Outrageous. Courtesy of Jeff Abraham.

Review: Outrageous: A History Of Showbiz And The Culture Wars

Courtesy of Jeff Abraham.

Let me say right off the bat, I’ve been a fan of Kliph Nesteroff and his writings since 2008 when I read his WFMU piece “The Early George Carlin 1956 – 1970” and it goes without saying his book The Comedians is essential reading for anyone interest in the history of comedy.


So when I heard Kliph was doing a book about “Cancel Culture,” I knew it was something I wanted to read.


The goal of OUTRAGEOUS: A History of Showbiz And The Culture Wars, is to prove that Americans have been objecting to entertainment for 200 years, from the 1830s up through the early 2000s, sometimes rationally, often irrationally and Kliph does an excellent of job proving his case with example after example when this has happened.


Since this is a comedy publication, I think the reader will be interested to see some cases where performers/shows were the subject of so-called disapproval.

  • Mae West spent 10 days in jail for her 1926 play Sex about a Montreal prostitute.  And after performing a comedic sketch with Charlie McCarthy with seductive dialogue in 1937, West found herself banned from NBC for 12 years.

  • Radio censors forced Fred Allen to delete the word ‘saffron’ from scripts because it ‘had sexual connotations.’

  • Stan Freberg could not find an American TV show that would let him perform his Capitol Records John & Marsha routine, he had to go to Canada to make it happen.

  • After Martin Luther King’s assassination, Carol Burnett appeared on The Merv Griffin Show making a plea for world peace, but her remarks were edited out of the broadcast by CBS.

  • Good Times was bounced from its time slot so an episode where J.J. awaits a herpes test so it would not air during the Family Viewing Hour.  

  • Barney Miller was forced to delete the words ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ from repeats broadcasts of the show in the Family Viewing Hour.

  • CBS ran a disclaimer before an episode of Maude dealing with abortion that said in part ‘You may wish to refrain from watching if you believe the broadcast may disturb you or others in your family.’

  • How Steve Allen went on the attack of Jay Leno and The Tonight Show because of his ‘sex-oriented jokes’ when he became the spokesperson for the Parents Television Council in the 1990s.

In addition, Kliph does a job good writing about Andrew Dice Clay, Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy and those who objected to their material.  And in many cases, we can thank or blame the Moral Majority and the John Birch Society for this because of their utter desire to censor individuals.  This is where Kliph and the book really excels, explaining how these two organizations came to power.


Having said all the above, I wished Kliph had a done a deeper dive into Lenny Bruce and George Carlin who both had more than their share of attacks over their material.  In fact, Bruce is barely mentioned in the book, which is odd since he is pictured on the cover of the book and George Carlin’s career is reduced to a few paragraphs. 


As for the radio station WBAI’s landmark case regarding the playing of a George Carlin routine, Kliph does not even tell us the name of the routine – It was ‘Filthy Words’ from the album Occupation Foole and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, upholding the FCC’s power to determine language guide lines and limitations by a 5 – 4 margin. This key fact is not mentioned.


Even more surprising, there is no mention of Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect – If you remember six days after the September 11 terrorist attack, Maher remarked, ‘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 result was Sears and FedEx immediately pulled their ads from the show and three ABC affiliates decided to suspend airing the program.  The show was eventually canceled in May of 2002. 


Why these three comedians are ignored in a book about “Cancel Culture” left this reader somewhat perplexed.


I think the one area that most people will agree that creates the biggest amount of outrage is Blackface.  So I was completely surprised that Ted Danson appearing in blackface at the October 1993 Friars Club Roast of Whoopi Goldberg was not included at all in the book.  Newspaper accounts will tell that you that Montel Williams stormed off the stage and later announced that he was resigning from the Friars while Mayor David Dinkins issued a statement calling the jokes “way, way over the line.”


The subtitle for OUTRAGEOUS is A History of Showbiz And The Culture Wars, but for me it felt incomplete at times – I wanted a little more from the normally always thorough Kliph Nesteroff.

Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars
Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars by Kliph Neteroff.

How to purchase Kliph Nesteroff's new book, "Outrageous."

Kliph Nesteroff's new book OUTRAGEOUS: A History of Showbiz And The Culture Wars is available today wherever you purchase books - grab your copy here!

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Jeff Abraham is a comedy historian, co-author of The Show Won't Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage and was George Carlin’s publicist for the last 11 years of his life.

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