Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Revel With a Cause—a scholarly, in-depth look at two decades of postwar protest humor—left me wondering whether protest humor does anything more than provide catharsis. Does it actually change anything? Or as one plucky skeptic expressed back in 1964, could satire “not merely be futile but positively evil, in that it provides…a safety valve for righteous indignation”? When I’m doing political stand-up, I suspect I’m validating the sensibilities of the choir. At best, when I’m performing politically charged material for a truly diverse crowd—socially, economically, politically—it lets people who disagree with me experience how my comedic point of view is shared by people sitting right next to them who are laughing, and to the extent that laughter itself can be so contagious, sometimes people will open up just a crack. Is that a safety valve? In the sense that it keeps people sane, yes.

This book captures all these comedic voices—Jules Feiffer, Mad magazine, Second City, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Nichols and May, Stanley Kubric—rallying in a spontaneous rebellion against Cold War orthodoxy, McCarthyism, sexual repression, segregation, and the specter of “the bomb.” What animates Revel most is the emergence of Sahl and Lenny Bruce. After Sahl’s Broadway debut in 1958, a critic noted it as the dawn of a long overdue return to dissent, “an indication that something in our society has begun—after too many muddy and fearful years—to change. First thing you know, irreverence will be in vogue again and even satire may wear its old, outrageous and becoming smile.” By the time Bruce joined the pantheon to take all the other so-called satirists to school, the United States had become the world’s “prime incubator of nonconformist nightclub wit.” But Bruce was ruined by his indecency trials and Sahl’s obsession with the Kennedy assassination dated him, leaving a satirical void until George Carlin—outside the period of this book—picked up where Bruce left off.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate