August 3, 1966. All is unnervingly quiet at Lenny Bruce’s home in the Hollywood Hills. No one’s seen him since breakfast, when a female acquaintance made him a gut-busting fry-up. Not, perhaps, ideal for a once lithe, puckish man recently swollen to 225 pounds. When last seen, he was typing up yet another salvo in the endless exchange of legal correspondence in which he’s become wilfully bogged down in his declining years. The law once hounded Bruce vindictively – he was busted four times for obscenity, banned in several US cities, banned outright in Australia.
Now the law is done and bored with him. The Sixties, too, are cheap viagra bored with Lenny. He hasn’t been funny in years – he’s reduced to taking bleary, tired haymakers at an establishment he once peppered and riled with witty, sickening jabs. He isn’t working, he’s way behind on his mortgage payments, he’s only half-heartedly recovered from an OD just weeks ago. He knows what’s next. At 6pm, Bruce’s friend and associate John Judnich pulls up into the driveway and, unable to attract Lenny’s attention, tries first his bedroom, then his office, then the bathroom. There lies Lenny, face down, jeans around his ankles, a needle hanging from his arm, having pitched forward unconscious while on the crapper.
Judnich tries to lift him up but he fails. Then, spotting the clear snot dripping from his nose, sensing the cold slab that is Lenny’s body, and finally, the unmistakable glaze in his eyes, Judnich lets out a scream. The police are on the scene within the hour, as are press photographers. They snap at Bruce’s corpse with barely disguised schadenfreude – the toilet humorist dead on the toilet. Someone deems it editorially tasteful to publish a photo of the bearded, bloated Bruce, beached on his own folly – a latterday equivalent of sticking his head on a spike.
Among the first to arrive is Phil Spector. In recent years, like Bruce, he has become victim of his own paranoia. They’ve hung out together, Spector in it for the kudos, Bruce to mooch his new buddy’s millions. Only, following a disastrous show Spector promoted for Bruce, there’s been a rift. Now, however, Spector’s distraught, standing over Bruce’s corpse in his winkle-pickers, screaming “You killed him!” at the cops. Ultimately, however, no one buys the idea that the police killed Bruce. Why bother, when he was already a dead man.
Cut back to 1961, Carnegie Hall – Lenny Bruce at his height. It’s beyond comic, it’s something like Shamanic. Marvel as he takes a theme or riff, scampers off with it at breakneck speed, spontaneously incorporating elements like a noise from backstage, digresses, quantumly leaps, free associates, lays bare the workings of a fast and furious mind. It’s reminiscent of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in its virtuosity.
One second he’s talking about old Jewish women mugging Cubans in recession-hit Florida, the next embarking on a sketch about some kidnapped guy who had to be freed to raise the money for his own ransom, the next putting down a heckler with almost pedantic aplomb, before every now and again, the shuffling footwork stops momentarily and he decks you with a killer punchline or even a serious philosophical point – “There’s no right or wrong – only my right and your wrong.”
For sure, his routines are laced with hip, esoteric jargon and Yiddish vernacular, which lurking plainclothes officers suspected to be rude words. However, by today’s standards, Bruce was sparing in his use of outright expletives. Granted, at the beginning of his club career, he was not above the odd gratuitous bit of filth, such as one joke he borrowed from Buddy Hackett: “Daddy, what’s a pervert?” “Shut up, son, and keep sucking.” Granted, Bruce was shocking and one of the main planks of his comedy was to deconstruct the entire notion of “dirty words”.
However, the notion propounded by his foes, often his victims, that he was a “sick” comedian, intent solely on wallowing in gutter language to raise a stink, was a red herring, a subconscious diversionary tactic enabling them to avoid facing up to the real obscenities Bruce was addressing.
Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925 in New York. After a wartime stint in the navy, he got his first break on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout’s show. He married a singer, Honey, a Courtney in some ways to his Kurt. To make ends meet she stripped, while he worked the local burlesque joints and undercut local gardeners by charging only $6 to mow lawns.
As he progressed, he was initially one of many comics branded “sick”. He was also audacious – one night, he mocked George Raft, suggesting that the bevy of females in his company were hookers who’d be lining up to administer blow jobs to the actor in due course. Somehow he avoided getting his legs broken but he’d shown a Kamikaze streak in his outlook Bruce’s epiphany occurred when, following a routine of regular schtick, somebody praised him for not resorting to “filthy, toilet humour”. Which got Lenny to thinking. “How dirty is my toilet?” He sensed a semantic confusion, deep-seated in the Fifties American mindset, a repulsion at body functions which, when you examined it for a second, made no sense. Bruce would make it his mission to lift up the toilet lid, not to shock but to examine.
In his routines, he would take news stories and turn them on their head – like the Genovese girl in Queens who had been murdered by her boyfriend in full public view. How much quicker the onlookers would have been to call the cops, remarked Bruce, if the couple had been making love. “If something disgusts you about the human body,” he suggested, “complain to the manufacturer.” He teased and cheated censors with one of his most famous routines, a recital based around the phrase “to come (is a verb intransitive)” which worked up to a brazenly climactic frenzy (“I really came so good)” but which, technically, was a “clean” routine.
