Court Jesters in Absurdistan: Review of Rebel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Post War America, by Stephen Kercher

Reviewed by
Warren Leming

For me, fresh out of a Chicago suburb, it served as the diving board to Bohemian oblivion: a Second City show seen in 1961. To encounter people in post Fifties America, on a stage, skewering Ike, Liberal-indifference, and cookie-cutter Suburban conformity was bliss in that airless Cold War Utopia. Second City director Paul Sills was to remark: “If you said “Eisenhower” on stage you got a laugh.” The Compass and early Second City companies were populated by University of Chicago wits like Severn Darden, Tony Holland, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May who, owing to Robert M.Hutchins and an open-ended admissions policy, helped populate a theatrical hothouse.

Add director Paul Sills (whose mother, Viola Spolin, wrote “The” book on Improvisation), and an ex-Harvard student named David Shepherd, and the result was a sonic boom that’s still reverberating through the American theater. Shepherd and Sills first did Compass theater, and when that splintered Sills found backer/partners Alk, Sahlins et. al. and opened Second City to instant acclaim. How grim the Fifties were, and how welcome but momentary the early Sixties mix of coffee house, bookstore, folk music and satire. In Chicago the Gate of Horn; the Café Oblique, Bill Smith’s Bookstore, the Second City, and the College of Complexes, The Pad and Maury’s coffee house made for a Beatnik nirvana . These scenes changed lives, forged impossible possibilities, and led to literacy, insurrection, sex, drugs and post-beatnik hippy culture.

Sills, whose last show at the Second City (1967) “The Trip,” concerned an acid trip, grew disgruntled at displays of mere irony and wit and moved on to direct the Game, Story and Free Theater’s - where I was resident actor/musical director. The name changes came as often as the debt collectors waving heating bills. The story of satire in the Sixties is tied to American Improvisational theater, which led, not just to the Second City and Story Theater, but to the Improv comedy scene, Saturday Night Live, Second City TV (Canada) and Belushi’s descent into fame.

The first Improvisational theaters were among David Shepherd’s and Paul Sill’s many attempts at building a community culture independent of the corporate behemoth which has come to dominate American life, as they predicted. Both Sill’s and Shepherd’s efforts are invariably lumped as part of a “theatrical” scene which does disservice to their attempts at addressing the Post War marginalization, angst and bleakness - using theater as a focus for community. Its all background to Steven Kercher’s Rebel Without a Cause. Whether or not you prefer moderate satire, this is the “liberal” stuff. It’s a great story, this adventure with Improvisation at its heart.

When post-war America suddenly put a great hand round its own nasty throat, the hand was satirical theater. Where once there was morbid triumphalism; the sleepy Ike years with their hidden histories of assassination and torture; the Organization men and their treadmill, there was now laughter and mockery. Should you read between the lines of Kercher’s book it’s actually a hard history: careers destroyed (Mauldin and Bruce), marginalization, Red baiting and exile (Oliver Harrington), thwarted visions (Second City, Premise, Compass), Cold War hypocrisy and chauvinism. Kercher, whose book is otherwise encyclopedic,  does not touch on the devolution at the Second City, where caustic comic commentary turned to Sit-Com pretension and business franchise in but a few decades.

But there are hilarious business moments. Ted Flicker of the Premise writing to Sills and Bernard Sahlins at the Second City offering to divide America between them: “A Premise here, a Second City there,” because there was: “money, money, money to be made.” Sills, whose contempt for commercialism was legendary, may not have been amused. But those were heady days, and Flicker made himself a fortune while extolling the virtues of “playing together,” and “not going commercial.” Flicker, in all his visionary glory, cashing in. Look where it went. Women for a start: whether Joan Darling’s or Barbara Harris’ ove-psychoanalyzed, unloved, lonely, neurotic urban heroines who could be simultaneously emasculating and vulnerable to the point of suicide, or Elaine May’s icy charm and savage Male demolishing repartee.

He: “Hi.”

She: “Schmuck.”

May, like Darden could drill a victim in seconds, on or off stage. On entering Jimmy’s, a legendary Hyde Park bar on a windy night, May heard a male patron say: “Hi, Elaine, been out on your broom?” May responded: “Why? You want something up your ass?” Pity the poor undergraduate after that riposte.  Nichols and May were to construct an entire universe of the guilty Jewish son, and his sadist mother. And then reverse the roles. Neurosis, analysis, catharsis, Broadway. Yet Kercher does an end run around Post War satirical/political theater: its as if Show Biz is safe ground, but the corrosive attempts of the satirical/radical theater elude him. The two most significant political/ satirical theaters this country produced in the Sixties, Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe under R.G.Davis, are hardly mentioned but for a cursory reference to Davis. Both outfits were radical and both were influenced by the German Marxist satirist Bertolt Brecht.

Davis and Schumann are world-class artists who extended the satirical form.  Davis went on to found Epic West, the first Brechtian Theater in the U.S. I mention them because their inclusion would have extended Kercher’s attempt at a vision of Sixties satire. Perhaps there will be room in a revised edition. Kercher’s quite good on Lenny Bruce’s modulated self-destruction and evisceration at the hands of moralist-cops, and Mort Sahl’s determined spin-out. Kercher also gives us cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s now forgotten eclipse, from War hero creator of Willie and Joe to Red baited victim, knocked back into line but almost out of his profession. There is an excellent account of the Black cartoonist Oliver Harrington, whose work is as piercingly bitter as was his life and exile, and anonymous death in East Germany after decades of obscurity.

