In his new book, Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars, Kliph Nesteroff sets out to dismantle the popular wisdom that you can’t say anything anymore. As it turns out, this wisdom has been popular for the better part of the last 200 years. During the vaudeville era, performers had to deal with woke activists opposed to anti-Black and anti-immigrant humor. In 1931, the racist Amos ’n’ Andy radio show spurred hundreds of thousands of complaints and a call for nationwide protests. In the 1960s, audiences heckled and then walked out on a slur-filled, pro-Klan routine by comedian “Brother” Dave Gardner. In the 1980s, picketers marched outside gigs by Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy, notorious for their anti-gay jokes at the height of the AIDS epidemic. (“I did jokes about homosexuals last year,” Murphy told an audience in 1985. “The f——s went crazy. If you see any f——s picketing outside my show, take the sign and beat their ass with it.”) After the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the FCC fielded “thousands of complaints” about sexual and racist material by a burgeoning army of shock jocks taking over the airwaves. After changes upon changes, Nesteroff demonstrates, we are more or less the same.
If Outrageous is a meticulous chronicle of the protests that entertainers have always faced, it is also a meticulous chronicle of protest’s effectiveness. Over the course of the last century-plus, popular backlash to bigoted art—Outrageous covers comedy as well as radio, television, film, and music—steadily shifted the boundaries of the acceptable, making room for performers who historically struggled to gain purchase and audiences who historically lacked for (non-stereotypical) representation. These gains were not easily won: the culture wars, of course, are omni-directional, though Outrageous suggests that one side has usually had a little more institutional power behind it.
In 1927, vaudeville star Mae West was arrested, tried, and sentenced to hard labor for her play Sex, which allegedly corrupted “the morals of youth.” In the late 1930s, Texaco Oil pulled its sponsorship from comedian Eddie Cantor’s popular radio program after he hosted rallies for the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. (“Six months later, Texaco chairman Torkild Rieber resigned after he was exposed for secretly supplying oil to Hitler and providing classified information about American shipping routes to the Nazis.”) When Rod Serling penned “a thinly veiled teleplay about the murder of Emmett Till” in 1965 for The United States Steel Hour, pro-segregation groups sent thousands of letters to US Steel, which “eviscerated” Serling’s script. When a drunk soldier viciously assaulted Black comedian Timmie Rodgers at a US military base in 1957, he was acquitted and returned to his post. “Meanwhile, Timmie Rogers was bedridden for months, unable to do stand-up—because he was unable to stand up.”
Outrageous is a compelling refutation of the interminable whining about political correctness and wokeism that dominates so much public discourse, but I think it also accomplishes something even more important than that: a detailed record of the conservative movement’s slow construction of a massive think tank apparatus, funded by billionaire corporate executives like Robert Welch and the Koch family, that for the last half-century has leveraged the culture wars to claw back progressive gains, forcing the champions of pluralism to perpetually relitigate battles they already won in arenas where they’re increasingly viewed as the aggressor.
It’s fascinating stuff, well worth the read if you’re a fan of comedy or show business generally. Last month I spoke with Nesteroff about the book, his research, and his thoughts on the comedy industry. It’s a long one, but I think he offers much to chew on if you have the time to sit with it. Thanks as always for reading, and enjoy. (The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
I read an interview you did in 2016 for Huffington Post about The Comedians, where you said that before you wrote the book, you had no interest in vaudeville. Now you've written three books that touch in small or large ways on the vaudeville era. How do you feel about it now? What do you think today's comedians and comedy fans can learn from that era?
The reason that I originally was not interested in vaudeville is because I always assumed that it was boring, based on how it had been portrayed. My understanding of vaudeville was based on Looney Tunes cartoons and references to it within popular culture, which always portrayed it as guys with a cane, straw hats, doing very corny type things.
There's a great book that is probably not for the layperson, it's called Show Biz: From Vaude to Video by this guy Joe Laurie Jr. And Joe Laurie Jr. was a comedian who became a historian of show business. He worked for Variety in the 1950s, and he wrote this book, which was a history of vaudeville, which was the world that he himself had performed in. What I learned reading that book was that the experience of a road comic in the 1890s or the 1920s was similar to my experience as road comic in the late 1990s. I'm sure it's still the same as comedians today, which is the gigs are hard. You don't get paid well. You don't get treated well. You're often performing for an audience that doesn't want to see you, and it's this uphill struggle.
