Lenny Bruce 1925–1966
(Pseudonym of Leonard Schneider) American comedian, writer, and actor.
Bruce used comedy as a vehicle to shock audiences out of their complacent acceptance of the status quo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of the set routines favored by his contemporaries, he employed spontaneous monologues on the restrictions imposed by church and state on politics, sex, and religion. By lampooning outdated and bigoted American attitudes, Bruce wished to exorcise the narrowmindedness of his audience. Because of the vulgar, scatological language and iconoclastic satire integral to his act, Bruce was criticized during his lifetime as a "sick" comic and was eventually barred from performing in many establishments. Since his death, however, his comedy has been hailed as a forerunner of the political and social changes of the late 1960s.
Bruce's humor stemmed from his childhood disillusionment with movies, cartoons, and radio. He felt that through its popular culture, America instilled false hope of a perfect world. In response, Bruce introduced a style of humor that combined fantasy and reality to produce outrage by ridiculing such characters from the media as the Lone Ranger, and such leaders as Eisenhower, Hitler, and the Pope. By debunking them, Bruce felt that he would strip them of their mythical appeal and expose their essential ridiculousness. Bruce's pieces were often cinematic in scope—he produced a variety of characters and situations to dramatize society's foibles. In some of his most acclaimed pieces, including "Father Flotsky's Triumph" and "London Palladium," Bruce described characters and settings as if they were scenes from a movie.
Bruce used show business as a metaphor for life; his comedy is based on the assumption that all authority, whether political, social, or religious, was nothing but a racket run by petty hustlers and agents. Bruce regularly incurred the wrath of the outraged authorities he criticized. He made frequent appearances in court on obscenity and drug charges, and his humor became increasingly cynical and his act more unstructured. Bruce eventually dropped the routine format completely as his art and personal life merged. Bruce received support from his audience; in 1964 the courts of New York received a petition from over one hundred leaders in the arts, praising Bruce as a social satirist "in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais, and Twain." Bruce finally turned his performing talents to his own legal self-defense, and in his fight for the right to express himself onstage he lost interest in entertaining. Although his trials ended successfully, he felt his life had lost its challenge, and he died of a drug overdose which may have been intentional.
Bruce achieved his greatest fame posthumously. In the space of a few years, his reputation has reversed itself completely. He is currently considered a deeply moral pioneer of contemporary liberal thought, rather than a childish, perverted comedian, the opinion of most people during his lifetime. Young people are especially impressed by his courage and incisive wit. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Ralph J. Gleason
Lenny Bruce [is] a wildly insane comic whose material is beyond surrealism, farther out than Mort Sahl and devastating in its attacks on the pompous, the pious and the phony in American culture.
Although Bruce is heavily oriented with motion picture gags and inside jokes of the music business, there is enough of his searing commentary that can be grasped by the ordinary club audience….
Bruce is a good bet for any jazz club in the country; his humor is right out of a roadband sideman's perspective and delivered in a heterogeneous mixture of underworld argot, hipster slang and show biz patter. A standup comic who takes off from the daily paper a la Sahl, Bruce occasionally strays into areas that will bug the sensitive but completely gas the rounders in the audience.
Ralph J. Gleason, "Night Club Reviews: Ann's 440, S.F.," in Variety (copyright 1958, by Variety, Inc.), April 9, 1958, p. 111.
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The newest and, in some ways, most scarifyingly funny proponent of significance, all social and some political, to be found in a night club these days is Lenny Bruce, a sort of abstract-expressionist stand-up comedian….
[Bruce is] imbued with a fidgety sense of moral indignation. The latter is so highly developed that he is sometimes said to make Mort Sahl, a contemporary critic and friend, appear merely querulous….
The reaction to Bruce is roughly comparable, although on a cerebral rather than a physical level, to that produced in chorus girls by Lou Holtz, who was once wont to prod them with a cane. Bruce's material, all of which he creates himself (some of it ad lib in a dank cranny of the subconscious) is delivered in nervous shards of hip talk accompanied by a series of impersonations made eerily abstruse by the fact. He sticks mainly to the American scene, for which he seems to cherish an affectionate replusion.
Gilbert Millstein, "Man, It's Like Satire," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1959, pp. 28, 30.
