Stand up comedy isn’t just about making people laugh. That’s obviously the goal, but many comics take the opportunity to say something of value. Oftentimes, it’s to get a message across that they feel is lacking attention in our society, or is getting too much. The stand up comics in this list would say what’s on their mind and not care about the consequences. They’ve stood up against oppression and used freedom of speech to their advantage. They didn’t care who they upset and in many ways, they may have been the voices of the voiceless. These comics manage to do all of this while still making people laugh and entertain the masses. These comics and their material are so controversial that some were banned from TV, condemned by politicians and even arrested. Here is a look at some of the most controversial and influential stand up comics.
5) Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman is known for tackling controversial and taboo subjects such as religion, racism and sexism. She began stand up in the early 90’s. Her resume included a short stint on Saturday Night Live as a writer, was a featured performer on Mr. Show and appeared on an episode of Seinfeld. She caused controversy with an appearance on Late Night with Conon O’Brien in 2001 when she told a story about using a racial slur aimed at Asians to get out of jury duty. NBC and Conan apologized for the slur but Silverman did not. In fact, she worked the story into her material and only stopped doing it because she felt it was stale. Sarah Silverman continues to perform stand up comedy and stir up controversy.
4) Bill Hicks
At the young age of 16, Bill Hicks began performing stand up comedy in Houston, Texas. His controversial material was known for its dark comedy in dealing with religion, philosophy and politics, as well as criticizing the media and consumerism. Hicks was an avid cigarette smoker, which heavily influenced his later material with the constant want and need to quit smoking. He gained success in the early 90’s with the release of Dangerous, his first comedy album. Bill was scheduled to appear on the October 1, 1993 episode of Late Show With David Lettermen. However, his entire stand up set was cut due to the content, which included material about the anti-abortion movement. The producers felt that it might be too offensive and cut his entire appearance. Hicks would never appear on the show again. On January 30, 2009 David Lettermen aired the entire Bill Hicks performance that was cut, and expressed regret over cutting it originally. Bill Hicks died at the age of 32, on February 26, 1994 from pancreatic cancer. He has influenced an entire generation of comics including Joe Rogan, Lewis Black and David Cross.
3) George Carlin
George Carlin began his legendary career as a clean-shaven, well dressed, good guy stand up comic. After teaming with Jack Burns in 1959, Carlin went on his own and found success with this image. Even making appearances on The Tonight Show. George Carlin was in the audience when controversial stand up comic, Lenny Bruce, was arrested for obscenity. Carlin was also arrested for not having an I.D and was in the same police car as Lenny Bruce. Carlin embraced the counter-culture of the 70’s and changed his image from clean shaven, to growing a beard, growing his hair long and he started wearing jeans instead of suits. In 1972, George Carlin released the highly successful comedy album, Class Clown. The album contained the very controversial bit, “Seven Dirty World You Can’t Say On Television”. At the Milwaukee Summerfest that year, he was arrested for obscenity after performing the routine. In 1973, a New York radio station, WBAI played a similar routine of George Carlin’s called, “Filthy Words” on a day show. Controversy arose after a father complained about hearing the bit with his son, so the radio station and the F.C.C went to trial. The controversy only made Carlin an even bigger star and continued to have success. He has been a big influence on comics such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK. George Carlin died June 22, 2008 of heart failure.
2) Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor was raised by his grandmother in a brothel and started performing in 1963. He had a very intimate and personal approach to his storytelling and was known to deal with racism and social issues. In other words, they included full of profanity, racial slurs and vulgarity. He began to have mainstream success in the 70’s, including having his own variety special, The Richard Pryor Show. On June 9, 1980 after free basing cocaine and drinking 151 proof rum, Pryor poured the rum all over him and set himself on fire. He then ran down the street from his California home, until he was subdued by the police. He would describe the incident in his comedy special, Richard Pryor: Live on Sunset. At one point during the special, he lights a match, waves it in the air and asks “What’s that? Richard Pryor running down the street.” In 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and as a result, lost his voice. He died in California, December 10, 2005 from a heart attack. Richard Pryor was a huge influence on comics like Dave Chappelle, and is considered the greatest and most influential stand up comedian, by comics such as Jerry Seinfeld.
1) Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce started his ground breaking career performing at burlesques shows in the late 50’s and would have his greatest success in the 60’s. Bruce is credited as being the first stand up comic of his kind. Lenny was the first to have a conversational approach and was known to be very outspoken. At the time, he would tackle subjects that nobody else in the world would dare to touch, such as racism, drugs, religion and politics. He was also known for his obscenities on stage, that in fact, led to great amounts of legal trouble for him. He did gain a loyal following, but many at the time were greatly offended by him. He was arrested on October 4, 1961 at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco for obscenities and the sexual content of his set. Although he was not charged, it was at this point that law enforcement agencies began to monitor is performances. In 1964, while performing at the Café Au Go Go, Lenny was arrested after leaving the stage, by undercover cops that were in the audience. He was found guilty of obscenity and sentenced to four months at a workhouse. He appealed the case and then began discussing it at length during his shows. His personal life was a mess because he had gotten himself into heavy drugs, which inevitably affected his performances. The obscenity case and his quest for freedom of speech drove Bruce to bankruptcy and took a heavy emotional toll on him. He died August 3, 1966 from an apparent drug overdose before the appeal trial. Thirty-seven years after his death, New York Governor, George Pataki, would grant Bruce a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction. Lenny Bruce played an important part in the fight for freedom of speech and is considered to be the greatest stand up comedian. A biopic about Lenny Bruce by Bob Fosse, Lenny, who was played by Dustin Hoffman, was released in 1974 and was nominated for several Academy Awards including: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.