Stephen E. Kercher. Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Kercher argues that the period from the end of World War II into the 1960s was far more than an age of political conservatism and anticommunist fears. That era also included a notable culture of dissent and opposition – the ‘other side of the Fifties’ – best demonstrated by cartoonists Herbert Block, Bill Mauldin, Walt Kelly, Jules Feiffer; comedians Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and Lenny Bruce; magazines like the Realist; performing groups such as Second City; and the fiction and films such as Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove.
The government investigations of the early Cold War did provide a suffocating atmosphere, but during the 1950s a variety of subterranean (mostly masculine) cultural channels such as MAD Magazine and comic strips like Pogo provided a sense of community for dissenters protesting nuclear weapons, commercialism, and bureaucratic conformity. Nichols and May often opened their program from opposite sides offstage as a white-collar commuter returns home after a day at work perfunctorily exchanges greetings with his suburban wife, asks her to mix him a dry martini, only to later come into contact with his wife to discover he has entered the wrong home. Groups like Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge’s The Living Premise provided telling critiques of American racism by satirizing both stereotypical southern ‘rednecks’ and liberal whites who embraced charity and tokenism over systemic change. After the Birmingham church bombing, the Outsider Newsletter quipped “While the president is open to the idea of declaring a national day of mourning, he is still willing to hear the practical arguments against it.”
By the early 1960s, the politics of laughter merged with the promise of JFK’s New Frontier to produce a golden age of liberal political satire. But hard-hitting political satire was also losing its clout as Mort Sahl’s close relationship to JFK caused him to allegedly “sell out.” Bruce fell to legal actions and Dick Gregory turned to political engagement rather than comedy. Outrage seemed more appropriate than humor during the Civil Rights era of the mid-1960s and satire lost much of its political edge by the late 1960s.