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An Interview with Tony Hendra (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/12/08


An interview with Tony Hendra. He discusses: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Billy Connolly and the advancement of free speech;  Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight? and uptightness of speech in North America and Western Europe; and methodologies to ‘push the boundaries’.

Keywords: Actor, Satirist, Tony Hendra, Writer.

An Interview with Tony Hendra: Actor, Satirist, and Writer (Part Two)[1],[2]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, &bibliography & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been mildly edited for clarity and readability.*

6. What do you think was the importance of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Billy Connolly to the advancement of free speech in ideas in comedy as well as in popular culture?

I wrote a book called Going Too Far. It was a history written after finishing with Spitting Image, and National Lampoon. It is an examination of post-war anti-establishment humor and attire in the States from 1965 until the mid-80s, when it more or less disappeared.

Lenny, and I call him Lenny, even though everyone calls him Lenny including those who never met him, and I, in fact, opened for him in New York in a club called the Café au Go Go. Lenny was a kind of failure. He was the one who showed us how much work had to be done, and where the pressure points came from. He sacrificed his career on doing that.

One of the ironical things to his downfall was that, although it was predicated on obscenity, it was not obscenity that caused Lenny’s downfall, but that he was extremely rude about the Catholic Church. He wasn’t Catholic. His actual downfall occurred after the show, which I opened for him in New York. Where he was busted twice by the NYPD during a 2-week booking, the DEA of Manhattan was a guy called Frank Hogan, who was an avowedly devout Catholic.

Obviously, he did not have a lot of charity about comedians. He pursued Lenny into privation and probably death. He did it because he had said things about the sacred, which he couldn’t be allowed to get away with. I thought that was a very significant of my growing up and of my entire generation.

Certainly, Lenny’s sacrifice, if you want to call it that, was so complete that it did ultimately open doors because people followed where he’d led. George Carlin, in particular, who I had a close friendship with, was one of those who obviously took it head on when he went through his transition from television comic to a real satirical and comedic spokesman with his most famous routine, Seven Dirty Words, which was about television censorship.

It was about the most empowered and tyrannical media in the nation deciding what you could and could not say. That was important both to the culture at large and to exposing how much there still had to be done. That routine of George’s is the only comedic routine that know of that has inspired a major Supreme Court decision, the Pacific case.

In which the court ruled against a radio station, the WBAI, who went against the routine, a minister from the South, of course, complained bitterly that he had to listen to it in his radio with his child in the front seat. The ministers always seem to be travelling and listening.

That’s how the Pacifica decision came about, and the Pacifica decision ruled against WBAI. It was a majority decision. The Supreme Court has, to this day, to undo Pacifica decision. It remains a vast lacuna on freedom of speech. Those two, themselves, did specific things, which opened up the culture at large to a great deal more freedom of speech than it thought it enjoyed before that.

7. I want to relate that to your recent work, where National Lampoon released, after 35 years, an album entitled Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight?. Much of the subject matter has to do with freedom of speech and freedom of expression of ideas. Do you think that the culture – North America and Western Europe – is more uptight about speech or less so than at those two prior times with the two exemplars, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin discussed before?

I want to make two points about that. The suppression of speech, such as it is, is localized to college campuses. It is certainly safe to say what you want on television with respect to language, whether you can say certain things about certain subjects is another question. With the whole, appalling term, ‘political correctness’ on college campuses is certainly tangible. It is so tangible that that is why we made the album.

It is in stark contrast to the days of National Lampoon, when we could say anything we liked to campus and they liked it. We were sold mostly, 99% of the Lampoons, on college campuses. That generation of Lampoon fans lapped it up. It is unfortunate that 40 years later it now appears to be closing down, especially as it doesn’t seem to be a faculty imposed form of suppression. It is voted on itself by the student body, which is odd, very odd.

I have yet to figure out exactly what causes it this time, but it also has to be said that this is not new. In the late 80s and the early 90s, similar kinds of attempt to control speech was quite rife on college campus….political corrected. This speech that they wanted to denigrate was pushed back by the overt racism and elitism of the neo-conservative movement. They didn’t like that. They did what they always did and had always done was to call its exponents “commies.”That’s where the term comes from. In the early days of the Communist Party, you had to be, as I’m sure you know, politically correct before you would be admitted to the party. So, that’s why I don’t like the term “political correctness.” I, nonetheless, acknowledge the conditions of speech that it approximates. So, I think the only good thing about it is you can satirize it. It is unusual. It is unusual to be able to satirize things happening on college campuses.


The thing that I set out to do by doing this album is to make a, supposedly, live recording at a small community college called Artesia Community College in TrickleDown Ohio, in case anyone got Reaganomics. That’s where we find on the album that even the title of our album offends the audience instantly. They accuse us of using sarcasm and point out that there are sarcasm survivors in the audience.


We love this. We take into account that at least don’t want to do our strongest material. We do our innocuous material first. And in the intermission between side one and side two, the campus is now in chaos and roving bands of youths are doing politically correct demonstrations like burning recycled materials in the recycle bin. One woman has a rape whistle, which she blows repeatedly when anyone laughs. It is all great.

We do side two. Side two is stronger stuff. Side three (there are three sides), we have completely cleared the campus. It is of great satisfaction to us, and then it concludes. We get ours too. It is dealing with this attempt to limit free speech on campus.

8. For those that are concerned about the restrictions on speech, freedom of ideas, and so on, one thing to do is to make fun of it. What other methodologies can we use to push back on the restrictions, or ‘push the boundaries’?

Yes, absolutely. There are other pieces. If you cant laugh at yourself, you have really given up.


Certainly, satire’s job is to take issue with just these kinds of excessive things. Generally, satire is properly directed at power because power tends to become corrupted. The power in this sense is not exactly recognized as power. But the crowd has power. This is crowdsourced censorship, which is what makes it unusual – even though it is not new. Make relentless fun of everything you can, especially every evil you can, that’s the only way you can bring it down.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Actor, Satirist, and Writer

[2] St. Albans School; Cambridge University.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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