The death knell to the Fifties came late in 1959. Television was the instrument. The three networks over the course of the decade had replaced their expensive documentaries by established journalist like Edward R. Murrow and their dramatic programming by our best writers and performers with game shows. They were cheap to produce and Americans loved them. Game shows appeared to reward common Americans with uncommon knowledge. Celebrities came on the shows and celebrities were made by the shows. The most appealing of all contestants was Charles van Doren, a scion of one of America’s most distinguished family of letters.
I didn’t watch game shows, but it was hard to miss Van Doren at Columbia in 1958 where he was a professor. During the spring while he was on his meteoric rise to the top of TV’s hottest game show Twenty Questions, students waited for him in Columbia’s central quad carrying signs proclaiming him, “the smartest man in the world.”
The only trouble was, the games were rigged. Every question, every gesture, every mopping of the brow, was written out by the show’s producers before broadcast. When accusations of the deception became public and credible Van Doren went into hiding. Congress called hearings. One month after they began, on November 2, 1959, Van Doren emerged from hiding and confessed before the committee that he had been complicit in the fraud. One hundred and fifty other Americans had lied to the Grand Jury under oath.
At a time when seeing was believing, the quiz shows scandals proved that nothing could be taken at face value. The quiz show scandal ripped the mask off the Fifties. The white picket fence was torn down. Ministers preached about a loss of morality. Politicians held hearings, John Steinbeck wrote President Eisenhower. It was more and more difficult for any of us to take anything that the authorities told us at face value.
Who better to capture this new mood than Lenny Bruce, a comic who had arrived in San Francisco while I was going to graduate school in New York. Lenny Bruce had opened at a small San Francisco club, Ann’s 440, in 1958. I saw him in the Fall of 1959 at the hungry i, where Bruce tamed down his act because hungry i owner Enrico Balducci didn’t like Bruce’s bad language. His act was still the rawest, most shocking and sometimes disturbing comic routine I had ever seen.
Ralph Gleason recalled an early performance. “His shows at Ann’s 440 included … his satire of the history of jazz, a bit about Hitler, satires on commercials, the Non Skeedo Files Again routine, and comments on the news of the day. …”
It is difficult to convey Bruce’s humor today. He was breaking language barriers we take for granted in 2015 and much of his humor is contextual, buried in time. He attacked every taboo, including the Catholic Church that no one made fun of in the 1950s. Imitating the voice of a popular televangelist, Bruce takes a call from the Pope, “Hello Johnny! What’s shaking baby? … Ah meant to congratulate you on the election … yeah … That puff of white smoke was a genius stroke. … We got an eight page layout with Viceroy—The New Pope is a Thinking Man.” (The Viceroy cigarette slogan!). Or a long riff on making colored folks feel comfortable at a party, which usually made white people squirm and African-Americans laugh.
Lenny Bruce’s rapid acceptance by mainstream culture proves how much the times were changing. Columnist Herb Caen saw Bruce at Ann’s 440 and took Playboy’s Hugh Hefner to hear him. Hefner got Bruce a gig in Chicago that paid well and he was on his way. In April, Bruce appeared on Steve Allen’s television show, with a highly censored routine.
After eight year of Eisenhower Republican rule, the country seemed ready for change in 1959. I wanted to become somehow involved. Barnie Conal suggested we contact Clint Jenks, a blacklisted union organizer who was going to college at UC Berkeley. Clint invited us to join a discussion group and soon he had us spending weekends in the Central Valley helping agricultural workers.
The Fifties ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Those of us living through it could not distinguish 1959 from 1960.
In hindsight, the world around us was beginning to explode.