May 10, 2011 Leave a comment
Twentieth century Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that the festive laughter of a carnival is ‘universal in scope, it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival’s participants’.  He went on explicitly to differentiate between this ubiquitous laughter and the laughter of ‘pure’ satire, because ‘the satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it’.  The difference between satirical comedy and the egalitarian folk laughter of carnival is that the satirical performer is distinct from the laughter of the audience, controlling it from above with assumed and granted authority. But while in Bakhtin’s idea of carnial the laughter is the laughter of ‘all the people’, he also describes the role of ‘clowns and fools’, individuals who stand out as being ‘the constant, accredited representitives of the carnival spirit’.  Stewart Lee has observed what he described as the ‘shaman-clown tradition’, stemming from ancient comic festivals, in certain modern stand up comedians, and it is helpful when looking at contemporary performances in the light of Bakhtin’s theories to think of some comics not as performers per se but as a focus for this ‘carnival spirit’, leading the collective laughter of the audience. The humour of American comedians Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks and Doug Stanhope, through whom there has widely been observed a chain of succession, can be read as one modern incarnation of Bakhtin’s folk humour, placing them in a far older tradition than is perhaps usually thought. This influence is debatable, but it manifests itself both superficially (in terms of the content of their shows, made up of grotesque taboo breaking jokes about religious and authoritarian institutions) and in a deeper sense (the very mechanics of their performance; that which accounts for their success with audiences).
Bakhtin described how in carnivaleqsue traditions ‘verbal etiquette and discipline are relaxed and indecent words and expressions may be used’  and wrote of the significance of what he called ‘marketplace’ or ‘billingsgate’ language; an often vulgar vernacular of ‘curses, oaths [and] popular blazons’.  Far from this being a negative, he argues that ‘an ideal and at the same time real type of communication, impossible in real life, is established’.  What is achieved is more than unrestrained communication, however. Sue Vice wrote that ‘carnival profanation consists of ‘a whole system of carnivalistic debasings and bringings down to earth’, to the level of the body’.  By debasing and linking with the body (and specifically its digestive and reproductive processes) carnival not only undermines its subjects but also strengthens them. That which denies its own reproduction and consumption has no mechanism for sustained life, whereas that which acknowledges what is natural about itself (even if a little unsavoury) is capable of continual regeneration. Bakhtin referred to this as ‘grotesque realism'; it is distasteful but it is real. The vulgarity of the ‘billingsgate’ is, deep down, a celebration; sexually explicit language is also the language of reproduction, scatological language is the language of the living body and by using this language one is allowing for and acknowledging the healthy continuation of life. As Vice wrote, ‘Death and renewal are central to carnival … the two states are inseparable’. 
The title of Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, demonstrates the significance of profanity in his career (as do his many arrests for obscenity). His supporters argue, however, that his shows, though vulgar, had redeeming social importance, and he has been compared directly (both in court and in a petition of support) to Rabelais, one of the central authors from whom Bakhtin derived his theory of the carnivalesque.  Indeed, Bakhtin could have been describing Bruce when he published in 1965 that ‘these [billingsgate] elements still prevent public reading of Rabelais, although in other respects no author is better suited for such reading’.  While this unacceptable language became a public distraction from the actual substance of his routines the language should not be viewed as irrelevant to this deeper satirical content. Rather, Bruce’s questioning of (and challenges to) the formal values of performance language were no different from his questioning of (and challenges to) the government, organised religion, Hollywood, etc. Satire can promote great public discourse but it is therefore always necessary to ensure that language, the tool of this discourse, is not constrained, restricted or controlled to the point of impotence. In attacking the idea that audiences should not hear certain words Bruce was also protecting a performer’s right to offend and be critical, establishing the ‘real type of communication’ that Bakhtin described. Bruce was described as a ‘moralist’  and many of his jokes revolved around an attempt to hold various institutions to a consistent set of moral standards (take, for example, the line ‘the Ten Commandments doesn’t say “Thou Shallt Not Kill Sometimes…”’).  One of Bruce’s routines was built around the phrase ”to’ is a preposition, ‘come’ is a verb’ and was an example of how obscenity could be constructed out of individually innocuous words, as though he were trying to find the secret of what made them offensive. In place of any rational values, however, he found only hypocrisy and created performances which undermined this hypocritical behaviour. He created imagined scenes in which he could caricaturise untenable opinion and expose its shortcomings, or as Lou Gottlieb, a witness in his first obscenity trial put it ‘… as Mr. Bruce presents his performances he creates a world in which normal dimensions … are transmuted into a grotesque panorama of contemporary society’.  In a ‘bit’ called Christ and Moses, for example, Bruce describes those Biblical figures returning to Earth and their impression of the modern day Church, with irreligious and foul mouthed priests failing to uphold the tenets of Christianity. Burlesques of this nature, with figures of authority being recast as comic foil, have much in common with carnival.
