The Sick Comic Makes a Comeback

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Ever since Lenny Bruce's death from a drug overdose in 1966, his legend has overwhelmed his comedy. His "sick" material pushed the boundaries of language and subject matter, kept him shuttling in and out of jail — and provided a model for every antiestablishment comic who followed. Now Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware, a six-CD set due out this week from Shout! Factory, will give the most complete account yet of why. Producer Hal Willner, working with Bruce's daughter Kitty, listened to more than 200 hours of Bruce's private recordings and other long-unheard tapes. Two-thirds of the material has never before been released, ranging from Bruce's show-biz debut — on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in 1948, doing Jimmy Cagney impressions — to nightclub gigs that Bruce recorded, radio interviews, even phone calls to lawyers.

Many of his classic bits — a cheesy Vegas comic playing the London Palladium, or Religions Inc., his satire of Christian commercialism — sound a bit moldy today. But his blazing intelligence and hair-trigger sense of outrage are riveting. In a 1963 appearance on Jonathan Winters' Breakfast Show, Bruce careens manically from Castro's Cuba to W.C. Fields' anti-Semitism to his own fantasy plot for entrapping the judge trying his obscenity case in San Francisco. Yet this bitter, late-stage Bruce is not all that far from the sensitive comic who, in a 1959 radio interview with Studs Terkel, blames (quite seriously) the declining quality of entertainment on bossy office secretaries. Hot or cool, sober or drug-fueled, Bruce obliterated the line between stand-up and self-revelation.