The Outlaws

The most influential outlaw comics of the last 50 years.

LENNY BRUCE
The original outlaw comic, Bruce (née Leonard Alfred Schneider) opened doors for the likes of Richard Pryor and George Carlin with his candid take on race relations, sex, religion and politics. Arrested in 1961 for violating the California Obscenity Code, Bruce was nabbed by cops throughout the '60s in cities nationwide for obscenity (and drug possession). He filed for bankruptcy in '64, saying that he was unable to perform anywhere. He died of a heroin overdose in 1966.
Key performances: The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 1 is the CD to purchase, containing his two 1958 LPs Interviews of our Time and The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce. The only DVD of Lenny Bruce is Performance Film, whose grainy black-and-white footage captures one of his final shows. Dustin Hoffman does an outstanding job portraying Bruce in the 1974 Bob Fosse classic Lenny.

GEORGE CARLIN
The only comedian to become the subject of an obscenity case argued before the Supreme Court, Carlin is a ruthless social critic and living legend. Combining a deep love of language with keen observations about everyday life, his work in the 1970s is marked by a softer touch than his more recent work. On classics like Class Clown and Occupation: Foole, Carlin shred taboos in an almost congenial way. Even the infamous "seven words you can't say on television" come across today as more fun than abrasive. In the early '90s, Carlin's material took on a much harsher edge ("You ever notice that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn't want to fuck in the first place?"), and the comedian enjoyed a decade of renewal before slowing down some in the '00s. Now in his 70s, Carlin still plays almost 100 shows a year.
Key performances: The greatest-hits 1992 CD set Classic Gold (which includes the albums Class Clown, Occupation: Foole and FM & AM); and the 1992 CD Jammin' In New York, which was released as a DVD in 2000.

RICHARD PRYOR
Second only to Lenny Bruce in terms of influence and pioneering — but much funnier — Richard Pryor riffed on race issues and everything else deemed controversial, including his own free-basing debacle. Unabashedly irreverent, Pryor crossed over to white audiences like no black comic had done before him (although it should be noted that Dick Gregory, who preceded him, played an integral role in opening doors for African-American comedians).
Key performances: The 1982 concert film Live on the Sunset Strip finds Pryor in top form, doing bits about his recent trip to Africa and the cocaine mishap that almost claimed his life. Also recommended are 1979's Live in Concert DVD and the double-CD The Anthology:1968-1992.

ANDY KAUFMAN
More performance artist than comedian, Andy Kaufman broke down the fourth wall separating performer from audience like no one before or since. Creating characters instead of jokes and uncomfortable situations instead of punch lines, Kaufman made his reputation in the '70s and '80s with antics like these: engaging in a verbal war with wrestler Jerry Lawler before climbing in the ring and suffering a "broken neck", abusing everyone around him as dickish lounge singer Tony Clifton, and renting 20 buses to take an entire audience for some post-show milk and cookies. Kaufman was so unpredictable that, upon his untimely demise from cancer in May 1985, rumors immediately surfaced saying he had faked his own death. That's staying power.
Key performances: The Real Andy Kaufman on DVD (2001) serves as a good primer on Kaufman's characters. He also received decent treatment from Hollywood in 1999's The Man On the Moon, starring Jim Carrey.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG
Goldberg, a high-school dropout with a theater background, made waves in the 1980s for taking the character-based comedy pioneered by Lily Tomlin and making it relevant to young, urban audiences. Director Mike Nichols caught her 1983 one-woman tour de force The Spook Show and liked it so much he put her on Broadway. One of the few performers with an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, Goldberg broke into the Oscar-host boys' club in 1994 by becoming the first woman to host the Academy Awards. She was also canned as a spokesperson for SlimFast in '04 for comparing President Bush to her bush: "Someone has waged war, someone has deliberately misled the country, someone has attempted to amend the Constitution, all in the name of Bush. ... My bush is smarter than that. And if my bush is smarter than that, you can understand just how dumb I think that other bush is. Vote your heart and mind and keep bush where it belongs." More recently, she has brought her unique perspective to TV gabfest The View.
Key performances: CD: Whoopi Goldberg: Original Broadway Show Recording (1997) and DVD: Whoopi — Back to Broadway (2005).

SAM KINISON
It's hard to believe that Kinison had such an impact in just six years (he died in a car crash in 1992). But for the minister-turned-howling-crazy-man, the rise to comedy stardom actually took just six minutes on a 1986 HBO Rodney Dangerfield Young Comedians Special. In those few minutes (and a career that devolved into drugs and misogyny), Kinison shattered the phoniness of the decade and broke many comedy taboos, as in his portrayal of the director of a charity commercial doing a film about starving Ethiopian children: "OHHHH! DON'T FEED HIM YET! IT DOESN'T WORK UNLESS HE LOOKS HUNGRY! OH-OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"
Key performances: Sam Kinison, Breaking the Rules (DVD); Kinison's 1986 HBO appearance, on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=K1GjyrQiSRs

ROSEANNE BARR
Her self-styled title, "Domestic Goddess," says it all. Barr went from Denver waitress to queen of that city's comedy circuit, unloading her angry-housewife shtick on audiences who'd never heard anything quite like it from a female comic before. (On child-rearing: "Quick. They're gone. Change the locks.") After her act won her a spot on The Tonight Show in 1985, she landed her own sitcom, Roseanne, which in its nine-year run (1988-1997) gave blue-collar America a place in primetime. In later seasons she pushed the envelope with subject matter that included death, masturbation and the first TV girl-on-girl action between Rosie and guest star Mariel Hemingway.
Key performances: All nine seasons of Roseanne are available on DVD; the first five or six are killer.

BILL HICKS
A killer satirist with a sharp eye for hypocrisy, Hicks hilariously mocked everything from Reaganomics and the first Gulf War to drug laws and his own love of pornography. In 1993, he became the first performer since Elvis Presley to get banned from the Ed Sullivan Theater after an expletive-laced performance on Late Show with David Letterman that CBS refused to broadcast. Hicks' fuming, rapid-fire rants influenced countless comics, perhaps no one more so than Denis Leary, who was accused of appropriating Hicks' act. After famously getting sober, Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. He was 32 years old.
Key performances: The movie to view is Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian (2004). As for CDs, start with Flying Saucer Tour, Vol.1, which captures Hicks circa '91 performing before an indifferent "worst audience ever" in Pittsburgh.

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