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Sick comedy was a pejorative term that was made up by the mainstream weeklies Time and Life to attack the new style of comedy/satire that was affirming in the United States in the late 50s. Back then, the mainstream comic taste in the United States until the 50s was mostly based on more innocuous forms, like the Bob Hope style. In contrast, new comedy brought elements that were innovative in that context: cynicism, social criticism and political satire. The pejorative labeling "sick comedy" was a reaction of the traditional media at the topics that sick comedy was addressing, which once were seen as highly unusual, inappropriate and controversial.
Lenny Bruce in 1959, guest at the first airing of the Playboy's Penthouse show, reported that Time made an article indiscriminately grouping seven new comedians, labeling them as "sick comics"; they were Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl (an author of political satire), Shelley Berman (considered by Bruce a mediocre comedian), Jonathan Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Tom Lehrer.
Script doctor Daniele Luttazzi says: "the term sick comedy then ended up being used to encompass a bit of everything: the humor of the Mad magazine as Jules Feiffer, the cartoons by Charles Addams as the monologues by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the traditional comedy by Shelley Berman and the hipster comedy of Dick Gregory."
When Time magazine labeled Lenny Bruce as a "sick comic", he replied: "The kind of sickness I wish Time had written about, is that school teachers in Oklahoma get a top annual salary of $4000, while Sammy Davis Jr. gets $10,000 for a week in Vegas."
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