Is Lenny Bruce Funny?

Lenny Bruce, First Amendment crusader, broke ground for arguably every significant comic in his wake. Laughing at his material can seem like a civic duty. But does it hold up?

Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto. He has a degree in journalism from Columbia, and has...

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“I never thought Lenny Bruce was funny. I am very aware of how important he was. But his stuff never made me laugh. […] I knew enough about history, about the sterile, cultural neck brace that America wore in the late ’50s and early ’60s, to realize just how revolutionary and foolhardy and essential Lenny Bruce was, but … he never made me laugh.”

Patton Oswalt wrote these words last February for Slate, as part of a tribute to another comedian who would have been unthinkable without Bruce, Bill Hicks. Forty-eight years ago, Lenny Bruce died of a morphine overdose at age 40—unemployable, nearly bankrupt, and guilty of obscenity in the same city where he once played Carnegie Hall. He had endured three trials for his use of profanity, two of which ended in conviction, making him the first and last stand-up comedian to be persecuted by the government. At the time of his death, he was appealing a conviction that sentenced him to four months in the workhouse.

Thoughtful though Oswalt’s comments were, they rubbed me the wrong way. As a cultural martyr, Lenny Bruce looms large. His struggles against censorship were chronicled on stage and screen (notably Bob Fosse’s Oscar-nominated Lenny), his face was on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, and his name mentioned in songs sung by R.E.M., Nico, Simon & Garfunkel, and Genesis. His words were transcribed in a bestselling anthology, The Essential Lenny Bruce, and he received the highest honour a cultural outlaw can get when he was memorialized in a Bob Dylan song:

Maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn’t work out

But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth and he knew what he was talkin’ about.

Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads

He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds.

As recently as 2004, he ranked #3 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-ups, behind only Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Given that those two cite him as a direct influence, it’s no overstatement to call Bruce the most important stand-up of the 20th century. His First Amendment heroism makes laughing at him seem like a civic duty. But after my initial distaste, I had another reaction to Oswalt’s comments: relief that someone else had the same reaction to Bruce that I did. There is no artist in any medium that I have spent as much time and effort trying and failing to enjoy as Lenny Bruce.

Bruce’s admirers have described seeing him in the ’50s and ’60s as an epiphany. For Pryor, Bruce’s comedy “taught me not to go for the jokes to be funny; just tell the truth. When I did that, I was funny.” For Carlin, “He made me laugh, sure, but more often he made me say, ‘Fuckin’ A, why didn’t I think of that?’” But now that so many comedians have walked through the doors he opened, I wonder how much he’s really listened to anymore. Moreover, I wonder if it’s possible to look past the leaden weight of his reputation and rediscover what made him so innovative in the first place. Is it possible to still laugh at Lenny Bruce?

*

From 1932 to 1955 on radio, and 1950 to 1965 on television, the most popular comedian in America was Jack Benny. In his three decades on the air, Benny created a persona that was something like a perfect alchemy: pleasant enough to be good company; flawed enough to be funny; consistent enough to form an intimate relationship with his audience; but guarded enough to keep his fans intrigued about the man behind the persona. Key to Benny’s shtick were four recurring jokes: that he was a penny-pinching skinflint; that he was a horrible violinist; that he had a bitter archenemy—comedian Fred Allen—with whom he would trade barbs; and that he was so vain, he insisted he was only 39 years old, even well into his 70s.

Of course, “Jack Benny” was quite unlike Jack Benny. In reality, he was generous with his money, donating $1 million to an actors’ retirement home. He was a capable violinist who started as a fiddler in vaudeville, and occasionally performed with major symphonies after he was famous. He was a close friend to Fred Allen, who he met as a struggling young comic. I know all this, because Benny and his friends and colleagues made this information well known through decades of interviews.

I’m not saying Benny wasn’t funny, or that none of his material holds up. His sense of comic timing was so precise that he could (and can) get a laugh just by saying “Well…” But I think nostalgic souls would be mistaken to point to Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Milton Berle, and their contemporaries as pinnacles of their mediums. Their shows were comfort food, and while they crafted enduring characters and slick one-liners, they didn’t challenge their audiences, and they gave little sense of who they were beneath their personas. When, say, Richard Pryor created a routine about the power his crack pipe held over him, it felt painfully, powerfully honest. When George Burns told Benny at a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, “I still think I sing better than you play that lousy violin,” he was perpetuating an inside joke that wasn’t even true.