In 1991 Eric Bogosian wrote a new introduction to How to Talk Dirty and Influence People in which he says ‘as the pendulum slowly shifts we are back in such conservative times as those that spawned [Bruce] in the first place, and so now’s the time to read him’.  This was also the time, though, for a successor. Bill Hicks was performing stand up comedy in a similar vein, and has been compared to Bruce in a variety of critical and popular material ever since, including Early Day Motion 678 in the British Parliament on the anniversary of his death which described him as ‘one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth[y] of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.’ In the context of carnival, this ‘unflinching’ quality is what allowed him to defy established social conventions as Bruce did.
As with Bruce, Hicks’s work was reminiscent of the carnival practices described by Bakhtin, but while Bruce’s language allows us to consider billingsgate, Hicks advanced the performative element of this to become a more physical, more graphic, less verbal spectacle, more reminiscent of carnival burlesques and parodies. These were often vulgar, yet were based firmly in moral satire. He frequently performed routines in which various celebrities or politicians would ‘suck Satan’s cock‘ as a symbol for their lack of ethical caliber. In one recorded show he describes television presenter Dick Clark unzipping a rubber mask to reveal himself to be a ‘cloven hooved, horned wolverine‘ who then has anal sex with game show host and singer John Davidson. Hicks creates the image of ‘a black, blood gorged tic which crawls out of the scaly penis of the wolverine and into the bowels of John Davidson’, impregnating him (at this point on the recording Hicks bids farewell to audience members who are walking out). ‘Six months, six days and six hours later his bile breaks and he shits the brood’, Hicks continues before attempting to represent this action loudly and at length. With its mock religious mythology, satirical sense of ritual and grotesque bodily images every element of this routine is in keeping with medieval carnival traditions. In a similar scene he expresses his contempt for contemporary musicians by depicting Debbie Gibson, one of the ‘new rock stars who drink diet cola and shop in your malls’ being raped by Jimi Hendrix. The audience respond enthusiastically as this figurative act debases one popular figure and reinstates another through the use of sexual metaphor.
Vice wrote that ‘Bakhtin is keen to point out that carnivalesque parody and travesty are quite different from ‘the negative and formal parody of modern times’, which only denies without renewing. This is a consistent thread in his argument: in modern versions of carnival laughter, billingsgate profanations, and so on, only the downward half of the subverting movement has survived’.  While there is undeniably a sense of regeneration in Bill Hicks’s performances they were a constant negotiation between denial as an opportunity for renewal and denial as a negative, almost nihilistic suppression of life. A reviewer wrote that ‘the key to Hicks’s longevity is his idealism‘, and throughout his work there is an implication that we are only a few correct collective decisions away from a better world as he recognises (as Bakhtin did) the power that common people have when acting together. He says that life is ‘just a ride, and a we can change it any time we want; it’s only a choice‘. In spite of these encouraging words at the ends of his shows about how the world could be made better (which were, with a carnivalesque sense of balance, always tempered by Hicks pretending to be assassinated) it can be said that his actual appeal was not that people were convinced by this message but that they enjoyed temporarily accepting it. For the duration of his performances he liberated his audience, emotionally and intellectually, and allowed them to feel empowered, even though after his shows people would return to their lives and society would continue to operate as normal. This is comparable to the medieval carnivals Bakhtin wrote about; while they occurred the ordinary restrictions on behaviour were relaxed and the people had the power. In daily life people were subjects but during carnival they had the power collectively to crown and decrown a carnival king, they could burlesque their religious leaders, they could break taboos and talk freely. Even though it was a temporary and licensed experience carnival was attractive, just as Hick’s shows were, because it provided a window into an alternative, and presumably preferable, world. Bruce apparently believed that by exposing the hypocrisy and pettiness of the Church and the state he could affect development within them. He fought his comic battles in court and brought court transcripts into his comedy shows as though believing that vindicating his ideas could change things. Hicks, an idealist from a subsequent generation, did not so much seek to redress the harshness of society’s problems as to create a space where people could be given cathartic relief from them, being allowed to believe that a positive rebirth was possible.
