Allen Ginsberg’s “America” and Stand-up Comedy

I can read Ginsberg’s “America” over and over and laugh (or at least smile) every time. Not at the whole thing, of course. Some lines are offensive, some are outdated, and some are inside jokes. Yet taken as a whole, it never fails to amuse me with its strangeness, wit, pathos, and brashness. The same can be said for my reaction to 2017’s spate of Dave Chappelle Netflix comedy hours. Both Ginsberg and Chappelle leave us with funny, poignant material. Both also illustrate the perils and rewards of being reckless.

First, “America.” This poem is mostly a series of questions and helpful suggestions addressed to the personified nation. Sometimes these statements seem barely related to each other. Listen to this:

When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?

America why are your libraries full of tears?

America when will you send your eggs to India?

I’m sick of your insane demands.

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

The poem gives the impression that he’s going too fast to carefully craft his image. His mind is racing, and he’s writing it down. Sometimes it’s sad, sometimes incomprehensible, and sometimes ironic. “I’m sick of your insane demands,” he says, right after a long list of his own highly specific demands and right before asking when he can buy what he needs with his good looks. This is especially funny if you look up pictures of Ginsberg, who wasn’t a movie star. He couldn’t even be bothered to sit up straight.

Here is my absolute favorite part of this poem:

Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?  

I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.

I read it every week.

I recite these lines to myself all the time. I think about them when I read a Buzzfeed article, watch something like The Bachelor “ironically,” or worry about what people whose opinions I don’t respect say about me. Here he preaches, then he slinks back into self-deprecation like any number of stand-up comedians. Ginsberg pulls the same move over and over in this poem.

There are lines where he’s quite brave. He frequently references his communist sympathies, for example. While this is easy to do today on, say, millennial Twitter, keep in mind—this poem was written just a few years after the McCarthy hearings.

There are also lines where he uses offensive language and racist stereotypes to make a point. He says these lines as an impression of some hick American, a parody of the kind of thinking he hates. Yet in my opinion, some of this language is too offensive to hear from a white man, even as a joke.

Is offensiveness an unavoidable side effect of comedy, though? If someone runs off at the mouth, loose enough to say things the rest of us are afraid to say, perhaps they will inevitably say something regrettable. Is that simply part of the process? And if offensive detritus within good comedy and poetry is inevitable, should we edit it out for future generations, or should we leave it in as a reminder that speaking freely means speaking imperfectly?

And this leads me to the recent Dave Chapelle specials. While I don’t agree with everything he says in these four hours of stand-up, they’re still brilliant. While he’s frequently flippant, he constructs each set artfully. He organizes one show around stories about the four times he met OJ Simpson, and by the last story, you want to laugh and cry. By ending on OJ, he emphasizes what I see as the overarching point of all four of these specials—that heroes are vital, and yet they don’t exist.

Chapelle has received a lot of criticism for insensitive things he said about the transgender community and victims of sexual harassment. These are hot topics today, to say the least. I don’t agree with everything he said, and I did find some of it offensive. Yet if anything, it reinforces his point that you have to remain skeptical about heroes. You can’t expect them to meet all your needs. At most, you’re lucky if they can do one or two really great things for you. They can’t solve all your problems, they can’t agree with you about everything, and they can’t be right about everything. This point is made with particular discomfort and poignancy as he discusses the Bill Cosby trials in the context of a recurring joke about a hypothetical superhero movie about a hero who gets his superpowers from raping people. I won’t try to explain any further! It’s best understood in context.

Ultimately, the audience and future generations have to make the call: is a work of art valuable enough to justify how offensive it is? I’d personally take a red pen to the offending portions of Ginsberg’s “America.” Offensiveness aside, though, they’re just not as good (in my admittedly humble opinion) as the lines that precede them. They aren’t as funny or full of pathos as the rest of the poem, in part because Ginsberg is most compelling when speaking in his own strange voice, not when he’s doing impressions. When I think of my love for this poem, I just think about the parts I like and forget the rest.

On the other hand, perhaps it is a good lesson. The writing community is idealistic, which is wonderful—until it goes too far. Sometimes we idolize people and feel self-important about moral issues in unrealistic ways. The truth is, even the best artists will let us down. Scarier still, we will let ourselves down, both as artists and human beings. Who can save us from life’s crappiness? Artists can make us laugh and think and feel…but I think Ginsberg and Chappelle would be the first to admit that they can’t save the world. This recklessness of refusing the responsibility of heroism makes for thrilling art, even if it means some of their jokes fall flat.

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