Benny was still America’s most popular comic on April 18, 1949, when a young Lenny Bruce made his first radio appearance. It was an auspicious debut, on the nationally broadcast Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, but he wasn’t changing any paradigms just yet. The 23-year-old Lenny impersonated James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre, Katharine Hepburn, and others as German speakers. His single mother, Sally Marr, introduced him; a sometimes-dancer and comic who never quite made it, she encouraged Lenny’s showbiz ambitions, and helped him develop his first act. She told Godfrey, “When he came out of the Navy, he worked a lot of theatres and nightclubs across the coast, and more recently he was at the Crossroads nightclub in Washington D.C.” Pure fiction—his experience was limited to amateur nights—but the audience received him warmly. He did serve in the navy, but was dishonorably discharged after performing a comedy skit in drag.

The Arthur Godfrey spot landed Bruce an agent, club dates, and a TV appearance on Broadway Open House, where he did physical comedy in the Jerry Lewis vein. After this initial spurt of interest, he was mostly consigned to burlesque theatres, and spent the following years looking for his niche. He tried a double act with his new wife, a singer/stripper named Honey Harlow. He took a stab at movie stardom, writing and starring in a Z-grade gangster melodrama, Dance Hall Racket (1953). Mostly, he made a living in burlesque houses, where comedians performed between strip acts and audiences expected dirty jokes. With the freedom to say whatever he wanted, Bruce began finding his voice.

In 1955, Harlow left Bruce, and the divorce marked a turning point in his career. “He did bits about almost everything that happened in our life,” said Honey Harlow in the documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. He began exploring sexual politics, and his work became darker and more personal.

“Every guy in this audience is the same—you can idolize your wife, just be crazy about her, be on the way home from work, have a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus, in a disaster area. Forty people laying dead on the highway—not even in the hospital, in the ambulance—the guy makes a play for the nurse.”

FEMALE: “How could you do that thing at a time like that?”

MALE: “I got horny.”

What?”

“I got hot”

“How could you be hot when your foot was cut off? People were dead and bleeding to death!”

“I dunno”

“He’s an animal! He got hot with his foot cut off!”

“I guess I’m an animal. I dunno.”

This new direction led Bruce to become more honest, and more eager to explore ugly and embarrassing subject matter. “Lenny never did anything but impressions and jokes all the years he was with Honey,” Marr said in the same film. “As soon as they separated, he became creative.”

When, say, Richard Pryor created a routine about the power his crack pipe held over him, it felt painfully, powerfully honest. When George Burns told Benny at a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, “I still think I sing better than you play that lousy violin,” he was perpetuating an inside joke that wasn’t even true.

From there, he enjoyed rapid success. By 1957, he was out of burlesque houses and performing in legitimate theatres. In 1958 he met Hugh Hefner, who made him a fixture at the Mansion and on his TV show, Playboy After Dark. In 1959, Bruce released his first two albums, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce and I Am Not a Nut, Elect Me!. “We are living in a culture of conformity,” musician Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the liner notes for the former, but Bruce, with his “Comedy of Dissent,” was “a comic right out of the jazz world.” Of his act, Gleason said, “It’s ribald. Yes, and even sometimes rough. But it’s real. … Like a jazz musician’s view, Bruce’s comedy is dissent from a world gone mad.” The same year, Bruce appeared on The Steve Allen Show. His act was sanitized for TV, of course, but Allen still warned viewers, “We’ve decided that once a month, we will book a comedian who will offend everybody.”

By this point, Bruce had risen to the top of what newspapers dubbed “the Sick Comedians”—a loose group of nightclub comics who specialized in unpleasant subject matter. There was Shelley Berman, who broke away from one-liners in favour of observational, angst-ridden monologues; Mort Sahl who did barbed political material, sometimes reading directly from the day’s newspapers; Jonathan Winters, who frankly discussed his experiences with mental illness and institutions; Mike Nichols and Elaine May, with their routines about adultery, psychiatry, and overbearing mothers; and Dick Gregory, the first comedian to deal frankly with being black in America.

All seem very tame today, but a 1959 Time magazine trendpiece called “The Sickniks” marveled at these comics who “joked about father and Freud, about mother and masochism, about sister and sadism,” and “attacked motherhood, childhood, adulthood, sainthood.” The uncredited writer was harshest on Bruce: “Although audiences unquestionably laugh at Bruce, much of the time he merely shouts angrily and tastelessly at the way of the world.”

