Outrageous Humor Is an American Tradition

In the 1970s, Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon helped define groundbreaking, subversive comedy that wasn’t afraid to infuriate its audience.

Dana Edelson / NBC

Whether you found it brilliant or offensive, Louis C.K.’s Saturday Night Live monologue from May’s season finale made it abundantly clear that things were very different in the 1970s. Racism was as pervasive as polyester, and the average suburban neighborhood was only mildly ruffled by the presence of a child molester on the block. C.K.’s town predator never took a particular shine to the comedian, he recalled, but did try and lure a number of his boyhood friends with the promise of McDonalds. “This is a true story,” C.K. said, hardly suppressing his own chuckles.

By the end of the bit, the audience’s uncomfortable groans had overpowered their laughter. “How do you think I feel? This is my last show probably,” C.K. quipped. The bit earned mixed responses on social media, with many claiming he’d crossed a line by comparing child molestation to eating candy bars. Closing out the show’s 40th season, the material was certainly edgier than anything audiences had seen on SNL in a while, but that’s not necessarily saying much.

In June, the film critic A.O. Scott suggested in a piece for The New York Times that America is in a “humor crisis.” “The world is full of jokes and also of people who can’t take them,” he wrote. “We demand fresh material, and then we demand apologies.” Fittingly, just a few days after the article’s publication, Jerry Seinfeld appeared on ESPN and declared political correctness to be comedy’s mortal enemy. This prompted polarized responses, from a Daily Caller piece titled “The Left’s Outrage at Jerry Seinfeld Proves His Point” to a critique by Salon’s Arthur Chu. “Yes, a stand-up comedian is crying political oppression because people didn’t laugh at his joke,” Chu wrote, “and because his infallible comic intuition tells him the joke, in a world undistorted by politically correct brainwashing, would be objectively hilarious.”

Given the renewed frenzy in the debate surrounding the (mis)placement of comic boundaries, the history of two great American comedic institutions are ripe for exploring how sensibilities have changed when it comes to humor. One is, of course, SNL, which considered its approach to comedy revolutionary when it began in 1975. The other is the show’s one-time contemporary, the influential but now-defunct National Lampoon magazine, which gave SNL some of its biggest early stars. A pair of new documentaries about the respective humor behemoths—Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! and Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead—offer some timely and compelling context for understanding how social changes and technological shifts have changed the milieu for contemporary American comedy. As both films show, today’s artists aren’t saying anything more shocking than their predecessors: The history of comedy over the past 50 years is steeped in offensiveness, but it’s that willingness to cross lines that has led to some of the most meaningful subversion in popular culture.

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Though perhaps best remembered for producing films like Animal House and Family Vacation, the National Lampoon began in 1970 as an offshoot of the Harvard Lampoon. A wild mix of bawdy boys-club humor and sharp political satire, the magazine reached its apex in the mid-‘70s, spawning album recordings, a live theater show, and its nationally syndicated radio hour. There’s a telling little nugget in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead that credits the brand’s failure to put John Belushi on retainer as the primary reason for SNL’s early success. It’s an oversimplification, to be sure, but it many ways it was a classic case of video killed the radio star: Once Belushi was poached by NBC, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, head writer Michael O’Donoghue, and eventually Bill Murray followed suit. The National Lampoon Radio Hour died out completely and the magazine began to unravel, before going out of circulation in 1998.

But at its inception, the Lampoon began with the goal of using humor to take on (and take down) the establishment. In the midst of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, the magazine’s original staff—mostly young, whip-smart (white) men, firmly believed that America was in desperate need of a stern wake up call and that offending people was merely an inescapable part their job as humorists. Comedy was a means of sublimating their rage against the country’s policy makers and power structures. As O’Donoghue puts it in an archival interview in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, “We’re doing this instead of hitting you in the face.”

And people noticed. Despite the recent outcry over the dangers of political correctness, the National Lampoon saw plenty of backlash during its day: The host of talking heads in Tirola’s film fondly recalls angry letters accusing them of being sexist, racist, and generally a bunch of filthy animals. But for them, getting a rise out of people was precisely the goal, and the magazine was steadfast in its dedication to what it saw as a decidedly non-partisan approach to humor. For the writers, it was important to make fun of everyone and everything with equal impudence—Jews, African Americans, Catholics, Muslims, homosexuals and heterosexuals, the political left and the political right. Taboos were meant to be talked about, and nothing was off limits—sex, race, religion, incest, or abortion.

Like its spiritual successor, SNL, National Lampoon was at its best when it focused its energy on the social and political hypocrisies of the time. One particularly noteworthy piece of satire from the magazine’s early years was the “Vietnamese Baby Book” whose pages were marked with important milestones like “baby’s first wound” and “baby’s first funeral.” There was also a segment featuring children’s letters to the Gestapo (“Dear Heinrich Himmler: How do you get all those people into your oven? We can hardly get a pork roast into ours”) and a faux advertisement asking for donations to help bolster the sadly dwindling funds of the Klu Klux Klan (“The Klu Klux Can … with your help.”)

National Lampoon’s idea of good comedy also came with the implicit mandate of punching up, not down—or the idea of targeting those in positions of power in society, as opposed to the defenseless or already downtrodden. Take, for example, the mock vice-presidential campaign ad featuring an image of Nelson Rockefeller gleefully blowing someone’s head off with a pistol. The caption reads: “Bye Fella! I’m Nelson Rockefeller and I can do whatever I want!”

