When Comedy Gets Cruel

Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and other mean comics on the Trio network.

Janeane Garofalo hosts Uncensored Comedy: That’s Not Funny!

This month on Trio, the cable network devoted to “pop, culture, TV,” you’ll find nothing but offensive comedy—mostly gags about blacks, women, violence, sex, Jews, rednecks, and war. At Trio, they call these jokes “uncensored comedy,” although—in the interest of diction—programmers would do well to review Stanley Fish’s sterling argument about false invocations of the First Amendment that ought to, but will not, put to rest the misconception that any comic who gets bumped from The Late Show With David Letterman has been “censored.”

Still, in spite of its hint of sanctimony, Trio has curated a terrific lineup. Of course, it includes work by the gods, the rambunctious comics only power-prudes will admit to disliking: Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, Carroll O’Connor, and Chris Rock. But Trio also takes a real risk on those who command less reverence, either because they’re lesser comics or because they’re genuinely insulting. This second group includes Bill Maher, Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, Sandra Bernhard, and Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Just as it did in March, when it broadcast a month of iconic movies from the 1970s, Trio has assembled documentaries to put the most incendiary material in context. Uncensored Comedy: That’s Not Funny!, which premiered last week, attempts to explain the virtues of humor that infuriates people. Along the way, it makes highhanded statements about comedy’s power to pierce pretense and lies; to challenge orthodoxy; to purge the world of toxins; and to—no joke—cure the sick. “It’s hard to laugh when the whole nation is depressed,” the voice-over intones. “But when we laugh, we feel better, and healing can begin. And that’s what comedy does.”

Fortunately, Uncensored Comedy also rebroadcasts some of the most original moments in comedy, from Sam Kinison’s shrieks to South Park highlights to Susie Essman’s inspired shrewishness on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Once the show’s narrator shuts up, the healing can begin.) Many of the interviews—with Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, and Bill Maher—are brightly pragmatic. After all, these guys are not martyr comics who have to move to Paris to slam the president; they are workaday TV stars wrestling with comedy’s most stubborn questions. Can Jesus Christ be a comic figure? Should blackface be completely forbidden? Gags about wife-beating? Is the word “nigger” liberating (as Richard Pryor once thought) or depressing (as he subsequently thought)? Or is the word only depressing when uttered in what one black comic calls “mixed company”?

Bill Hicks booted: Not quite a job for Amnesty International

The Texas comic Bill Hicks, who was by turns embraced and rejected by American audiences for his raunchy, ideological humor, is a central figure in these debates. Recognizing this, Trio has made the boozy, sweaty comic the subject of his own documentary: Outlaw Comic: The Censoring of Bill Hicks, which premieres on June 15. As the title implies, a certain sophistry about censorship propels the narrative, but if you can ignore it, Hicks’ stand-up is worth a second—or first!—look. (Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994.) A hard-left Texan who considered George H.W. Bush an apocalyptic tyrant, Hicks also had an incongruously effortless style. On the many tapes of his club act, he doesn’t gear up for a joke at all; he seems indifferent to how he looks. His impressions, too—of a seductive little girl or a loud bird or Jay Leno—appear unstudied, just accurate enough to keep a story moving; it takes a minute to realize they are also pitch-perfect. If the writing in Outlaw Comic is heavy-handed—the refusal to air a segment he taped for Letterman is treated as an outrage akin to Stalin’s execution of dissident poets—Hicks’ performances are exactly the opposite.

Sick Humor: Disconcertingly deadpan

Finally, after watching Uncensored Comedy and Outlaw Comic, you might be tempted to applaud your own imperviousness to minor slights: Right-wing satire, left-wing rants—nothing offends you. But Trio dispels this smugness with another show airing this month. Sick Humor is a downbeat program, a low-fi look at the brutal, topical one-liners that are said to germinate on Wall Street. Unidentified people have been recruited to tell these jokes on Sick Humor, and they speak largely in deadpan. Running simultaneously is archival footage of emaciated African children, planes hitting towers, Jeffrey Dahmer in leg irons, Jews behind barbed wire. The old upsetting images, coupled with the flat rendering of the jokes (often by prim-looking women), is surprisingly disconcerting. “Why do black men cry during sex?” one girl says. “The Mace.”

All right, so maybe you find that one tame. But if you think you’re unoffendable, sit through a run of Holocaust and AIDS jokes, delivered like poison by pleasant Nurse Ratcheds. It’s enough to make you cry during comedy.