So the material of vaudeville seems intangible and hard to relate to and not funny to us today. But the experience of people on the road back then, very similar to the experience of people on the road today. So how I managed to figure out a way to make it interesting, both to myself and to others, was to realize, "Okay, it's really not as different as I thought.”
Because old-timey comedy is hard to relate to sometimes. You're like, "Why was this considered funny?" But even though that ethereal part of it is no longer relatable, the human experience behind it and what people were going through was basically the same. Same struggles, same emotions, same problems. So that made it more interesting to me. And that's the crux of the new book, even though it's not focused on vaudeville necessarily—the idea that while the path seems disconnected to today, they're actually shockingly similar.
Going into Outrageous, I didn't think I could be surprised anymore by how history repeats itself. Then suddenly I'm reading about the John Birch Society and thinking, "Oh, this is the mid-20th century Libs of TikTok." And there are so many other examples like that where I was blown away by how little has changed. What surprised you most in your research?
I'm not really surprised by anything anymore. I had this suspicion that this was true. The conceit that we constantly are fed, especially the last five, six years, is that you can't joke about anything anymore. You can't say anything anymore, comedy's under attack. But just as a student of showbiz—TV, movies, music, radio, standup—I know that's not true. Because if you watch The Righteous Gemstones, you see penises in the show. If you watch Euphoria, I think the first episode, the first scene is in a locker room in slow motion of people's dongs just swinging through the air. I recently watched the first episode, I don't even know what it's called, the Pete Davidson sitcom on Peacock—
And I was repulsed, the opening scene is of him jerking off and then accidentally ejaculating on his own mother.
Oh, nice. Okay.
In 2004, not that long ago, there was a national scandal because there was a half-second glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple on TV. It was the focus of think pieces and debates and political tirades for months. You compare that to those examples that I just gave of things you can see that now, things could not be more drastically free compared to the past. Compared to the lock and stranglehold that the network monopoly had, compared to what you can now see on cable television, on streaming. Compare AM and FM radio throughout history to what you can hear on satellite radio today, on podcasts today, it's just drastically different.
The argument that you can't say anything anymore is often based on people who wish they could say slurs.
And this argument that you can't say anything anymore is largely based on the fact that certain slurs are considered taboo, but compared to the amount of freedom in every other realm, political commentary, sexual commentary, religious commentary, nudity, pornography, all the things that we have open access to today compared to how heavily censored things have been in the past is drastically different. I knew that this wasn't true, despite the fact that we constantly hear this: "Oh, you can't say anything anymore. It's not like the old days where you could say anything." It's exactly the opposite. So I wasn't really surprised, but in my research that's what I sought out to prove.
The argument that you can't say anything anymore is often based on people who wish they could say slurs. And then the irony is that those who practice free expression in the form of protest, it's free speech—but it's often characterized as censorship because it's people protesting bigotry.
It's just the total distortion, and a willful and intentional distortion. So I'm just trying to un-distort it. I don't know if I was surprised by anything per se, although I did love finding examples of things that I didn't know about. Maybe one of the things that I was surprised about was that blackface had a minor resurgence in the early 60s during the Civil Rights movement. That surprised me a little bit. There's an editorial from Salt Lake City that I quote in the book, where somebody is complaining that people are complaining about blackface. The Mummers Day parade in Philadelphia, it's a historic parade, it still exists, but for a century, people would dress up in blackface in the parade. And so the Mummers Parade announced in '64 or '65, "Okay, no more blackface. Considering what's all that's going on with the Civil Rights Movement, it would be disrespectful.”
And this editorial was published saying, "What does blackface have to do with Civil Rights?" They were indignant of the idea that this would be a protest. They were saying that the Civil Rights Movement had obviously gone too far. So things like that surprised me.
I was also surprised to see that comedians, in addition to having it easier in terms of what they can say—and tell me if this is unfair—they also seem to have it easier in terms of the backlash that they get. Forty years ago, they're getting picketers at their hotels and at their shows, which I don't think you see so much of anymore. How has the role of protest changed over the years?