Things become more complicated when jokes broach subjects like race, religion, and gender. At one point in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, the discussion turns to a particularly cringe-worthy cover with a grotesque cartoon titled “Kentucky Fried Black People.” The editors had intended the cartoon as a comment against racism not as a racist work, but how do you measure the intent of a joke? Distinguishing between “solidarity and aggression” is difficult, as Scott points out in his Times piece: “It can be virtually impossible to make a joke about racism that isn’t also a racist joke.”

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Catering to the same demographic, SNL in many ways picked up where the Lampoon’s Radio Hour left off—and the show has, quite remarkably, managed to stay relevant for nearly half a century. As Nguyen’s documentary shows, SNL was born out of a very specific time and place—namely, New York City in the 1970s: a time when CBGB was a booming venue and young talent could actually afford to rent spacious lofts with high ceilings. As the former writer Anne Beats (also a Lampoon transplant) notes in an interview in the film: “People actually came here to make it.” Indeed, Beats—as well as cast members such as Radner, Murray and Chase—was already settled in New York and happily working for the Lampoon’s Radio Hour by the time the show launched in 1975.

The medium, of course, is a huge part of SNL’s message. When the show entered the scene in 1975, the television landscape was largely sterile, scripted, and for the most part, whitewashed. Considered against the backdrop of primetime TV, SNL aimed to be revolutionary by airing live. There was a “sense that it was time to destroy TV,” former cast member Chevy Chase says in the film, and that late-night slot provided the perfect space for contained subversion.

Consider the well-known word-association skit from SNL’s inaugural season: Chase is interviewing Richard Pryor for a job, and the final task involves a psychological test in which Pryor is instructed to blurt out the first word that comes to mind based on a prompt. Chase moves from benign nouns like “rain” to racial slurs like “tarbaby” before escalating to “the N-word,” meanwhile Pryor, his face twitching with rage, matches Chase with his own insults—“honky,” “cracker,” and eventually “honky honky!” By the end of the skit, Chase’s character is so overcome with white guilt that he not only gives Pryor’s character the job, he raises his salary and gives him two weeks paid vacation before he even starts. “It’s funny how things have changed,” Nguyen told me. “They had the word-association sketch back in the day, and they said the n-word on television. Nowadays that would be totally censored.”

And he has a point: While the show’s format has remained remarkably consistent for 40 years, the way in which viewers consume it has changed dramatically. It’s redundant at this point to state that comedy, like everything else, lives on (and largely for) the Internet. With bite-sized highlights available on Hulu and YouTube the morning after, the deviant appeal of SNL’s midnight time slot, not to mention the immediate thrill of live television, has been all but obliterated. A notably bummed-out Amy Poehler sums it up nicely in the film: “SNL: the show your parents used to have sex to that you now watch from your computer in the middle of the day. Is that good?”

Whether or not it’s good is perhaps beside the point—it certainly makes things more complicated. As Scott points out, the ubiquity of the Internet has ensured that we’re now all in the same room together at all times, and joke-telling is no longer the comfortably segregated business it once was. “The guys at a stag smoker could guffaw at dirty jokes about women without the awkwardness of having real women present,” Scott writes. “Racist humor could flow freely at country clubs where the only black faces belonged to waiters and caddies. With a few exceptions, African-American humorists plied their trade on the chiltlin circuit, and Jews mostly stuck to the borscht belt.”

In one of the most telling scenes in Live From New York!, the camera catches up with the current cast member Leslie Jones directly after she performs a controversial bit on “Weekend Update” in which she theorizes that had she lived in the days of slavery, she would’ve had a better sex life. Not that she wants to go back there, she clarifies—of course not. All she’s saying is that as a tall, strong, woman, she would have been considered “master’s choice breeder” and been set up with the best men on the plantation. It’s touchy material to say the least, but Jones, who recently joined the cast after working as a writer on the show since 2013, explains backstage the importance of using comedy as a means of exorcising very deep pain. She was prepared for angry tweets, but was dismayed that the fury came primarily from the black community—precisely who she imagined her target audience would be.

The intricacies of interpersonal awareness and private sensitivities, collectivism, and exclusion, extend far beyond the reach of the blanket term “political correctness,” which for all its pervasive use of late has become virtually meaningless. “Fighting about what is or isn’t funny is our way of talking about fairness, inclusion, and responsibility.” Scott writes. “Who is allowed to tell a joke, and at whose expense? Who is supposed to laugh at it? Can a man tell a rape joke? Can a woman? Do gay, black, or Jewish comedians—or any others belonging to oppressed, marginalized, or misunderstood social groups, or white ones for that matter—have the exclusive right to make fun of their own kind, or do they need to be careful, too?”

If the reactions to recent unpopular or controversial bits are any indication, the answers to those questions are growing less clear-cut. Audiences don’t seem as bothered, for example, when Amy Schumer jokes about sleeping with a minor as they were with Louis C.K.’s foray into pedophilia. Comedians and audiences alike are learning in real time how much humor is changing year to year. As Live From New York! and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead both illustrate, decades of social movements and shifting values can add new context to old jokes, change the stakes for current ones, and reinvent the blueprint for future humorists.

At the end of his monologue in May, C.K. took a deep breath, looked out at his audience, and sighed, “Alright, we got through it.” It’s perhaps a fitting statement for the SNL’s 40th season as a whole: The major overhaul of the cast and writing team following the departure of the likes of Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, and Kristin Wiig has left the current players struggling to find their footing, and with no presidential election to provide an immediate anchor of relevance, the show has felt a bit scattered. But even as SNL works to adapt to changes in how humor is produced, shared, and digested, C.K.’s monologue at the very least reminded viewers that Saturday Night Live, and comedy as a whole, is at its most powerful when it gives viewers something to talk (or tweet) about, gasp at, and unravel—even if they’re not all laughing at the same joke.