Kercher weights his account with facts, and hundreds of quotes - so much so that the reader is sometimes left groping for a perspective amidst the meticulous detail. The downside of a work as detailed and scholarly as this one is its dismaying academic insistence on a ‘false’ neutrality. Judgments, whether right or wrong, make for interest and reader response, and research, no matter how well documented, can soften and sometimes annul the wit and incision of an argument. Kercher often balks at venturing an insight when a generality will do. Well-honed and judicious opinion there is in abundance, but one must sometimes grope after Kercher’s point.  Product of an Academy that insists on Professional objectivity, and a wit diminishing fair-mindedness, Kercher invariably does his duty: all of which can make for terrific scholarship and somnambulist indecision. Do we really have to be told endlessly that Sixties performers were male chauvinists?

Kercher sidesteps the question of how the absolute laugh-strangling futility of Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Dick Cavett, Soupy Sales and the rest was “achieved” following the fantastic stuff done just a few years earlier by Second City, Nichols and May, the Premise and the rest. And yes:” (Tom) Lehrer’s parodic songs were pessimistic.” This is, as the Po Mo people like to say: “over-determined.”

This fine book will long remain a useful reference guide to American cartoonists like Herblock, Walt Kelly, and Al Capp,”the sick humorists,” Lenny Bruce, Second City, Premise, Ted Flicker, Del Close, Sills, The Committee, Nichols and May, Gary Goodrow and thousands more. There are good sections on the English: Cook, Moore, Bennett, Miller, and the rest of that Fringe Establishment that are now an irreducible part of cultural history, whether Cook and Moore’s brilliant improvisations; Jonathan Miller’s directorial career, or the increasingly acclaimed playwright Alan Bennett. For a book this size, Kercher makes remarkably few missteps. In one footnote, however, he mistakes Lenny Bruce’s use of the word schtick for “stick,” and then compounds the error by making Bruce’s Yiddish, which was pungent and fluent: “Black argot.”

There is some very good stuff on NBC’s attempt at “commercial satire” geared to the now defunct corporate assumption that audiences can think.  Although not his stated purview, it would have spiced things to get Kercher’s views on why TV satire (Maher, Colbert, Stewart, et. al.) is now the only place within the Network media spectrum where you hear something approaching the Truth disguised as comedic routine.  Stewart is now regularly quoted and and so effortlessly humiliated two CNN hosts (one Liberal, the other a bow tied Conservative) that they were yanked off the air within weeks of their dicing at his hands. Bill Maher does some great spot-on political analysis, but keeps undermining his own considerable intelligence by insisting on going into the toilet, unprompted, when he senses he’s losing em.  Colbert, whose devastating critique of Bush, disguised as homily (with a clueless Bush present) at a White House Correspondents dinner, was largely ignored by the mainstream media, brought off the satirical coup of the Century before an audience of befuddled, stupefied fruit flies. In that incredible moment revealing the Titanic gulf between White House journalistic sycophancy and the devastating skewering of a serving President seated but a rubber chicken away and oblivious to his lampooning, as was much of the fat cat audience.

The internet, despite the New York Times insisting that the single greatest “live on camera” disemboweling of an American President had “bombed” made Colbert a National reputation overnight, as his astronomical stats would verify. Maher, Stewart, and Colbert owe a debt of gratitude to the Network Media Black Hole that has made their careers and fortunes. The film documentary (Michael Moore the prime example)- remains, with TV satire, the last popular source for political information and analysis, often uncorrupted by Spin, Mercantilist “logic” and pro Market crooning. Satire remains a means of communication, education and information where, as Kafka pointed out: “The Lie has become a world order.” Satire is that greatest of modern heresies: critical consciousness.

Kercher points out that satire can also amount to little more than elitist snobbery, and insider tediousness. Kercher, in treating the “liberal satire” of his subjects, does not venture, as did Brecht, Hasek, Kafka, and Edmund Wilson, to suggest that satire is an educational method disguised as entertainment. This approach would have given Kercher a driving through-line (just what is it that satire does?) that the book lacks. But the Improv legacy now contains a well-paid fact: Improvs co-optation as a sales tool. Improv, as a method does not appear to do much to create satirical material, (as Roger Bowen notes in the book) but it does serve to further solidarity and group cohesion. Tom Peters and the thousands of less successful business gurus now use “Improv” as often as they do the word “market.” Improv is heard endlessly at the thousands of “act out your career dream, let’s all pull together” guided weekends to which middle management executive trainees are now routinely sentenced. Long way from those Bohemians at the University of Chicago, riffing in a drafty storefront. But here's the final problem I’ll urge Kercher to consider next: satire presumes a very definite standpoint, is that why America is currently the world’s laughing stock?


Warren Leming is a writer/critic who also served as actor/musical director with the original Story Theater Company and the Free and Game theaters.  He divides his time between Berlin and Chicago.