George Carlin
9 Images

Collision of comedy and politics

George Carlin
The comedian: George Carlin

The straight man: The Federal Communications Commission

The collision: George Carlin was always known as a groundbreaking comedian, but for the FCC, he broke sacred ground with his routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The act offended some, and Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972 at Milwaukee’s Summerfest and charged with violating obscenity laws after performing. The case was dismissed in December of that year, and despite the troubles, Carlin’s anti-government comedy never seemed to wane.  (Associated Press)
Stephen Colbert
The comedian: Stephen Colbert

The straight man: President George W. Bush

The collision: Performing at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner in April 2006, the faux-conservative Comedy Central host delivered a routine that was sharply critical of both George W. Bush, who sat a few seats away from Colbert at the head table, and the media. Bush did not appear amused, but it was the media who initially wrote off Colbert’s routine as not funny before the public convinced them otherwise. The following year, impressionist Rich Little delivered a not-so-searing routine in which he told some Ronald Reagan jokes. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)
Smothers Brothers
The comedians: Tom and Dick Smothers

The straight man: CBS President William S. Paley

The collision: The brothers’ prime-time sketch and variety show had been getting increasingly more politlcally aware since its debut in 1967. But with the censoring of folk singer Pete Seeger’s anti-Vietnam War song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” network execs showed they were uncomfortable with the show’s political content. While the brothers continued to focus their satire on President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war, the censors began demanding that all content be pre-approved by them. The conflict ended with their show being canceled in 1969. It won an Emmy later that same year. (Rogers, Cowan & Brenner, Inc.)
Lenny Bruce
The comedian: Lenny Bruce

The straight men: New York Dist. Atty. Frank Hogan and New York Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman

The collision: Bruce’s blue material raised eyebrows from coast to coast. He had been arrested on obscenity charges before, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it was in New York City that the city government and the church collaborated to put the comedian on trial. After a six-month trial, he was found guilty of obscenity and sentenced to four months in a workhouse. (Kitty Bruce / Shout Factory)
Chevy Chase
The comedian: Chevy Chase

The straight man: President Gerald Ford

The collision: Chase’s frequent pratfalls in character as then-current President Ford on the first season of “Saturday Night Live” went a long way toward damaging the president’s national approval. At least that’s how Ford saw it. He later wrote in his autobiography about how his election loss in 1976 was caused, in part, by Chase’s buffoonish presidential satire. (NBC Photo)
Murphy Brown
The comedian: Candice Bergen

The straight-man: Vice President Dan Quayle

The collision: During a 1992 campaign speech in California, Quayle looked at the societal causes for the riots that had recently broken out in Los Angeles. Among the reasons he gave, he singled out pop culture’s embrace of negative values embodied in sitcom character Murphy Brown, who had recently decided to have a baby, despite remaining unmarried. In the speech Quayle said it “doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.”

Bush and Quayle lost their reelection campaign and were out of office in January 1993. “Murphy Brown” stayed on the air until 1998. The speech is widely credited for sparking a decade-long argument about the collapse of the American family. (Richard Cartwright / CBS)
The Simpsons
The comedians: The Simpsons

The straight man: President George H.W. Bush

The collision: Though it has long since lost its reputation for dangerous humor, when it debuted in 1990, “The Simpsons” was seen as a full-scale attack on America’s perception of family, captured at the time on “The Cosby Show.” So jarred were many people by the cartoon images of an idiot father strangling his son or a smart daughter neglected by her parents, that President Bush stepped into the culture wars when he gave a speech saying “We’re going to strengthen the American family to make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”

Bush was voted out of office in 1992. “The Simpsons” is currently in its 19th season. (Matt Groening / Fox)
Al Franken
The comedian: Al Franken

The straight man: Al Franken

The collision: Surely funny Franken and political Franken always co-existed, but sometime around the mid-1990s, the two sides collided into each other (at least for the American public) when he wrote the New York Times bestseller “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (And Other Observations).” He followed that up with “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” in 2003 and the following year went 100% political (though still funny) with his progressive talk radio show on Air America. Now he’s toning down the funny as he runs for U.S. senator from Minnesota.



FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this item incorrectly said that Franken was running for Minnesota state senator (Pennebaker Hegedus Films)
Bill Maher
The comedian: Bill Maher

The straight man: ABC

The collision: Bill Maher is known for his say-anything-piss-everyone-off political commentary, but on September 17, 2001, (yes, just six days after the infamous DAY), he went too far for a sizable chunk of America when he followed up a comment about how terrorists aren’t cowards with this statement: “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” The show was called “Politically Incorrect” so nobody should have been shocked, but FedEx and Sears pulled their ads and ABC canceled the show several months later. (SAM JONES / HBO)
1/9