I think you'd have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. I don't know if the Smothers Brothers were picketed in person, but they certainly were recipients of a vicious letter writing campaign. In the book, the protests I give examples of are in the face of vaudevillians, or in the 80s, picketers in front of Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay gigs. There was a picket here in front of Netflix around the time of one of Dave Chappelle's specials, so that was very similar in a certain way.
It also depends on what you consider a protest. When this guy rushed the stage at the Hollywood Bowl during a Chappelle gig, Howie Mandel said it was the death of comedy. It always annoys me when comedians themselves make that argument, because they should know better. Anybody who's done standup in a comedy club for generations should know better. When I did standup, it was before Facebook, before Twitter, before podcasts, the word podcast did not exist. And I can recall five different instances where I was assaulted. Two different times, I had a pitcher of beer doused over me, once in Toronto, once in Vancouver. Two completely different incidences. Two other times I had somebody rush the stage and throttle me, and a fifth time, which I think was my own fault, I went out into the audience and was doing a shtick in the audience and somebody clocked me in the head. So this is before the internet. When you're dealing with drunks, you're often dealing with people who object to what you're doing on stage.
Those are usually the most concerted protest efforts throughout the history of show business, when people really feel maligned in a manner that is dehumanizing.
I do think that in a little way, social media helps create the illusion of action. It prevents a lot of people from protesting in person because they feel like they're doing something by retweeting. When really they’re probably doing nothing. I don't think that protest ultimately has changed that much over the years. It really depends. Usually the most forceful protest movements are social protest movements. In terms of show business, it's people objecting in-person to things that they perceive as bigotry. If you look at the examples that I have in the book from the days of vaudeville, there are Irish groups protesting what they perceive as bigotry towards Irish people onstage, Italian groups opposing what they consider anti-Italian bigotry, African American groups protesting blackface or demeaning stereotypes, and so on through the ages.
Same thing happens during the Civil Rights movement in the early 60s, people complaining about Black stereotypes. In the 70s, it was the gay liberation movement, the women's liberation movement. It seems to me those are usually the most concerted protest efforts throughout the history of show business, when people really feel maligned in a manner that is dehumanizing. You see that again today with the transgender movement—it’s a protest against that which is perceived to be dehumanizing. I see a parallel between all of these movements. If you don't see it as often today, it might be because those movements of a previous generation achieved what they sought out to do, which was a more respectful portrayal, a removal of these sort of dehumanizing stereotypes.
I was struck by the line in one of your early chapters where you wrote that gains are made in one form of media, and then a new form of media emerges and stereotypes flourish there and the same fights happen over and over again. And while this was going on over the course of a century, the right built this massive institutional framework to seed radical ideas in mainstream culture. Is there any analogue on the liberal or progressive side for that sort of infrastructure?
In terms of think tanks, you mean?
Yes, and I may get criticized by right-wing people for not mentioning them in the book, but many of the foundations that were precursors to the ones that I talk about in this book were considered a liberal infrastructure. The Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Now the names Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford do not sound like liberal names. They're titans of industry. But that's the exact reason that they created those foundations during the post-World War I era and the post-World War II era: to improve their public relations. Ford was equated with Adolf Hitler, because Henry Ford was an antisemite and a supporter of Adolf Hitler. So when he died in '47, his son turned the Ford Foundation into a benefactor of liberal causes as a way to rehabilitate their image.
These other think tanks that I talk about were much more disinterested in being seen as benefactors for the public, and were very concerted in their efforts to game the system to help protect and bolster their wealth and demonize all opposition.
Likewise Rockefeller and Carnegie, going back to the Gilded Age, were considered these exploitive titans of industry, villains in the body politic, especially with Teddy Roosevelt and the reformers. He helped portray them as villains of America. And so the Carnegie Foundation and the Ford Foundation, same thing. They did build these elaborate infrastructures that gave generously to liberal causes, and it was primarily to rehabilitate their own images as American villains. So they were not necessarily trying to game the political system. They already did game the political system privately, without a foundation, just simply through their wealth and influence in politics. But their foundations were liberal and perceived as altruistic, although it was really self-serving to make themselves look good.
