The 60s were such a complex decade, full of nuggets of truth here and there coming out of movements and ideas that didn’t last.
Some things did last. The counterculture made us think differently about war, equality and the definition of the American Dream.
Even the Yippies, those counterculture clowns who thumbed their nose at authority in a partly serious, mostly satirical way, had their moments of clarity.
Long before Jerry Rubin cut his hair and became a Wall Street stockbroker, he happened upon a kernel of truth about how to convey his message to the American people.
In speaking to a crowd in Chicago, Rubin said he didn’t want to be on “Meet the Press.” He wanted to be on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
This is how Rubin foreshadowed the age of irony that characterizes our entire popular culture, especially our humor.
In the early days of television, the messages were as black-and-white as the picture. Announcers still spoke in the ramrod-straight tones of old radio, newscasters were authoritarian instead of conversational, and the closest cross-breeding of the serious and the silly was Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person.”
That’s why Rubin was revolutionary in posing the idea that discussion of a serious subject such as how to run the country could take place on the same entertainment platform as dancing monkeys and baggy-pants comics.
The slang is outdated and the fashions have changed. But the mentality Rubin espoused paved the way-first for “Saturday Night Live” and Norman Lear and later for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Previously, the thinking was that comedians should stay away from politics at all costs if they wanted to reach the broadest audience possible.
Edginess was an invitation to controversy, and comedians looking to have sustained audience appeal didn’t want to risk alienating anyone.
Funny folks stuck to safe, familiar territory such as family, work and other universal subjects.
When comics like Bob Hope razzed comedians, it was a gentle nudge in the ribs.
When Stewart and Colbert take on public figures, it’s an elbow to the solar plexus or sometimes a kick between the legs.
Blurring the lines of entertainment and social commentary isn’t anything new, but today’s comedy is a direct descendant of Yippie culture, which was a combination of liberal polemics and P.T. Barnum.
The difference is that civil rights activists broke the law with serious purpose, but they also got attention. Yippies broke the law in goofy ways to get attention, but their publicity stunts usually overwhelmed their serious message.
For example, you can dump red paint on a model wearing fur if you want to send a message about animal rights, but you’ll only create water-cooler talk for a day or two. And more people will disapprove of your methods than approve of your message.
If you can entertain while threatening the enemy’s jugular vein, you will have pulled off a trick the Yippies either couldn’t or did not want to embrace --combining consciousness-raising with a positive emotional impression that will make the message last longer in the hearts and minds of the audience.
You’ll also make millions of dollars for yourself and for corporate America, which also will help you to stay around longer and become something more than a footnote to history.
But give credit where credit is due. Rubin saw, even before the age of viral video, the blurring of the lines between journalism and entertainment and between politics and entertainment.
And understanding that macro-universe with Richard Daley’s stormtroopers all around you is a challenge Stewart and Colbert never had to face.