Pryor, Bruce, VH-1, & Coarsened Culture

I’ve said more often than I care to remember that our culture and our media are being controlled by perpetual adolescents who act and think like eternal 14 year olds, but after reading David Mills’ essay on the home page today, I’m thinking I have to adjust the age downward. Watching a VH-1 roast, Mills observes:

It is hard to exaggerate the crudity of the performance: not so much the crudity of the language and subjects, but its intellectual crudity. Every single remark was the foul-mouthed adult’s equivalent of the seven-year-old’s “You have a big butt.”

Yes, that’s about right. This show sounds like a great example of a coarsened culture being kept alive partially by the willingness of media whores to endure almost anything if it means getting their faces before the camera. If people would stop watching it might go away, but until then, our kids are being told this is what “wit” looks like.

Mills writes:

The great icons of “edgy” humor like Lenny Bruce, and a few years later comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, began something that eventually lost its point but kept its edge. They shocked for a purpose, to force people to see something they didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, like Flannery O’Connor at a rather higher level. Their point was not always a very good point and the shocks sometimes seemed indulged for their own sakes, and being “edgy” built their reputations and brought them fame and work, but still, they were rude and profane for a reason.

To some extent, even Pryor (whom I admired) and the other raunchy comics are partly responsible for all of that. He and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce were smart people who put their “edgy” words out there to get attention so they could make larger points. Less-smart people have misunderstood that edginess to be an end unto itself. When we let in the crudities of the Bruces and the Pryors, and allowed that they were artists with something to say, this was bound to happen; everything devolves downward as it disseminates, and as it does, the profit of a thing is misunderstood and then misused.

And our kids will not know the difference; they won’t understand that the crudity used to be about something, before it became about itself.

Even the rapper Eminem admits that he must take pains to demonstrate the difference between his art and reality to his daughters. If we don’t do this, of course, our kids will believe that crudeness and incivility is the way the world rolls.

Of course, when we do take the time and effort to teach them differently, there is no guarantee that they’ll hold on to those lessons, particularly if the lessons involve the faith. I muse a little on the fact that Catholics often leave the faith as young adults, in this piece at Patheos, and encourage parents to look for evidences of their children’s faith-grounding in less obvious, but reassuring, ways.

Regarded in the light of all my husband and I tried to instill within our sons about faith and the church, that busy afternoon was hugely reassuring; all of our lessons were reflected back by them in their indirect homilies, although with different emphases, which is to be expected, given their natures.

And, as Pat Gohn beautifully reminds us our natures are partly divine!

Remembering that, it is all the more urgent that we teach our children the precepts of our respective faiths, teach them the values of that faith, and even teach those values in relation to the sublimely secular; it is part and parcel of teaching them that there is something greater than themselves. That way, even if they wander, those ingrained precepts may eventually help them to reject what is crude for what is fine, and reject what is dehumanizing, for what manages to uplift us all.

It may start with something as subtle as your kid reminding you that dehumanization can take the innocuous-seeming form of reducing everything to “us” and “them” in politics (on any side) for a parent to feel reassured about where their kids are going and that succeeding generations will continue to grow in generosity and wisdom, until there will be no one left to submit to the crass “entertainment” of a televised “roast.”

Maintaining right reason in the face of evil

I do believe the whole world is nuts

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Brian English

    “He and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce were smart people who put their “edgy” words out there to get attention so they could make larger points.”

    I have never bought into this, especially with regard to Carlin. What was the point of his famous Seven Dirty Words routine? That words themselves don’t have meaning, but are given meaning by society? Well, yes, and the seven dirty words were considered dirty by our society. Carlin repeating them as part of his routine didn’t make them less dirty, it just made their use more common.

