Date of Degree
American Studies | Comparative Literature | Cultural History | Musicology
comedy, social class, Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Jimmy Lynch, Firesign Theatre
Many observers of contemporary comedy in the United States during the 1960s referred to musical aspects of extra-musical performances. Comedy LP records furnish important artifacts for the study of the musical appearances these observers produced for themselves. Where contemporaries described appearances characterized by printable words and polemics as “satirical,” the musical appearances discussed in this dissertation can instead be described as “comic”: instead of mocking persons or ideas, they show people and things becoming involved with one another in absurdly triumphant ways. These two different sorts of appearances correspond to two different uses for comedy in a class society, one consolidating a hegemonic middle-class “consensus” against ridiculous adversaries, the other exploring surprising potentials in even the most ridiculous circumstances. A history of antagonistic ways of listening to sixties comedy can be read as a history of the making of class relations in an advanced capitalist society.
This dissertation discusses four case studies selected with two complementary aims: to produce an appearance of the comedy LP as a densely varied form and to produce knowledge of the political stakes involved in historical conflicts over formal appearances. In each study, a musical appearance becomes involved in the making of class. The jazz critic Nat Hentoff insisted on musical appearances of the iconic sixties comedian Lenny Bruce over and against what he derided as “liberal” readings for printable messages. His chief artifacts were comedy LP records. Elaine May and Mike Nichols—television stars, dinner club sensations, and luminaries of the most popularly influential improvisatory theater in the United States—used a tangled musical texture associated with affluent social circles. By invoking descriptions of the self as she might have found them in her widely reported readings of Freud, May seems to undermine the ethical significance of the tangled texture as previously determined by Katharine Hepburn’s films. The “blue record” or “party record” produced by and for black Americans in the 1970s was advertised in middle-class periodicals as a genre characterized by “dirty words.” But Tramp Time Volume 1 (La Val LVP 901, 1967), a purportedly early example of the party record featuring an itinerant Midwestern performer named Jimmy “Mr. Motion” Lynch, instead seems characterized most importantly by features of blues music. The Firesign Theatre, a Californian comedy troupe popular with the “dormitory debauchee set,” performed a peculiar involvement in history using a quasi-musical style based upon the characteristics of radio as a broadcast medium. This radiophonic style places observers “inside” history after the perceived closures of 1968.
Art-critical, archival, and philological methods shape this dissertation’s argument. Formalistic descriptions based upon vocabularies critically adapted from modern and contemporary writings produce “abstract” appearances. Artifacts collected through archival research ground these abstract appearances as “historically possible appearances.” As a formalism, this historical method uses its thickening self-referential vocabulary to invent its own critical universe. As a historical method, this formalism produces knowledge of appearances which, because they are grounded in activities, leave no self-contained artifacts.
McCarthy, David Michael, "On the Appearance of the Comedy LP, 1957–1973" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.