The writer was correct that audiences laughed at Bruce. On February 2, 1962, he reached the pinnacle of his career when he appeared at Carnegie Hall. The concert, which was released as an LP, is widely considered by fans to be his best performance. That September, he was arrested for narcotics possession in Philadelphia. When police found only prescription medication, the charges were dropped, but Bruce went on TV to claim that cops had offered him a bribe.

On October 4, a full eight months after saying it without incident at Carnegie hall, he was arrested at the Jazz Workshop nightclub in San Francisco for using the word “cocksucker.” He would suffer nonstop legal persecution for the rest of his life, winning the San Francisco trial but losing two more.

*

If the Time writer could barely handle Mort Sahl, it’s easy to see why Bruce offended so many delicate sensibilities: more than any other American comedian, he directly confronted America’s most painful taboos. He spoke frequently about race: a vicious parody of the much-admired race-relations drama The Defiant Ones attacked the self-satisfaction of producer Darryl Zanuck and director Stanley Kramer. Taking on the Tony Curtis role, Bruce said: “Someday, Randy, up theah, up theah in Equality Heaven, they’ll all be theah Randy, the people who believe in it—Zanuck, and Kramer. Thass why they make them pictures, cause, they believe in equality, Randy, and up theah, it’s gonna happ’n, cause they caused it, an, an, an then you gonna be livin in Zanuck’s house with all yo colored friends, and next door to Kramer on his property in Malibu, you be helpin them people, Randy—polishin dem cahs…”

His progressive ethos regularly dovetailed with his taste for vulgar material:

“You have a the choice of spending 15 years married to a woman—a black woman or a white woman. Fifteen years kissing and hugging and sleeping real close on hot nights, watching her take off her garter belt, taking her makeup off, seeing every facet of her—15 years—with a black black woman, or 15 years with a white white woman. And these two women are about the same age bracket, so it’s not an unfair comparison. Fifteen years with a black woman, or 15 years with a white woman. The white woman is Kate Smith … and the black woman is Lena Horne! So you’re not concerned with black and white any more, are you?”

Bruce’s critics painted him as a dirty little boy who relished gratuitous provocation; his admirers argued that he used vulgarity to serve his satirical points, often invoking Jonathan Swift. In reality, Bruce’s act derived much of its power from the tension between these two impulses. A memorable instance was his routine “Thank You Mask Man,” a Lone Ranger parody in which he played half a dozen characters. In this bit, a western town is frustrated that their masked savior never stops to accept its gratitude. Finally corralling him at gunpoint, the townsfolk order Mask Man to accept a gift of his choosing, to which he responds, “Gimme that Indian over there!” “What the hell you wannim faw?” asks a townsperson. “To perform an unnatural act!” Suddenly the townsfolk are in a less jovial mood. “Wall, goddamn, massed man, I never knew you were that way.” “I’m not, but I’ve heard so much about it is, the repression sorta has me horny, you know…”

There was his celebrated use of off-colour language—which, ironically, he sometimes used in routines about the arbitrary power that society gives words. At his 1962 San Francisco obscenity trial, the jury heard a recording of one of Bruce’s most popular bits, “To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb,” in which he repeated phrases like “Don’t come in me” to a musical rhythm, draining them of their meaning (“Don’t comeinme don’tcomeinme mimme. Don’t comeinme mimme mimme. Don’t comeinme mimme mimme”). Bruce told his audiences, “If anyone in this room finds the verb intransitive, to come, obscene, vile vulgar—if it’s really a hangup to hear it and you think I’m the rankest for saying it—you probably can’t come.”

But his obscenity busts were not just a matter of curse words. He poked at untouchable public figures, as in when he criticized Time magazine for claiming Jacqueline Kennedy leapt from the motorcade to “get help” (“She hauled ass to save her ass”). An enthusiastic hedonist, he spoke frankly about sex (“Guys detach, it has nothing to do with liking, loving. You put guys on a desert island and they’ll do it to mud”). He consistently attacked religion, especially the Catholic Church, which made him a target of conservative watchdogs. In 1962, while Bruce was awaiting trial in Chicago, the head of the city’s vice squad told a club owner, “If [Bruce] ever speaks religion, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here, do you understand?” Two months later, the club’s liquor license was revoked. Bruce’s persecution pulled in audiences, but club owners knew the dangers of booking him.

