A Tribute to Lenny Bruce

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LENNY AND TIME

In a Jul. 13, 1959, summary of new comedians, TIME coined the phrase "sicknik" (after beatnik, itself inspired by the 1957 Soviet satellite Sputnik) and applied it particularly to "the usually vicious barrage of Lenny Bruce. ... [M]uch of the time he merely shouts angrily and tastelessly at the way of the world (on religious leaders: ‘They have missed the boat. "Thou shall not kill," they say, and then one of them walks comfortingly to the death chamber with Caryl Chessman.')."

For the younguns, I should note that Chessman was the literate, seemingly rehabilitated criminal whose execution many liberals protested. And I'll add that his comment seems, if not hilarious, certainly pertinent. In one sentence, Lenny managed to criticize three kinds of hypocrites: the state, which kills its citizens in defiance of Biblical law ("‘Thou shalt not kill' means that," he often said, "not ‘Amend Section A'"); the liberals who choose which convicts should be spared (the book-loving kind); and the ones who, like some medical professionals today, ignore the strictures of the AMA to assist in the execution process. Honestly, who's sick here? Well, maybe Lenny was sick for his time. But he was never one to turn down free publicity: he called his next album The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.

To gauge contemporary views of Bruce (and for many other reasons), a scan of the Time archive is instructive. In articles from 1961 to 1966 the magazine called Lenny "the sickest of them all," the "four-letter comedian," the "triple-sick Comedian," the "tried-and-blue Comedian," "the sick, beat comic" and "the man who made the four-letter word a popular mixer before being ruled obscene by the courts." When in 1963 the Home Office of Great Britain refused him entry to do a London nightclub gig, Time punned: "Wherever he roamed, Lenny seemed to be in sick transit."

Here is TIME's Milestone in its Aug. 12, 1966, issue: "Died. Lenny Bruce, 40, nightclub performer, leading outpatient of the sick-comic school; of suspected narcotics poisoning; in Hollywood. Son of an ‘exotic dancer,' trained as a burlesque comedian, Bruce was never in tune with this world, and he soured totally in the 1950s after his beautiful blonde wife became a drug addict, leaving him with an infant daughter. From Manhattan to Hollywood, he viewed life as a four-letter word and, with gestures, commented blackly on it, never lacking for listeners and finding some curious champions (among them: Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Poet Robert Lowell). His path led ever lower after a Manhattan criminal court, in 1964, convicted him of being ‘obscene, indecent, immoral and impure.'"

By the following year, though, Time's tone had softened: "Many of today's young monologists, in the style of the late Lenny Bruce, specialize in acutely perceived, often bitter commentary, not to say four-letter words." And in two rave reviews of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, Time called the novel "a coda of rage and savagely honest self-lashing reminiscent of the performances of the late Lenny Bruce." Also: "The similarities between Portnoy's delivery and that of the late Satirist Lenny Bruce are readily apparent. While Bruce used scatology in his nightclub performances as a tool, primarily to uncover social hypocrisies, his savage humor also gained its neurotic style from conflicts about appearance and reality [that's society's conflicts, folks, not Lenny's]. For example, Bruce was constantly asking why portrayals of people doing something as beautiful and useful as making love were considered obscene while portrayals of murder and violence were not."

Lenny had become acceptable to TIME because he had freed Philip Roth to write Portnoy's Complaint. He was a cause worth rallying around — posthumously. The new Caryl Chessman.

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