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  • Teresa

    Despite the bilge on TV these days it is nice to know that some young people are not consumed with it. I had a young man help me with some heavy lifting gardening yesterday. He agreed to work for $10.00 per hour and did a masterful job. As I said, it was major work and once he was finished I increased the pay to $15.00 per hour, not because I could really afford it, but because the experience was so refreshing in this vulgar world. I should note that he is home schooled and from a religous family. After he finished, he went home to prepare dinner because both parents had to work overtime. Thankfully, not all is lost–yet.

  • Hank

    I think that any third rate talent can make a living repeating edgy stuff. Using non-edgy marerial requires some genuine talent to succeed. Bill Cosby among others could use non-edgy material and succeeded very well. Pryor and Carlin were first rate talents who chose to use edgy material but could have been just as popular without it. What they did (without I am sure intending it) was open the door for third rate talent to dominate the field. I doubt the mass medias gatekeepers would allow first class talent to perform unless they were using third rate edgy material in a manner no different than the third rate performers.. It is safe, it will make money and a lot of jobs depend on success.

    But it is still third rate. Worse it devalues anything and every thing.

  • dymphna

    I never thought George Carlin was funny. He was just a foul mouthed old man with a really good press agent.

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  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Quite honestly, I never thought any of them were especially funny. I suspect good PR was behind the success of most of them. That, and the human tendency to acclaim something as great, just because a lot of other people seem to like it.

  • Feeney

    Never liked Pryor. He was more angry than funny, and frankly he was embarassing to watch. George Carlin was funny, but also very angry. Chris Rock, Pryor’s direct descendant, is an abomination, more like watching an angry foul-mouthed demon than a human being. In my opinion, once you “go blue”, you’ve traded in your decency for a pile of money. I will take Jay Leno over any of the current crop of low-life “comedians”.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I’d take Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Jacky Gleason and the Three Stooges over any of them!

    All of them were very, very angry, and, eventually, the anger—and the “going blue”—eventually makes them completely un-funny.

  • Jim Hicks

    George Carlin was very funny in his earlier years. Anyone who knew him simply from his later days, saw only the angry old man. But there was talent there. I especially liked one of his appearences on “Imus In The Morning.” He stated that the “7 dirty words” did not offend him But seeing TV ads for ED “cures” did. That made me pause and think. In the 1950′s, you could not mention on air the fixtures in bathrooms. Today you can advertise sex products. Culture always swings from a vulger generation to a puritanical generation. But this time, we will be atarting from a very low line in the sand.

  • Gayle Miller

    Silly me – I thought the Pryor to whom you referred in your headline was the fine, exceptionally talented young quarterback of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team! Who, by the way, are currently ranked #1 in the country!

  • Amy R

    Even Bill Cosby refined his act and his art – I’ve seen some of his earliest skits on You Tube and they weren’t so pure – or just plain good – as his later. Same with Brian Regan, who I love. His earliest skits had objectionable language. Thankfully, he grew up and cleaned it up! And he is the funniest guy on the planet now!

  • JuliB

    I wonder whether liberals would like to see a ‘Seven dirty words’ skit now, with words that are no longer politically correct.

    With the shoe on the other foot, I doubt they would find it all that funny.

  • Sally June

    And leave us not forget Jackie Mason, who could make you laugh and think at the same time (without using Lenny Bruce’s language). He is a neglected treasure.

    Along the same line: Bob Newhart = funny skits about next to nothing; Jerry Seinfeld = not funny skits about empty people.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I like Jackie Mason!

  • bt

    And then there is my older brother. He could get his younger sibling to laugh at the dinner table merely by keeping a deadpan motionless straight face, and letting out the whisper of a smirk. And then we’d get in trouble and he’d get off scott free. Life ain’t fair, man.

    I don’t like the crude humor. I was at a relative’s this summer and watched some videos. One was a Jeff Dunham video. There were a few funny moments, one particularly about his daughter–funny and human. But most of the rest of the video, I thought, was terrible. Crude humor…Based on the segment about his daughter (learning to drive, I think) I know this guy is good enough that he can create more genuinely funny material that lifts the spirit, rather than instead make the viewer clench their stomach muscles.

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