Bruce Jay Friedman – on Black Humor in America – 1969 – USA Writers Program – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
It is often said that humor is a reflection of society at any given time; words and situations delivered by chroniclers of the age we’re living in. There’s a history to it, going as far back as the Greeks, who used the stage and dramatic situations as a way of commenting on current events, being the exposer of the in-joke or the social injustice.
Probably no other time matches the level of dark, biting, satiric humor than that of the 1960s and 1970s – a time of marked change, upheaval of values, jaundiced observations of the day to day in America during the age of Cold War and the wave of popularity they generated by way of literature and pop culture.
One of the practitioners at the forefront of this wave of Black Humor was Bruce Jay Friedman, author, playwright, screenwriter and part-time actor.
Friedman was an early writer of modern American black humor, together with his peers Joseph Heller (also a close friend of his), Stanley Elkin, and Thomas Pynchon. The style was given this name in part because of the 1965 anthology by the same name that he edited. When asked about the origin of the term by Newsday in 1995, he revealed, “I don’t really know if I invented [it]”. He was described by The New York Times as a “deadpan prose stylist” who was a “savage social satirist”. The themes of his writings reflected the social cataclysm that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. He utilized his experiences from that time to touch upon race and gender relations. He also made use of other experiences from his personal life to base his writings on. For instance, the crowded Brooklyn apartment setting in A Mother’s Kisses was similar to the three-room apartment in the Bronx where he was raised, while the main character’s rejection by Columbia University mirrored his own failed attempt at applying to that institution. The plot of his short story “A Change of Plan”, in which a man falls in love with another woman at the hotel pool during his honeymoon in Florida, reflected how Friedman’s own honeymoon unfolded in the aforementioned state.
Friedman was noted for his versatility of writing novels, short stories, plays, in addition to being a screenwriter and magazine editor. He frequently discussed how conflicted he felt in composing screenplays for profit and for pleasure, as opposed to his “higher calling” of authoring novels. He summed up his attitude towards the former as, “Take the money, scribble a bit, and enjoy the room service”.
Here is an episode from the series U.S.A. Writers where the subject of Black Humor is examined and discussed and several examples are given during this 1969 broadcast.
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