Saturday, February 24

Outrageous: A history of showbiz and the culture wars – a review


In his latest work, “Outrageous” A history of showbiz and the culture wars”, Kliph Nesteroff, the renowned Canadian author and comedy historian, embarks on a captivating journey through the tumultuous landscape of American popular culture. With keen insight, Nesteroff traces the origins of outrage and its enduring presence in society, shedding light on the ever-shifting sands of popular culture.

I first encountered Nesteroff as a guest on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, a nostalgic haven for comedy enthusiasts. There, he regaled listeners with fascinating stories of forgotten comics, many of which found their way onto an extraordinary Tumblr page, replete with original newspaper clippings and rare photographs—a true testament to the internet’s potential.

Following his 2016 book, “The Comedians,” a sweeping exploration of a century of American comics, Nesteroff continued to captivate with “We Had a Little Real Estate Problem,” a deep dive into the history of Native American comedy. This book artfully balanced comedic biographies with the often grim historical context, evoking both admiration and empathy.

Nesteroff contends that the roots of modern outrage can be traced back to the 1830s when American show business took its dubious form in the blackface minstrel show. This legacy continues to reverberate in contemporary debates surrounding issues like “digital blackface” and the use of GIFs featuring African Americans by white individuals.

However, Nesteroff skilfully illustrates that not all forms of outrage withstand the test of time. The once-scandalous Twist dance and the Beatles, former purveyors of the “Devil’s music,” are now embraced as classics, playing in the background of your local department store. This transformation serves as a poignant reminder of how popular culture continually evolves.

The assault on mass popular culture didn’t limit itself to minstrelsy and music; it manifested most intensely during the early days of cinema. Fearing federal censorship, the film industry resorted to self-censorship, a period that included the groundbreaking yet morally problematic film “Birth of a Nation” (1915). This film, directed by D.W. Griffith, propagated Lost Cause legends from the postbellum South, contributing to its controversial status then and now, while also helping to raise the profile of the nascent NAACP.

Nesteroff’s narrative leads us through the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal, which triggered a fervent anti-pop culture crusade, portraying Hollywood as a den of vice. With the advent of sound movies, Mae West briefly enjoyed a sexually suggestive spotlight until the 1934 tightening of censorship cast a shadow over her career. Even as the Motion Picture Production Code declined and film ratings emerged, the specter of fear and intimidation around movies persisted.

Television ushered in a sustained backlash, particularly against programs like “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” ultimately leading to the abandonment of blackface in the medium. This transformation led to predictable laments about the death of comedy and the emergence of moral crusaders like the Morality in Media organization, curiously funded by the Coors fortune, which sought to regulate entertainment.

What began as the ire of religious groups evolved into well-funded outrage machines, notably the Cold War-era John Birch Society. This organization, led by figures like Robert W. Welch Jr. and even associated with Charles Koch, exerted substantial pressure on Hollywood and the media to conform to their conservative agenda.

In later chapters, Nesteroff introduces us to Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, which disseminated Bircher beliefs under the veneer of scholarship. By the 1980s, these factions attracted figures like televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, sparking public fears about music and entertainment and culminating in infamous record burnings.

The narrative climaxes with the emergence of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the 1980s, led by Tipper Gore and her allies. The PMRC sought to stifle musicians with objectionable lyrics and garnered support from radical religious groups like Focus on the Family. This moral outrage birthed the Moral Majority, a coalition of Christian conservative groups that waded into the culture wars. The lasting legacy of the PMRC is evident in the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label that still adorns some albums today.

Throughout history, the supposed defence of childhood sanctity has often masked underlying bigotry and resistance to social and racial integration. Nesteroff astutely observes that the constant appeal to “protecting the children” served as a smokescreen for hidden prejudices.

Nesteroff’s book is never dull, but it occasionally suffers from an overwhelming barrage of facts. Some repetition suggests that the book aims to serve as a reference rather than provoking profound reflection, and passages do impartially rattle off incidents with the speed of an academic book, numbing the reader. Nesteroff avoids, in the main, contemporary censorship, which is odd because why else would you write this book, now? In interviews, Nesteroff appears generally sympathetic to today’s changing attitudes, but who exactly is demanding change? Notably, comedians like Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, and Bill Burr, often unapologetically politically incorrect, are still considered the gold standard. Could it be that the censors of yesterday are the censors of today, and will continue to be so in the future? Is the woke army discernible, in any meaningful way, from the John Birch Society of old?

What remains clear is that the defiance of censorship is closely tied to progress, particularly in the arts, particularly in comedy—a vital takeaway from, despite not always holding me, an important book for those wanting to understand the eternal censor.  

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