Prior to Lenny Bruce, comedians were strictly entertainers, folks. They did a string of well-honed jokes, sketches or routines, bang went the big bass drum and you’ve been a wonderful audience. Politics surfaced only tentatively in the Fifties – when Mort Sahl made an innocuously satirical remark about the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts, eyebrows raised sky-high. Bruce went way beyond all that. Sure, he had a store of routines which he’d work in as and when he felt appropriate. But that was all the artifice there was about Bruce. His genius was to perfect the art of thinking aloud. That was his form and it matched his content, which was the myriad hypocrisies of American life and its institutions, its unconscious double standards and its indecent notions of “decency”. He wasn’t a ranter – rather the spectacle he presented was that of a thoughtful, troubled, essentially peaceable soul whose inquiring mind didn’t allow him to buy into the values of his day.
It’s appropriate that he was played by Eddie Izzard in the 1999 stage show Lenny. They shared the same modus operandi. However, Bruce never had the luxury of confining his rambling musings to wondering why Mr Dog changed their name to Caesar. He was waging a one-man war against cant, hypocrisy and censorship, one which he both won and lost. As Dylan put it in his 1981 song “Lenny Bruce”, “He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts.” Onstage, the spectacle he presented was that of a sweet Saint – that stark, cute, wide-eyed stare. But his were also the sunken, dark, hollow-eyes of a sinner.
Bruce was desperately promiscuous. One of his best bits concerned a guy seriously injured in a car crash who, in the emergency room, makes a play for the nurse. “You animal, your foot was half cut off!” More seriously, Bruce was also a chronic junkie. Peter Cook later recalled Bruce’s first trip to London, to play Cook’s Establishment club, set up to avoid the attentions of Britain’s own theatrical censor in the form of the High Chamberlain. He remembers an “absolute shambling wreck” trickling out of the airport, who managed to be evicted from his hotel two days in, after both prostitutes and syringes were found in his room. Forced to stay with Cook, he had his host run drug errands for him, among them acquiring a heroin derivative on the strength of a phoney prescription signed by a “Dr Ziglovitz.” In the end, Cook rang Dudley Moore, who only had a junior aspirin.
Bruce was a child of the bebop era and came to heroin the way a lot of junior saxmen did – inspired by Charlie Parker. “To play like Bird, you’ve got to do like Bird,” ran the refrain. It was an area of his life which he never came to terms with, one which this ultimate of confrontational comedians never really confronted. To say that smack fuelled his comedy is as much a myth as it was with Parker – Bruce achieved what he did despite being “whacked out of his skull” for much of his working life.
As his act evolved, Bruce expanded his frame of reference to take all the latterday paragons of repression and double standard – politics, religion (including epic sketches such as ‘Father Flotski’s Triumph’), the Ku Klux Klan, the law. Following the Kennedy assassination, he berated the story put out by Time magazine that Jackie had crawled out the back of the Cadillac after the shooting to assist a secret serviceman when clearly, and understandably, she was scared shitless. He saw such fictions as an attempt to make ordinary people feel like schmucks in the face of their “betters”. He did a great piece on race entitled “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties”. (“That Joe Louis was a hell of a fighter . . .”). That said, he was tough on anti-Deep South prejudice also, speculating that “If Albert Einstein tawked lakh thayat – wouldn’t be no bomb. ‘Folks, I wanna talk to you about new-clear fission!’ ‘Get outta here, you schmuck.’ ‘But I’m tawking some stuff, buddy!'”
Bruce reserved much of his animus for the Catholic church and, with the police force dominated by Catholics, this probably accounted for the close attention they paid to his shows. That, and the fact that Lenny refused to play the game. He wasn’t the only entertainer out there who broke the rules, least of all when it came to drugs. Mostly, deals would be cut and everyone was happy. However, when Bruce was arrested in Philadelphia on a drugs charge and was offered a deal by a government official, he insisted on announcing the deal on one of his sporadic TV appearances. When he arrived in San Francisco, the cops were there en vengeful masse. He was put on trial for obscenity, following an appearance at the Troubadour in Hollywood when he had let slip the aside, “Where is that dwarf cocksucker?” After a lengthy trial he was acquitted – however, so zealously did Bruce throw himself into the case that he rendered the victory a Pyrrhic one. They got to him in a way they’d never intended to. Bruce became obsessed with the law, practically invited prosecution, became saddled with needless legal debts, ruined his shows with his tedious recitals of his self-imposed legal wranglings.
“I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce,” he once said, and towards the end, this was sadly true. Lenny Bruce’s legacy is secure. Much of his work, however, is of its time. Some of his ideas, especially concerning race, might seem like old hat – we forget that this was the guy who made the hat in the first place. Bruce’s notion that words are inherently harmless, are only harmful if we decide they are, wouldn’t find favour in this era – with “fuck”, he may have been right but “nigger”, “paki”, “cripple” – he would probably be wrong. Probably.
Bruce was a Fifties jazz creature but he inspired a Sixties rock attitude. His hip insolence and loathing of double standard undoubtedly made a deep impression on Bob Dylan and John Lennon, both of whom wrote songs alluding to him. Frank Zappa’s iconoclasm clearly owed a debt to Bruce – Zappa once collared Bruce and asked him to sign his draft card. Bruce refused. Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks and most recently comedienne Margaret Cho, who caused ripples with joke about giving blow jobs to the September 11 rescuers, are among the many indebted to Lenny Bruce. Today, we can take an entire culture of free-thinking, envelope-pushing and open attitudes to everything and anything, for granted. It was Bruce and Bruce practically alone, who granted it to us – the man who never knew when to shut the fuck up.