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A Tribute to Lenny Bruce

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Many of Lenny's routines were either tart showbiz tales (his 20min. saga of a lousy comic playing the London Palladium) or just funny-silly (a woman comes home to find her husband in bed with a chicken — a love object that, 10 years later, Woody Allen would turn into a sheep and, 35 years on, Edward Albee would make a goat). But the repertoire he had in mind was much broader, deeper, riskier than those. So, with a mixture of bravery and bravado, Lenny decided to bring the intimacy and threat of uninhibited talk to the nightclub stage. He not only said, I have something to say; he said, I've got to say this. Then he took the final dangerous step, and he said it.

The label that stuck to him — "sick dirty Lenny" — had its drawbacks. Frequent arrests, for example. But the advantage of being outspoken was that he could speak about anything. Most comedians marched to a very conventional tune. A few, like Sahl and Dick Gregory, specialized in political satire; a few others, like Redd Foxx and Belle Barth, did "blue" material, at least by 50s standards. (Today it would barely be aqua.) Lenny's satire was more ferocious than Sahl's, his language saltier and more freewheeling than Foxx's. This combination of topic and tone, and the fact that nobody else was out there with him, meant that Lenny had gigantic areas of social and sexual behavior (and misbehavior) all to himself. In an alternate universe, some comedian might be granted a monopoly on mother-in-law jokes; Lenny, in this world, chutzpah'd himself into exclusive rights to virtually any touchy subject. He had simply no competition.

He did have detractors, who could get more rabid than Lenny ever was. In 1961, comedian Shelley Berman told TIME, "I don't dislike him, but people needed Lenny Bruce for the same reason they needed Hitler." (Hmmm. I don't think Lenny's four-letter word was Jews.) And Jean Shepherd, whom I cherish as a radio monologist, later railed against the Lenny Bruce threat — of the hip people lording it over the square — saying it was "a new kind of Jew burning, I think it could lead to a new kind of gas oven." (Goldman, Bruce's biographer, wrote, on no evidence, "Hitler was Lenny's ultimate hero.")

Lenny made plenty of enemies. But in saying what he thought, at great price, he liberated stand-up, and all showbiz behavior. A live performance, for comics and rockers and actors, was henceforth designed not to seduce the audience, to play to the old expectations of charm and propriety, but to confront, challenge, titillate, outrage it. I think only jazz musicians had tried that before. Secure in their improv skills, they dared to investigate the farthest reaches of aural experimentation. And if the ringsiders didn't get it — if a Charlie Parker was literally playing only to the band, and sometimes even they couldn't follow him — too bad. If Miles Davis did a whole set with his back to the customers, well, were they there to see his face or hear his music? In fact, who cares why or if they were there?

Lenny Bruce did care if he was connecting with his audience. To a comedian silence is death; and he wasn't quite Zen enough to dig the sound of no hands clapping. In 1959, talking with Paul Krassner, he defined a comedian as someone who stood in front of an audience and got a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds. But his routines weren't a collection of jokes; they were skits, theater pieces that got laughs from the asides as much as the punch lines. And each bit was populated with two, three, many characters. It was like a classic sketch on Your Show of Shows, except that Lenny played all the parts: Sid Caesar's, Carl Reiner's, Howie Morris' and Imogene Coca's. He wasn't a great mimic — all the voices had his nasal Long Island timbre — but he was a confident actor. And since each routine tended to evolve as he performed it, Lenny was less a sick comic than a Method one.

And not, despite what you may have heard, a particularly angry one. He was as amused as outraged by the shameless hypocrisy of his targets. In his satire he aimed up, at the powerful, not down, at the pitiful. He often made himself and his weaknesses the subject of his comedy. His material wasn't mean. To compare him to two later comics, one good, one awful, Lenny didn't play the angry old man, like Carlin, fuming at everybody's idiocy, or the stud-bully, like Andrew Dice Clay, spuming a bully's polluted derision. In the 1959 interview, Krassner asked, "Do you think there's any sadism in your comedy?", and Lenny recoiled. "What a horrible thought. If there is any sadism in my work, I hope I — well, if there is, I wish someone would whip me with a large belt that has a brass buckle."

As Lenny matured, walking a lonely road in so many aspects of his craft, he relied less on boffo laffs. "Please don't applaud," he'd sometimes say on stage. "It breaks my rhythm." And in his last years, when he'd devote maybe an hour of his act to a recitation of his trial trials, Lenny was often still funny, but in a much drier, more serious context. (At the very end, he could be so stoned he could barely hold a mic, let alone an audience's attention.) Krassner asked Lenny how these lectures on the law squared with his old 15-25-second rules, and he replied, "I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce." That might sound pompous, but, truly, Lenny had become sui generis — his own genre.

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