My friends & I had an argument the other night. Drunkenly slouched into the cushions of my couch I rambled about how standup comedy, aside from Zach Galifinakis, is more or less dead. It was then that I was presented with an interesting question, “Well Dan, who is your favorite standup comedian?” I hesitated for a moment, racked my brain, & spat out “Bill Cosby.”
It seemed too easy, pretentious even, to simply say “Bill Cosby.” After all, the man is a legend. I was stumped about my own inner psyche for a few moments. What compelled me to say “Bill Cosby?” It took a few minutes & a few more beers before I realized: Bill Cosby has a frame of reference. His material stands the test of time.
I thought about the concept of “a frame of reference” further: In fact, one could easily draw parallels between the stand up giants of their decades with their Rock ‘N Roll Counterparts:
The 1950’s: Lenny Bruce & Elvis Presley
The 1960’s: Bill Cosby & The Beatles
The 1970’s: Richard Pryor & Queen
Let us take this concept further decade by decade.
In the 1950’s Rock ‘N Roll broke free. One could claim that Rock ‘N Roll was a counter-culture that, with the aid of television, accelerated our culture to the post-modern civilization hat we live in now. However, if one compares Rock ‘N Roll to its Performance Comedy counterpart, they would find that Rock ‘N Roll was not the primary catalyst of counter-culture, rather, it was merely an integral part of a much larger whole.
Televised Rock ‘N Roll in the 1950’s was the basics: It was Presely wiggling his hips on Television & Jerry Lee getting kids to violently shake to “Great Balls of Fire.” Certainly, Rock ‘N Roll in these days was the musical counter-culture in a fetal phase, a taste of the insanity to come. However, it was not the counter-culture.
This is because, on the other side of town, a young man named Lenny Bruce was going off on obscene, heroin-fueled rants. What Elvis was to Rock, Lenny was to Comedy.
One could argue that both Elvis and Lenny did not have a single original bone in their body. I wouldn’t disagree with these people, but the fact is, these were dangerous people with dangerous ideas & they scared quite a bit of people. This was the 1950’s after all & these were the first people to do it – they opened the doors & let the counter-culture right in.
The 1960’s were a decade where both Rock ‘N Roll & Standup Comedy had become widely embraced. However, what people did not know is that the respective masters of each craft lurked on the horizon: The Beatles & Bill Cosby. This is a time where both a band & an artist are at the top of their game – but there is another element as well. Both of them are refined, groomed, & clean cut, neutered even. The Beatles & Bill Cosby certainly were the leaders of a world changing through television, yet they were also the kind of people that had a clean image & universal appeal. Both of them pushed the envelope of their medium because they softened the razors edge, took the danger & intensity of it out, & replaced it with a masterful craftsmanship.
The 1970’s we’re a step back. This was the decade of Queen & Pryor. While not the masters of their craft, they had a frame of reference & a built in fan base. This was a time when the craftsmanship was set on the side a bit in order to bring a bit of the danger back: Pryor’s vulgarity & in your face attitude & Freddy Mercury’s flamboyantly bizarre stage presence. This was a time when being out of control was okay because, both Rock & Comedy were staples of the American landscape at this point. They kicked in the door in the 1950’s, proved their artistry in the 1960’s, & stayed around in the 1970’s just because they could.
One thing was for sure: Rock ‘N Roll & Comedy were here to stay. & they were the counter-culture.