In the post-war period, these other think tanks that I talk about were much more disinterested in being seen as benefactors for the public, and were very concerted in their efforts to game the system to help protect and bolster their wealth and demonize all opposition through a series of well focus-grouped strategies and talking points that would get people on their side.
I was also struck by the constancy of the corporate censor over the ages. You write that in the 30s, NBC broadcast a Nuremberg rally but wouldn't allow skits about Hitler, which reminded me how Colin Jost wrote in his memoir that in the 2010s, NBC wouldn't allow sketches about Hitler because viewers might associate them with advertisers like Volkswagen. Which makes me think of the neat trick that the conservative side of the culture war has pulled off, where there's this narrative that it's entertainers versus the frothing hordes of politically correct college students and lefty activists, but a lot of the time it's also workers versus their bosses—which Desi Arnes seemed to recognize when he used his leverage in the kerfuffle over the Lucy pregnancy storylines. How has corporate influence in pop culture evolved over the years? How have artists' attitudes towards that influence evolved?
Corporations do not really care about good versus bad, or good versus evil, or morality versus immorality, or ethical versus unethical. They care about profitable versus unprofitable and that's it. To give an example you're very familiar with, what's-his-face, who got hired and then fired on SNL—
To use the Shane Gillis example, Shane Gillis had not generated any profit yet for SNL or for NBC or for Comcast. So as soon as the controversy arises, it's easier for them to get rid of him because he could only harm their profits at that point. He's not helped their profits any. Now, if Lorne Michaels had said the exact same thing, used the exact same slur on the exact same podcast and the exact same controversy had arisen, they would not have fired Lorne Michaels, because they would do a cost-benefit analysis and see that the amount of profit he's generated for them is going to far outweigh the amount of profit that they'll lose based on the controversy.
So NBC or Comcast doesn't make that decision based on ethics. If somebody using racial slurs is extremely profitable for them, then they'll stick with them. That is how corporations operate.
I have an example in the book from the early 50s with the Amos 'n' Andy TV show. The show got canceled after NAACP pressure, but it wasn't canceled because somebody had a revelation and was like, "Oh, it's racist, let's cancel it." It was canceled because there was a boycott campaign going on. And as a result for years afterwards, the networks just didn't hire any Black actors. They didn't think, "Oh, we'll hire Black actors and have them do realistic portrayals.” [They thought,] “We just won't hire any black actors at all because that'll prevent any further controversy. We won't get controversy from Black civil rights organizations who feel that we're portraying stereotypes, and we won't get any protests from white bigots in the south. That way we'll protect the profit margin.”
So that's always the consideration of the sponsors. How do we protect the profit? How do we increase the profit? And any decision they make is just to forestall any protest or boycott that may harm them.
One thing I've been trying to make a habit of asking comedians I interview is how working in show business shaped their political consciousness, especially amidst in the summer of the strikes and the broader labor movement. I'm curious what, if anything, you learned in your research about how comedians over the years have conceived of themselves as political actors, or as workers.
I think that everybody's comic persona is essentially an extension of their natural persona. If you're naturally a political person, then that will play into your daily behavior. And if you're not, then it won't. Louis Black is a political comedian, it's not a contrivance. He's a political guy. He's interested in that stuff naturally and organically. When I started standup in the late 90s, my heroes were people like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, and I wanted to do that, but I had no comedy experience. So it's bad enough to be shitty at standup and just be a bad amateur. It's even worse when you're that plus giving political opinions. It only works if you have the grounding and ability to manipulate an audience and make an audience laugh to begin with.
I don't think that comedy ever changes the world politically... Art is a nice supplement, but it's not the catalyst.
But even then, in terms of comedy itself, politics is most efficient offstage. Onstage, it doesn't really appeal to anybody who doesn't agree. And this is true for all of us. None of us enjoys a comic giving political opinions that we're totally opposed to, it just turns you off no matter who you are. And generally, it doesn't really change anybody's mind. You could make an argument that somebody like a George Carlin might change somebody's mind who's at a developmental stage. You're 14, you're 15, you're 16. At that age, you can be influenced by your favorite band, your favorite musicians, your favorite comedians. But beyond that, I don't think it really affects things one way or another.