The Independent on Sunday wrote that ‘there’s a kind of Olympic torch of extreme American comedy, which passed from Lenny Bruce … to the late Bill Hicks. Doug Stanhope is its latest, and equally brilliant, bearer’. Like Hicks and Bruce before him, Stanhope’s humour is grotesque; he revels in sex and scatology, he is profane and blasphemous but despite this confrontation of social values many audiences respond enthusiastically. Yet while he talks, as his predecessors did, about the problems that society creates for people, he has taken the subversive stage persona that he inherited a step further and begun to subvert that persona itself. While Bruce was called a ‘secular moralist’ and Hicks an ‘idealist’, Stanhope sets himself apart from his audiences not by being superior to them but by presenting himself as a mess, who, though perhaps inspirational, few would aspire to emulate. He complains, constantly, but about vague and sometimes unidentifiable problems, talking about ‘the media’ and ‘society’ in petulant, naively uniformed terms. While former satirists chose specific flaws in specific targets and attempted to convince the audience of a new critical viewpoint, Stanhope rages against mercurial forces of oppression which he scarcely defines, much less offers a genuine critique on. Far more than Bruce and Hicks he is a focus point for a carnival feeling, while they were (by comparison) lecturers. On his DVD Deadbeat Hero he advises his audiences not to take him too seriously, admitting ‘I’m probably wrong about half the shit I say and … you can find me to be a hypocrit’, undermining his own views in a way that the former comics didn’t. His shows, if not about the message of his words, then, are about the feeling of playful liberation he temporarily gives his audience. Of ‘clowns and fools’ Bakhtin wrote that they were ‘representatives of the carnival spirit in every day life out of carnival season’ and that they ‘remained fools and clowns always and wherever they made their appearance’, standing on ‘the borderline between life and art’.  This seems, in some way, to be Stanhope’s appeal, too. ‘What makes Stanhope essential viewing is that none of this is an act’ writes one reviewer, another declaring that ‘he lives a mad, mad life and what he remembers he reports back to us’. While this type of review obviously indicates that audiences are experiencing a vicarious thrill they are also apparently willing to regard Stanhope as a living embodiment of the carnivalesque disregard for formality.
These satirists are problematic, though, because while their humour might be considered ‘folk’ in some regards (it is empowering of the people, it is democratic, it provides subversive satisfaction and appeals to a non- ruling collective consciousness) it is not all inclusive. Stanhope named a show No Refunds, playing on the likelyhood of offending his audience and failing to meet their expectations to the point that they leave and demand their money back; which demonstrates the difference between this satire, attacking dominant systems of authority on ideological or philosophical grounds, and genuine folk laughter as Bakhtin described it, which is apolitical and does not criticise these systems so much as allow for their temporary relaxation. Even as Stanhope attacks he does not specifically exclude, however. He opens one show with the advice that ‘eventually I’m going to hit a subject that you’re going to be queer about, well … don’t, just wait for the next joke … don’t get all upset’.
In these terms it can appear that Stanhope has introduced a stronger carnival spirit into American satirical stand up comedy, but this claim must be qualified by looking at the nature of his material. Despite not assuming the satirist’s moral high ground that Bakhtin spoke of Stanhope is an exponent of comedy which ‘only denies without renewing’. He discusses coarse subjects but they do not operate in the same way as carnivalesque billingsgate. While Bruce’s attitude to sex treated it as the basis for a healthy relationship, a thing that because it is so universally natural should not be taboo, Stanhope’s general approach is less balanced. He does not talk in terms of reproduction, for example, and in fact, like Hicks before him, consistently argues that there are too many people in the world and that the human race should stop reproducing, boasting in one show ‘I have a vasectomy and an abortion on my record’. As well as joking about abortion he also comments on sex as a manipulative tool, sexually transmitted diseases and child pornography; clearly placing at the heart of this humour not the positive renewal we get in carnival but a focus on damaging, unhealthy experience. Similarly, while the consumption of the carnivalesque, even when referred to indirectly by scatological imagery, was a mechanism for sustained human life, Stanhope talks in similar terms about alcohol and narcotic drugs. Again like Hicks before him (and, to a limited degree, Bruce) he is keen to point out the unreported positive effects of drugs on the mind but also highlights their negative effect on the body. Stanhope’s entire persona is built around the idea of self indulgence to the point of self destruction. This is the contradiction of his work; while he allows his audience to experience a sense of the carnivalesque, complete with its empowerment and its unity, he himself is a pessimist (‘this is the most boring generation in the history of people’) and refuses to allow for the renewal which is so central to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque theories. Stanhope’s work is difficultly complex, though. This could be alternatively read as a simple extention of grotesque realism, acknowledging that the worst limits of human excess are, whilst horrifying, not unspeakable. He addresses the negative, the dangerous and the deadly leaving the audience to negotiate for themselves the renewal.
Though there are flaws in referring to it as such, it seems that Stanhope has progressed ‘folk humour’ past the limits of the carnival to a new stage. It is still low, communal and vulgar but unlike carnival it is illicit and unlicensed, it is not all inclusive but requires a willing and sometimes troubling complicity from his audience and it no longer burlesques established figures of authority such as the Church or the state. Instead, in recognising (rightly or wrongly) that in modern society people’s situations are ultimately dictated by their own choices, Stanhope’s folk humour makes the ‘folk’ themselves its target, attacking the apathy and hypocrisy which allow people to endure disappointing lifestyles and allowing audiences, temporarily, to laugh about them and feel relieved. Here, arguably, lies the renewal and rebirth that Bakhtin wrote about as the antithesis of the negativity and denial.
* * *