Seven funny folks have changed their lives for progressivism — some on purpose, some not so much — and made us laugh in the process.
By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**
Many comedians have altered their careers after stumbling into wild-party lifestyles, but what about those who’ve switched it up because of their political beliefs? It’s not all wine, sex and song out there. The following funny folks have changed their lives for progressivism — some on purpose, some not so much — and made us laugh in the process.
1. Dave Chappelle
In 2005, after a long stint on Comedy Central with a critically acclaimed, and critically funny show, Dave Chappelle was perceived to have gone crazy. He ditched the million-dollar “Chappelle Show” at the height of its popularity and dropped out of society, only to emerge months later on “Oprah” to admit he’d escaped to South Africa for a time before returning to his small hometown in Ohio. He didn’t lose his mind; he was fed up by the suits and their expectations, telling Oprah, “When you’re a guy who generates money, people have a vested interested in controlling you.”
But it was more than that. Chappelle was worried that his brand of humor — centered around skewering racist stereotypes with a subversive, sophisticated, line-treading light — was getting lost on his ever-expanding audience. The final straw: while filming a skit about “the black pixie,” in which he dressed up as a Jim Crow minstrel and chided himself to play into black stereotypes, a white crew member laughed just a little too hard. “When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable,” Chappelle said at the time. “As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take time out after this. Because my head almost exploded.”
Chappelle didn’t drop out completely. Five years later, he lives with his wife and children on a farm in Ohio, but still does the occasional show and is a fairly active and cantankerous tweeter. So why do people still think he went bonkers? And he’s not the first comedian whose progressive politics have clashed with or been overshadowed by the politricks of showbiz.
2. Richard Pryor
The original. If culture can indeed shift the political conversation, Pryor’s brilliantly funny, unfalteringly scathing send-ups on race relations — or non-relations, as it were — were some of the most important jokes in history. Inspired by the civil rights movement, during a stint in Vegas in 1967 Pryor had a revelation that his tame act wasn’t going to work for him anymore. Reportedly, he stepped on stage, peered out to the crowd and said “What the fuck am I doing here?” before he dropped the mic, walked off and changed his act forever.
Unfortunately, despite being one of the best comedians in American history (if not the best, as Comedy Central asserts), he’s still remembered for that one fateful day in 1980 when, caught in the throes of drug addiction, he accidentally lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine after chugging 150-proof alcohol. Richard Pryor was no saint — he’s only one of the myriad comedians who’ve had drug problems, and he was a horrible abuser of women — but the way he captured his cynical reality for a nation still trying to navigate race relations was and is important and unparalleled.
Incidentally, Rain Pryor, Richard’s third child, is continuing his legacy. After a long career as an actress, she still tours off her 2005 one-woman comedy show, “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” which delves into her experiences growing up black and Jewish in the 1970s.
3. George Carlin
Across the board, Carlin was one of the most progressive, fascinating, funny and smart comedians America has ever produced. He was making jokes about global warming before climate deniers even knew it was a thing, spoofed his own clan of hippies on national television, and got arrested with Lenny Bruce. Incidentally, he, too had his own bout with drug addiction; it never resulted in the same public brouhaha as Pryor’s, but apparently in the 1970s everyone with a joke in one pocket was carrying a bag of cocaine in the other.
“When you’re a guy who generates money, people have a vested interested in controlling you.”
But it was in 1973 that his politics caught up to him. Defiant against profanity laws and the ridiculous nature of words being seen as dangerous, he delivered a variation on his famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” speech (shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits) on New York’s progressive public radio station WBAI. The FCC promptly pounced, filing with the U.S. Supreme Court. Amazingly, the ruling was in WBAI and Carlin’s favor, stating that the routine was not indecent, and that the FCC could prohibit “adult” programs during the hours kids were up. It was a small step for a man, a giant step for comedy.
4. Paul Mooney
In the great American tradition of comedians mining race relations for bits, Mooney’s one of the best and most unflinching, having written for great shows from Pryor to “In Living Color” to Chappelle. And like his cohort Pryor, who declared he would no longer use the n-word in his routines after a life-changing trip to Africa, Mooney made a similar change of his own. It was nominally less revelatory, though, and definitely less joyous. In 2006, white comedian Michael Richards — best known as Kramer on “Seinfeld” — went on a racist tirade during a stand-up act, repeatedly calling a member of the audience the n-word. In disgust, Mooney declared he would never again use any form of the word. “We’re gonna stop using the n-word,” he said in a CNN interview. “I’m gonna stop using it. I’m not gonna use it again and I’m not gonna use the b-word. And we’re gonna put an end to the n-word. Just say no to the n-word. We want all human beings throughout the world to stop using the n-word.”
5. Judy Tenuta
The longtime feminist and early enlightener of midlife crises everywhere — her “sorry about your penis” joke from the ‘80s remains classic — Tenuta’s sarcasm and punch garnered her a huge following of gays and lesbians through the years. And so, in 2008, right after California legalized gay marriage for that brief and idyllic time, Tenuta became an ordained minister in that state in order to marry her same-sex-loving fans, whom she calls “gay love slaves” and “lesbertarians.” Alas, as the gay marriage issue is tied up in California courts, Tenuta’s marriage-granting is sidelined, and she’s been relegated to Lady Gaga spoofs.
6. Patton Oswalt
He is best known for dominating the commercial end of things, writing for MADTV, acting on prime-time sitcoms and doing voice-overs for animated films like Ratatouille. But in the mid-2000s, spurred by the Bush administration, his left trajectory seemed to become increasingly visible, with more stand-up in his repertoire and W criticisms at the ready and organizing benefits for our old friend, former presidential candidate John Kerry. He even shouted out AlterNet! What up, Oswalt! Bush altered everyone, true, but now Oswalt’s influencing the culture more than ever, writing columns for Wired>, appearing in the “United States of Tara” and making great statements on serious topics like Egypt and Obama.
7. Pee-Wee Herman aka Paul Reubens
This one’s more of an honorable mention. In the late ‘80s, Pee-wee Herman, the infantile man with a gray suit and a devious chuckle was doing everyone a favor with the imaginative show, “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” which was lauded for its multiculturalism and open-mindedness. In 1987, he told Rolling Stone, “I’m just trying to illustrate that it’s okay to be different — not that it’s good, not that it’s bad, but that it’s all right. I’m trying to tell kids to have a good time and to encourage them to be creative and to question things.”
It was a beautiful run — until 1991, when Reubens was arrested in a Florida adult theater for public masturbation, vilified by the media and dropped by CBS. Certainly it was a case of revisionism; though he was ostensibly making a children’s show, the Pee-wee Herman stand-up show originated with very adult jokes — sex was a main topic — which he toned down later before making his film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Public masturbation is illegal, of course, but he was in an adult theater, not a park — if anywhere’s appropriate to do it, it’s there. But the puritanical public got its way, and Reubens slipped into obscurity for many years. Last year, though, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” was revived for an enormously successful Broadway comeback, and he’s currently working on a corollary film with Hollywood comedy hotshot Judd Apatow.
Copyright 2011 Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
This post originally appeared at AlterNet.Org.