When police arrested Bruce during a performance in Chicago in 1962, George Carlin was in the audience. When Carlin refused to show his ID, he was thrown in the paddy wagon with Bruce; as a passing-of-the-torch moment, it’s almost too perfect. Without the precedent of Lenny Bruce, it’s difficult to imagine George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” bit about language that’s forbidden from TV: “The original seven words were, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor.”

Carlin found himself at the centre of a legal firestorm in 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could censor this act during daytime hours. Nothing in Bruce’s act approached his gleefully sustained vulgarity. However, Carlin was never targeted by police, and was cited for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor shortly before his death. “He was the first one to make language an issue, and he suffered for it,” Carlin said of Bruce in an interview. “I was the first one to make language an issue and succeed from it.”

*

So why doesn’t Bruce’s material hold up as well as Carlin’s?

Not all of the reasons are intellectual. Because the nature of his material mostly kept him off television, there is relatively little tape or film of his mature work—two appearances on The Steve Allen Show (one never broadcast), a failed TV pilot, a single filmed club date, and a handful of fragments and interviews. That leaves us with his records, which capture him sounding tinny and fuzzy in nightclubs and theatres. There’s also the fact that Bruce spoke so quickly, often assuming voices and staging impromptu playlets, that he requires an unusual degree of concentration.

If you can adjust your ears to the sound, there is also the issue that his comedy is deeply rooted in the anxieties of the time. This makes his albums invaluable as historical documents, but difficult to engage with as living works. It’s a testament to Bruce’s ideas that most of them no longer seem revolutionary. When I hear his bit about Christ coming back to Earth, visiting St. Patrick’s cathedral, and marveling that “his route took him through Spanish Harlem, and he was wondering what the hell fifty Puerto Ricans were doing living in one room when that stained glass window is worth ten G’s a square foot,” I groan. At the time, no comedian had attempted such a frontal assault on organized religion; by now, this observation is not just familiar, but clichéd.

In 1962, while Bruce was awaiting trial in Chicago, the head of the city’s vice squad told a club owner, “If [Bruce] ever speaks religion, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here, do you understand?” Two months later, the club’s liquor license was revoked.

“Thank You Mask Man” came before Stonewall; today, the framing of an American cultural icon as gay no longer carries the same subversive weight. Bruce’s audiences went wild when he performed it, with people literally hollering, “Mask Man’s a fag!” at the revelation. On the topic of homosexuality, he was undeniably progressive for his time—perhaps more than his audience was—but heard today, much of his material approaches it with a sniggering attitude that’s difficult to redeem. In one routine—about the ostensible cause of his San Francisco arrest—he described a conversation with a fictitious agent warning him about an upcoming club date. “What kind of a show is it, man?” Bruce asks.

AGENT: Well, y’know…

LENNY: Well, no, I don’t know, man, it sounds like kind of a weird show…

AGENT: Well, it’s not a show, they’re a bunch of cocksuckers, that’s all. A damned fag show.

LENNY: Oh… well, that is a pretty bizarre show. I don’t know what I can do in that kind of a show…

AGENT: Well, no, it’s… we want you to change all that.

LENNY: Well, that’s a big gig… I can just tell them to stop doing it…

I want to be generous to Bruce, because he was exploring uncharted territory, while Carlin and Pryor had his precedent to guide them. We’ll never know if Bruce, after breaking ground, would have harnessed his wit and intelligence to create a sharper act. But after listening to nearly all of his extant work, I must conclude that a lot of what we’re left with is simply not good. Take, for example, a famous routine about Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Eleanor Roosevelt had nice tits. She really did. A friend of mine saw them and said they were terrific. That’s not disrespectful; in fact, she would have liked that, I think. Yeah, he walked into the bedroom and she was fixing—“

GUY: Excuse me.

ELE: That’s all right. You were looking at my tits, weren’t you?

GUY: Well, I wasn’t looking at them. I was looking at everything—the wall, and everything—

ELE: That’s all right. You can look at them.

GUY: Uh, they’re OK.

ELE: People say they’re the nicest tits ever. Ever ever ever.

GUY: They really are nice tits. Could I touch them?

ELE: No, no. Nope. Cause alot of people want to touch them and they’d touch them too much. That’s all. Just look at them. Just look at them and say they’re nice tits.

