segment of the general population was not ready to accept the fact that gay people exist.

Ellen’s tribulations weren’t over. Fifteen years after “The Puppet Episode” aired, DeGeneres was asked to be the spokesperson for J.C. Penney. A group calling itself “One Million Moms” (the actual amount of moms was in the thousands) became infuriated because of DeGeneres’ orientation, and saw it as J.C. Penney endorsing homosexuality. They attempted a boycott of the store, which was resoundingly ridiculed by a large majority of the entertainment industry.

DeGeneres went on a social media campaign against the homophobic group. Her fans, followers, and the J.C. Penney family sent a clear message to One Million Moms: We won’t support bigotry. One Million Moms dropped the boycott, choosing instead to move onto “other issues.”

Although One Million Moms failed to get DeGeneres removed as spokesperson, J.C. Penney’s sales suffered, and in 2013, the gay-inclusive CEO Ron Johnson was fired.

Conclusion [work in progress]

Is there merit to escapist entertainment? No question. Sometimes, the reality of our day to day existence can be too much, and we want to shut our brains off and laugh. The problem comes when we fall into the vicious Sisyphean cycle of Work/Play, Work/Play. This seems to happen to a lot of people in this country. We become so disenfranchised that we simply surrender to the cycle. We get up, work for eight hours, and go home to bathe ourselves in mindless entertainment that does not inspire or encourage us.

A good comedian takes the role of God’s prophet. He or she stands up in front of a mass of people and tells them the way they see the world. Good artists entertain. Great artists change the way we look at the world.

Further Reading:

King’s Jester: Modern Style – Harper’s, March 1928

Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin

Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America by John Limon

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