The emperor’s clothes

1 but seriously poster

Do you know Hans Christian Andersen’s fable about the Emperor’s new clothes? It suggests we sometimes avoid the truth out of self interest or cowardice. Right now the Emperor seems naked, and his courtiers are divided into those who insist it doesn’t matter, those who shoot anyone who points it out, and a few who want to draw our attention to what he’s not wearing.

It’s the Titanic’s maiden voyage all over again: with some passengers saying it’s unpatriotic to say she’ll sink; others insisting all it needs is to move those deck chairs around a bit; and, a few who want  to get the women and children to the boats. Somehow, though, the truth, especially unpleasant truth, has never been popular. Aristophanes was dismissed as obscene; Juvenal is still banned; Moliere is just a comedian; Swift a children’s author, Dickens too sentimental to take seriously; and Orwell is just science fiction.

In the tradition of Aristophanes, Juvenal, Lucian, Cervantes, Moliere, Swift, Voltaire, Dickens, Twain, Orwell and other mockers at the absurdity of human behaviour, Jeff Lieberman (director of horror classics like Squirm, Remote Control and Satan’s Little Helper) put together an anthology of film clips on a traumatic time in America, 1960-90, which offers  a perspective both hilarious and heart breaking. Called But…seriously and released in 1994, it features a roll call of America’s finest stand up comedians, doing what they do best. For audiences who don’t stop thinking while they’re laughing.

Some people like to exploit others. Other races, the other sex, other social groups, age groups. Other animal species, natural resources.  If not those, then their own families. If all else fails, themselves. That’s what they do: for them it just seems natural. The result is frequently corruption, violence, and unhappiness.

It’s a situation that’s existed for at least 2,500 years. This film is a snapshot of a time, 1960-90, between Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, when Americans faced a lot of issues. The war in Vietnam, the murder of a President, Civil Rights riots and atrocities, drugs, discrimination, sexism, the moral majority, racism, the arms race, the growth of unemployment, terrorism, foreign and American. It bought out the worst in many Americans, and the best.

There’s no voice over commentary here. The film simply puts a lot of film clips together, of public figures, current news events, and stand up comedians and their reaction to the world around them. It’s a brilliant editing job, very effective, both frightening and funny. For people who think that it was all so long ago, history for the history books: today we have undisposable nuclear waste, terrorism, poverty, a failing health system, racism (still!), corruption in public office and men and women who are violent to one another. If you’re not a couch potato or a drug addict you’ll learn something from this film, featuring some of America’s greatest comedians.

And sometimes the funniest. Sometimes just laughing at it defuses the situation and gives a calmer perspective.

2 stand up comedians

On racism: Godfrey Cambridge makes fun of the conflict between property rights and rights of property exploitation. A negro who moves into a white neighbourhood, “that negro is not afraid of bricks and bombs and burning crosses: he’s afraid another negro will move in the area” (to a negro audience).

Dick Gregory notes how liberal people are getting. “Everybody I meet tells me the same thing: ‘some of my best friends are coloured’. Now you know and I know there’s not enough of us to go around”.

Jackie Mason notes how brown is beautiful, at the beach, unless you were born that way. “I was at Miami admiring a man with a real good tan. Then they noticed he was really coloured…get out of here!”

Actually, not many people have black skin. Not many people have white skin either. It’s all brown skin, some a lighter shade than others. It’s like racism. Not many people are pure bloods; almost everyone is a cross breed. These are really just labels, used to make it easier to hate others.

On AIDS: Robin Williams points out the ultimate meaning of ‘safe sex’. “Gosh Helen. I really care about you: can I have some blood and urine”. “Helen, I’m in the airlock now”. “Fine Harry. Leave the sperm in the tray and I’ll get it tomorrow”. It seemed like humans had evolved like some spiders: have sex and die.

Lily Tomlin was less than impressed with the moon shot. “They got to the moon and planted a flag then hit a golf ball. One giant step took banality out of America and into the cosmos”.

Bill Hicks points out the facts behind the war on drugs. “Let’s be hypocritical bastards. It’s OK to drink your drugs. Say no to those other drugs, those untaxed ones. Those are the ones that are bad for you”.

The social policies of the time are flayed by George Carlin. “We’ve got a war against everything. But we don’t have a war against homelessness. Ever wonder why? Because there’s no money in it. No one’s going to get rich from a war against homelessness. We have to change a few names. It’s not homelessness, it’s houselessness. I’ve got an idea where we can put some low cost housing: golf courses”.

And Whoopi Goldberg has a final word on that. “Isn’t it interesting that the homeless are starting to look more and more like us every day.”

Richard Pryor didn’t like the war with Libya. As it might be a nuclear war he had a solution. “All they got to do is announce the war. They don’t have to start one. Then make the announcement: ‘find the fallout shelters’. Not a motherfucker knows where they are. They say a half hour warning. Shit. I want nine or ten months. Can you imagine what the roads will be like getting out of here?”

Robin Williams had the solution for the Iran Contra scandal (if only they’d asked him). “There was an organisation that could have handled the mission: the American Postal Service. If they had handled the affair the Iranians wouldn’t have got the missiles; we wouldn’t have got the money”.

The War on Iraq gets the best treatment. Right away you realise that all those rednecks down in Alabama shooting and lynching negroes have influenced foreign policy. If you don’t like ‘em, bomb ‘em. It takes more overhead than the KKK and leads to higher taxation and fewer jobs, but it sure looks good on television.

The Presidents are all shown swearing their oath of office, and treated with some ridicule given their track record. As Jack Parr says of LBJ: “I get the impression that when the President is speaking, he’s speaking under our heads (or else we duck)”.

starring (half of these appear on Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Standup Comedians of all time):

• Richard Belzer

Ted Blumberg

Eric Bogosian

• Lenny Bruce

Godfrey Cambridge

• George Carlin

Ellen Cleghorne

• Billy Crystal

Rick Ducommun

Will Durst

Whoopi Goldberg

• Bobcat Goldthwait

• Dick Gregory

Argus Hamilton

• Bill Hicks

George Kirby

• Robert Klein

Arch Lustberg

• Bill Maher

• Jackie Mason

• Dennis Miller

Paul Mooney

• Eddie Murphy

Jack Paar

Pat Paulsen

• Richard Pryor


Mark Russell

• Mort Sahl

Dick Shawn

David Steinberg

Pam Stone

Jimmy Tingle

Lily Tomlin

Jimmy Walker

• George Wallace

• Robin Williams


John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George  HW Bush, and selected Congressmen, officials, policemen and their friends.


A stand up comedians’ history of America 1960-90

(“the more things change, the more they remain the same”)

produced and directed by Jeff Lieberman

Showtime Networks 1994

Comedy Central’s list is here: checkout the comments!

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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