Political uprisings are hardly ever funny, yet sometimes it’s comedy that causes revolutions. At the very least, a sharp satirical sketch may embarrass leaders, or highlight serious issues to otherwise uninterested people.
A stand-up routine may break conventions, or even force lawmakers to reconsider. But the best ones do all this and leave their audience in stitches.
So as BBC4 screens a new documentary on Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, ShortList looks at the political clout that comedy geniuses can wield. Chris Bell reveals the 10 defining moments...
Images: Rex/All Star
The moment: Late Show With David Letterman, 1993
The taboo-breaking comic’s 12th appearance on the chat show never materialised as the host and producers decided not to screen his entire act because, according to Hicks, it contained a joke about anti-abortionists.
The result: Feeling betrayed by Letterman, Hicks refused to reappear on the show. Letterman never forgot either — and in January 2009 he screened the routine in its entirety. He even apologised at just how tame it seemed in retrospect. Put it this way: without this new wave of TV liberalisation, we wouldn’t have Mock The Week.
The punchline: That joke? “If you’re pro-life, don’t lock arms and block medical clinics — lock arms and block cemeteries.”
The moment: Café Au Go Go trial, 1964
A court sentenced Bruce to four months hard labour for using profanities during a gig at New York’s Café Au Go Go. It effectively ended his career.
The result: His trial became a reckoning on the First Amendment right to free speech and, in 2003, Bruce received the state’s first ever posthumous pardon.
The punchline: Bruce was also accused of a “masturbatory gesture” with the mic.
The moment: Brass Eye, 2001
The ‘Paedogeddon!’ episode mocked tabloids’ paedophile hysteria. Chris Morris coaxed stars such as Dr Fox into claiming that paedophiles shared genes with crabs. Channel 4 received more than 2,000 complaints.
The result: Children’s minister Beverley Hughes called it “sick” before admitting that she’d never actually seen it — the exact sort of political hypocrisy that the show was making a point about.
The punchline: The Daily Mail’s criticism of Morris ran on the page before bikini shots of Princess Eugenie, aged 11.
TREY PARKER & MATT STONE
The moment: South Park, 2010
Two Season 14 episodes featured Muhammad dressed in a bear suit in response to the Scandinavian furore over newspaper cartoons of the prophet — leading to Comedy Central censoring it.
The result: The move was widely condemned. In response, the online anti-censorship campaign ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ was launched.
The punchline: The religious idol had already appeared in a 2001 South Park episode anyway, at which point precisely no one had complained.
The moment: The Richard Pryor Show, 1977
Battles with the censors began as soon as production on Pryor’s TV show commenced. Due to constant interference from the network, he only filmed four episodes rather than the originally contracted 10. It was pitted against such wholesome favourites as Happy Days in the prime-time ‘family hour’ from 8pm. Pryor’s take on a variety show was exactly that: entirely unpredictable. The opening shot of the first show revealed the comic naked in a body stocking, while another skit had Pryor as a rock singer machine-gunning his all–white audience to death.
The result: Pryor’s real legacy was making the black community heard. “What he was giving a voice to,” says comedian Dave Chappelle, “it never had a voice like this. His material was from the perspective of a black man, talking about a black experience.”
The punchline: In 1998, he was awarded the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humour for forcing the US to acknowledge “large social questions of race”.
The moment: Life Of Brian, 1979
In 1979 the Pythons’ biblical epic hit UK cinemas. Although not many of them. Upon hearing that the film didn’t take religion entirely seriously, 39 local authorities made emergency orders to ban screenings of the biblical epic, or impose an X certificate (over 18s).
The result: Previously, the censorship process usually involved the artists backing down due to commercial pressures. The Pythons changed that — sticking to their guns and insisting that the film be shown in its entirety. They even took the case to court (the last time was in Canada in 1999) to ensure that only their unedited version could be screened on television worldwide.
The punchline: Predictably, of course, the publicity boon pushed Brian to the top of the box office, both here and in the US. The council bans were slowly rescinded, too — culminating in a memorable 2007 screening in The Church Of Anglican St Thomas The Martyr in Newcastle, where they even gave false beards to the female congregation.
The moment: The Great Dictator, 1940
Following a raft of comedies, Chaplin’s first ‘talking picture’, in which he starred as a ruthless dictator of fictional country Tomaini, scandalised Hollywood: it was the first film to satirise Nazism.
The result: Despite the US’s neutrality in the Second World War at the time, President Roosevelt sent an adviser to meet with Chaplin and encourage him — thus setting the tone for future comedians to ridicule brutal dictators. Hitler ordered a hit on Chaplin.
The punchline: The story is based on dictator Hynkel looking exactly like a Jewish barber. The film stated: “Any resemblance between the dictator and the barber is purely coincidental.”
The moment: ‘Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear’, Washington, 2010
Stewart’s event was in response to the ‘Restoring Honour’ rally against President Obama’s policies, organised by right-wing activist Glenn Beck.
The result: The New York Times said it “brought political debate back from the extremes” where the relatively small Tea Party had dominated for months.
The punchline: Stewart had the last laugh when a quote appeared on the back of Beck’s book: “Finally! A guy who says what people who aren’t thinking, are thinking.”
The moment: Jerry Springer: The Opera, 2005
When the musical comedy, written by Lee (pictured), was shown on BBC Two, 55,000 people complained about the portrayal of Christian figures.
The result: Christian Voice director Stephen Green failed in a blasphemy prosecution against the director general of the BBC — formalising the right to free speech in performances.
The punchline: Of all the complaints received, 47,000 arrived before the actual screening.
The moment: ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television’, 1972
The stand-up’s show saw him ask audiences if ‘the magnificent seven’ of swearwords were really that bad. The authorities responded by arresting him on obscenity charges, and the radio station that played it was shut down.
The result: The controversy formalised the idea of a watershed in broadcasting for adult content.
The punchline: Until his death in 2008, Carlin gradually lengthened the routine to an hour.