Fear and Laughing in Las Vegas
Jon Stewart was in top form: "That suicide-bomb married couple were gonna blow themselves up at a wedding in Jordan. I'd say... relationship issues." "The Emergency Broadcast System is a test of your remote control." "Posting the Ten Commandments is as effective as posting EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS." "Senator Bill Frist, he's a doctor and he says that AIDS could be transmitted from sweat and tears. Not unless your penis weeps while you're fucking somebody." Although Stewart is used to audiences that virtually all agree with his stance on Iraq, now when he talked about George Bush's renewed push to justify the war, he couldn't help but notice that those in the front rows were not laughing and applauding like those "in the less expensive seats. You like the way things are going just fine." He began pointing at different sections of the orchestra: "You run Halliburton. You make bombs. You own NASCAR."
Lewis Black, seen weekly on The Daily Show, is an incisive and outspoken stand-up comic, but when he performed at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, he found himself sitting next to Dick Cheney, one of his favorite targets. I asked Black how that went. "It worked out fine," he told me, "as I had destroyed my usual act, in the name of entertainment. As long as you take the gig, you should be good at it, and I feel that nothing would have been accomplished if I had pissed all over them. I didn't want to spend the next week talking to reporters about it. I stopped and talked to the Vice President as I left the dais. One of his closest friends is the brother of a close friend of mine who passed away a number of years ago. I asked him to please say hi to his friend for me. I hadn't seen him in quite some time. So basically I asked the Vice President to be my messenger boy, and hopefully it would keep him out of trouble for a few minutes."
There had been a rumor that Dave Chappelle would do a three-hour set, but he did just one hour. "You can't do three hours in Las Vegas," Chris Rock remarked. "They want people to get out to the casinos and gamble." Chappelle's appearance at the festival was the first event to be sold out. After all, he had fled to South Africa, leaving behind his successful Chappelle's Show and a $50 million development deal. Now there were six security guards in red jackets sitting on the floor at the foot of the stage, facing the audience. "Holy shit," were Chappelle's first words in response to the ovation when he walked on stage. "Bottom line: If you haven't heard about me, I'm fucking insane!" "Kanye did the bravest thing." (After Hurricane Katrina, rapper Kanye West said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people.") "The bravest. I'm gonna miss him. I'm not gonna risk my career to tell white people obvious things. I saw what happened to the Dixie Chicks." "We have to work on our vocabulary. 'Minorities': a high-class way of calling you a nigger to your face. 'Get away from my car, you minority!'" "Vicente Fox said that Mexican immigrants do jobs that not even blacks do. He is right. Till I see a nigger selling oranges on the street, I can't talk." "I'm not a crackhead. I was only living out my dream: to get to the top of show business and go back to Africa."
Unlike Richard Pryor's confessional comedy, Chappelle did not say what precipitated his departure to fulfill his "dream." Pryor had the ability to reach into his unconscious and turn himself inside out for the benefit of an audience. Like an alchemist transforming pain into laughter, he revealed the anguished private dialogues he held with his heart attack and with the pipe through which he had freebased cocaine, balancing on the cusp of tragedy and absurdity. He was self-educated, and on TV he advised children to turn off their TV sets and read books. He wrote a piece in 1971 when I was editing The Realist about the disproportionate number of blacks fighting and dying in Vietnam, which he titled "Uncle Sam Wants You, Nigger!" On the day he died, December 10, Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl performed at McCabe's in Los Angeles. Gregory eulogized Pryor as "a true genius," and Sahl reminisced about Gene McCarthy, who had died that same day.
After the invasion of Iraq, Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien helped demonize Saddam Hussein and served as cheerleaders for the war. But as the un-brainwashing of America goes, so goes the late-night talk-show monologue. O'Brien: "Congress stepped up the pressure on President Bush to come up with an exit strategy for Iraq. Today, Bush said, 'I have an exit strategy--I'm leaving office in 2008.'" Sleazy government officials are now easy-listening joke references. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog: "What does Karl Rove have for breakfast? Bagel with a smear." What's shocking about Lenny Bruce these days is the fact that he was punished for his political and religious views in the guise of violating obscenity laws. What's obscene by current standards is that his comment after channeling Eichmann would end up in a police report as follows: "Then talking about the war he stated, 'If we would have lost the war, they would have strung [President Harry] Truman up by the balls.'" Lenny was a lone voice back then, but irreverence has since become an industry.