Some people don't like this argument that I make sometimes, that I don't think that comedy ever changes the world politically. Especially during the Trump years, people really thought that comedy would be holding the feet to the fire and speaking truth to power, all these things. And it didn't change things at all, even though there was so much political comedy. And then some people will give me an example, they're like, "Well, what about Dick Gregory?" And I'm like, "Well, Dick Gregory quit standup!” So even he knew that it's more effective when you're actually involved on the ground than just speaking about it from the stage.
That doesn't mean that political comedy can't be great. It can, it's just not going to change things the way actual concrete civil disobedience might, or an actual political organization might. That's where activism occurs, in real life. Art is a nice supplement, but it's not the catalyst.
Yeah, I guess what I'm interested in is how comics figure out how to navigate the political economies of their clubs or scenes, and what emerges from that.
I think it really depends on where you are. When I lived in Toronto, when I started in standup, that's where the television industry was centered. And so people focus on doing a five-minute set that would be perfect for TV and also to impress somebody who might be in the audience. Then I moved to Vancouver where there was no television industry, all the comedians were a thousand times more creative doing different material every week. And it inspired me. I became much better and much more creative because people weren't doing the same five minutes every week.
When I lived in Toronto, comedians were auditioning for television commercials during the day, and if you landed a commercial, everybody would celebrate. I went to Vancouver and that was anathema. People were like, "Why would you be in a commercial, you fuckin' sellout?" So you conformed to the atmosphere of the scene that you were in. You determined what was important and what was unimportant based on your contemporaries. I think that's true of a lot of places, and that is true of a lot of styles that are generated within comedy. There's a different style in London than there is in Florida.
There's an ambition that comedians have these days where they very much want to be on tour with the Dave Chappelle. They very much want to appear on the Joe Rogan podcast, because they feel it'll propel their career.
Even at the Comedy Store, a lot of the shows are split up by theme. You'll have shows that are strictly provocateur comedians, and you'll have shows that are, I don't know if they still have it, but they used to have a strictly Black-themed night that was just African-American comics. And so depending on what scene you are a part of, there's a tone and style and approach that people can't conform to. Certainly in New York, not all over New York, but in certain pockets, they're definitely all in on that cancel culture mentality.
I also think that there's an ambition that comedians have these days where they very much want to be on tour with the Dave Chappelle. They very much want to appear on the Joe Rogan podcast, because they feel it'll propel their career. And so I don't see that many people parodying or ridiculing Dave Chappelle, as you might expect, him being such a huge celebrity. And I don't see that many people parodying or ridiculing Joe Rogan, as you would expect, him being such a huge celebrity.
Whereas you watch in the seventies, SCTV, they would trash Bob Hope, they would trash Rusty Warren, Jack Carter, these old-fashioned show business types. Even though they probably respected them in some way, they were not afraid to trash them. Early SNL, the same thing. It was that Mad Magazine concept of—somebody's a big figure, you ridicule and parody them. And that still occurs in some circles today, but I think perhaps people have become more and more ambitious. And Joe Rogan's an easy person to make fun of, but I just don't see it being done that often. Tim Heidecker notwithstanding, I just don't see it happening all that often.
It is one of the things that I've been pondering a lot lately, especially after the pandemic.
Dave Chappelle and Joe Rogan, both comedians take themselves very seriously. There's a lack of levity sometimes, and they seem like the perfect targets to parody. When somebody takes themselves seriously, whether it's in politics, whether it's in art, whether it's in sports, that makes them ripe for parody. And the irony is that they're two of the biggest figures in comedy, but often two of the most serious.
It's such an interesting thin blue line mentality in comedy. There are a lot of people like that, who fashion themselves philosophers and are total buffoons.
I should add that that is an American conceit. The Canadian comedians that I know, they will never be on Joe Rogan's podcast. They're in a different universe, and so they're free to ridicule what's going on in America, or at least they feel that and they do. So the different scenes produce different types of people. The Canadian scene, which is where I came from, is a little bit different than the American scene. And Canadians love to make fun of Americans. When Canadians move down to Hollywood, there’s a cliché—why are there so many funny Canadians? And it's really because they get a lot of practice ridiculing Americans.