GUY: Awright—they’re nice tits. In fact, I’m gonna tell my friends how nice they are. Heh heh. And what a terrific person you are for showing them to me.

If this was ever funny at all, it was because no major comedian had ever spoken so crudely about such a lofty public figure. Now that the boundary has been broken, what’s frustratingly clear is how little Bruce actually has to say about Eleanor Roosevelt.

He doesn’t always live up to his reputation even when he does have a point to make. In his most celebrated routine, he abruptly asked his audience, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” Then, he’d revert to an outraged whisper: “What did he say? ‘Are there any niggers here tonight’? Jesus Christ! Is that cruel! Does he have to go that low for laughs?” Back in his own voice, he’d continue:

“Are there any niggers here tonight? I know that one nigger who works here, I see him back there. Oh, there’s two niggers, customers, and, ah, aha! Between those two niggers sits one kike—man, thank God for the kike! Uh, two kikes. That’s two kikes, and three niggers, and one spic. One spic—two, three spicks. One mick. One mick, one spick, one hick, thick funky, spunky, hunky boogey.”

Then, Bruce would take on the persona of an auctioneer (“Five more niggers! Five more niggers!”), and a gambler (“I pass with six niggers and eight micks and four spics”), before arriving at “the point”:

“The point? That the word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, ‘Tonight I’d like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,’ and he yelled ‘niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger’ at every nigger he saw, ‘boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey, niggerniggerniggernigger’ till nigger didn’t mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning—you’d never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school.”

I reject the idea that Bruce (or President Kennedy, for that matter) had the ability or the right to depoliticize a word created specifically to dehumanize black people; and I resent that Bruce relied on the visceral shock of the word for comedy while pretending to drain it of its impact. Compare this to a similar but, to my ears, more sophisticated observation by Richard Pryor, from Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982):

“When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, ‘Richard, what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all types of people.’ The voice said, ‘But do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.’ And it hit me like a shot, man—I started crying and shit, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been here three weeks, I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it.’ And it made me say, ‘I’ve been wrong. I’ve been wrong. I’ve got to regroup my shit. I’m not going to ever call another black man nigger.’ Because we never was no niggers. That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness, and we perpetuate it now, ‘cause it’s dead.”

*

I’m quoting Bruce extensively because I want to be fair to him, but perhaps I’m still doing him a disservice. I can only imagine what it was like to hear his material in a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1959. In this context, there would have been a palpable atmosphere of transgression. The audience would have sat before Bruce, whose sharp, smug, charismatic, impulsive, and mischievous stage presence does not fit neatly under the halo that’s since been imposed on him. If he were able to respond to me, Bruce might say something similar to what he said in one of his last performances, preserved in The Lenny Bruce Performance Film:

“I do my act at perhaps 11 o’clock at night. Little do I know that 11 a.m. next morning, before the grand jury somewhere, there’s another guy doing my act who’s introduced as ‘Lenny Bruce in substance.’ ‘Here he is… Lenny Bruce (in substance)!’ A peace officer who is trained to recognize clear and present danger, not make-believe, does the act. A grand jury watches him work and they go, ‘That stinks!’ But I get busted! And the irony is, I have to go to court and defend his act.”

We’ll never know if Bruce, after breaking ground, would have harnessed his wit and intelligence to create a sharper act. But after listening to nearly all of his extant work, I must conclude that a lot of what we’re left with is simply not good.

Bruce said this in 1965, after he had been found guilty of obscenity in the liberal meccas of Chicago and New York. San Francisco was the only city where the law ruled in his favour, but club owners were leery of booking a comedian whose act now consisted primarily of reading his court transcripts—less to further his reputation as an outlaw, I think, than to position himself as the victim of some Kafkaesque nightmare. By then, it might have been all he was capable of: those who knew him said he was so demoralized by his trials and wrapped up in his appeals that he rarely even left his home.

The common rap on the Performance Film is that it shows him past his prime. Perhaps because my interest in Bruce is mainly historical, it’s actually the only one of his performances that has really worked for me. So much of his comedy concerned the suppression of words and ideas that it deepened in meaning and resonance when powerful forces actually suppressed him. That doesn’t mean it became funnier, but I’m reminded of something he said after several of his later performances: “I’m sorry I haven’t been very funny, but you see, I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”

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