How the Marginalized Invented Politically Incorrect Comedy

The Incisive Wit of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor Paved the Way for a Generation of Crasser Comics

“Sometimes you feel guilty laughing at some of Lenny’s mordant jabs,” journalist Herb Caen once said of the taboo-shattering comic Lenny Bruce. “But that disappears a second later when your inner voice tells you, with pleased surprise, ‘But that’s true.’”

The it’s-ok-to-say-it-if-it’s-true defense of politically incorrect comedy may be a simplistic one. But it’s a defense that has prevailed for a reason: It’s made for some of the most celebrated humor in modern American comedy.

Although today’s ire over offensive jokes is mostly aimed at privileged white men accused of comedic …