When a movie titled Sausage Party is counted on to resuscitate a genre, it’s a sign of trouble. But this has been a problematic year for the R-rated comedy business, and there’s nothing like an animated wiener orgy at the supermarket to reverse a trend.
Seth Rogen and James Franco set back the cause of R-rated movies in 2014 with The Interview. Their new scatological epic may do to foodies this weekend what The Interview did to North Korea. There’s something to offend everyone in Sausage Party, from evangelicals to black activists. “We’re able to get away with stuff that would be pornographic in a live-action movie, but it’s about food and it’s not anatomically correct,” Rogen reiterates in interviews.
The opening of Rogen’s newest iconoclastic foray happens to coincide this week with the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death and the re-publication of his brilliantly bizarre autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. A generation ago Bruce was a folk hero on the battle front of political incorrectness, a self-described “sick comic” who served several jail sentences for demolishing taboos. “Obscenity has only one meaning: to appeal to the prurient interest,” Bruce once declared. “Well, I want to know what’s so damned wrong with prurient interest?”
In his introduction to the new edition of How to Talk Dirty, Lewis Black observes that “stand-up comics today don’t think about changing people’s minds. We think about getting laughs.” Bruce, nonetheless, found himself transformed into the role of a crusader. His obscenity trial in 1964 is cited as a free speech landmark (he received a posthumous pardon). Bruce also was thrown out of the U.K. by the Home Secretary for using obscene language to assail the Church.
In the process, of course, he helped open the gates for the likes of Mort Sahl, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, among others. Bruce’s successes and ordeals were immortalized in the 1974 movie Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse, with Dustin Hoffman superbly cast in the leading role.
By today’s standards, Bruce’s ideas, and his lexicon, seem uniquely unshocking. Indeed I think he would have enjoyed Sausage Party, and surely would have added some further fuel for outrage. Rogen, like Bruce, directed much of his humor at sex and religion. But while Rogen’s “f-bombs” impacted his film ratings, Bruce’s lexicon landed him in jail. Ironically, Bruce liked to attack Hollywood for undermining the taste of its audience. On several occasions, however, he signed on to film writing jobs, only to find himself banished over story arguments. Two studios, he wrote, invoked seldom-used “morality clauses” to kick him out. Even nightclub owners “were afraid to book me,” Bruce wrote. He claimed that Variety once declined to run an ad that simply said “I’m available.” (I was unable to corroborate that).
In his later years, Bruce became more a missionary for the cause rather than a stand-up. “Bruce broke through the barrier of laughter to the horizon beyond, where the truth has its sanctuary,” critic Kenneth Tynan wrote. Bruce was outraged by those who defended public morals, arguing, “They’re not even morals, they’re mores.” Today’s R-rated comedy titans, from Rogen to Judd Apatow, do not carry the same social or political baggage. Put in Lewis Black terms, they want the laughs but don’t want to, or need to, carry the cause. That’s because Lenny Bruce fought and won most of their battles.