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Unlike Mort Sahl, whose heaviest ammunition is aimed at the Republicans, Lenny Bruce, the most controversial of the newer "intellectual" comedians, cuts beneath politics into the daily evasions of what he terms "first-plateau liberals." To my knowledge, no other comedian has ever talked scornfully in his performance on stage of "white Jews" who will not fight segregation or has explained in graphic detail how much "sicker" Philadelphia is than Little Rock. (p. 50)
In spite of his proselytizing, Bruce is much more professional as a straight comic when he wants to be than any of his colleagues who specialize in topical satire. Bruce has no equal in such set pieces as a re-creation of an old prison movie with Nat Pendleton and Barton MacLane or a devastatingly accurate odyssey of a Copacabana comic who wants to play a "class' house such as the Palladium in London, and "bombs" abysmally. Bruce knows show business so intimately that his rundown of a Palladium rehearsal is as precisely detailed as a [Theodore] Dreiser description of how a factory operates.
Bruce uses his considerable comic talent, he points out, "to say as much as I can get away with and still make the audience laugh." In his most coruscating monologues, one of his methods might be termed verbal sleight of hand. By stringing together enough Yiddish firecrackers, jazz jargon, advanced Broadwayese, and such bits as the dissection of old movies, he reaches his...
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Probably it is a symptom of our particular American education that nowadays when a man gets off a few good ones aimed at City Hall or the local upper crust, our journalists will usually describe him as a "devastating social satirist" or something of the sort. Such pronouncements may become heavy burdens even for high comic artists to bear; they form an almost impossible billing for a promising night club comedian. Worse, they may encourage a comedian to look at his work in quite the wrong way.
Bruce did get off some very good ones. And he had the audacity not of a satirist but of a good low comedian, an audacity that popular American comedy has probably not seen since the heyday of pre-striptease burlesque. No attitude seemed too sacred for Bruce to lampoon, no word too improper for him to utter; he seemed perfectly willing to say absolutely anything. An intriguing airplane sketch on ["The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce"], with Bruce as usual taking all the parts, offered a slovenly pilot who showed up for his flight after a couple of fortifying hours in the airport bar (he is afraid of heights, you see) and proceeded to expose every scurrilous suspicion one has ever secretly entertained about non-scheduled airlines. But Bruce followed this with a perfectly conventional bit about a kid who marked up the walls of the airplane with a crayon. Such irrelevance-for-a-laugh may be accepted low comedy, but it is hardly the sign of a true...
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Bruce is a beat magician, a Yiddish Ariel whose hesitant, mumbling, slipped-gear technique, full of breaks and riffs, untunes the ear of the conventional night-club audience who are used to getting their entertainment in a smooth flow of glossy chatter. He is not a public utility though. He mines his material from odd, irregular veins, surprising himself, as often as not, when he strikes a seam of original humor…. Following his act is like reading [James Joyce's] Finnegan's Wake over and over. (p. 150)
He has been called a sick comedian and yet I don't think the label could have been applied more inappropriately. He deals, it is true, with sex and disease, sometimes with unsettling frankness, but never with relish or just for kicks. He is a collagist, assembling the fragments of urban consciousness without much regard for conventions or taboo. He is almost a verbal Pop artist, pasting together the thousand sordid images of the urban American imagination. (pp. 150-51)
He is not just a snobbish satanist although many of his followers get a lot of satisfaction imagining themselves as members of a new Hellfire aristocracy. Bruce himself is too much of a naive, too innocent in a sense to get much of a social charge from his own ironies. He is really some sort of grubby simpleton whose very lack of sophistication lets him squint through the tissues of modern hypocrisy. He plays the bewildered rural innocent rather...
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[Lenny Bruce gives his] customers an hour of unleavened four-letter words plus gross assaults on motherhood, the Testaments Old and New, and vivid descriptions of the more basic physical and sexual processes….
As high priest of the sick comedians, as the pinup boy of the hip set, Bruce puts on an act that would gag a goat. But when I caught him at the Village Vanguard, the cellar was packed and the customers hushed except for bursts of applause and loud laughter. I wasn't prepared for the unceasing stream of sewage which appeared to fascinate an audience devoted to Bruce.
Sick humor seems to have been a phenomenon of the '50's. If you will recall, the decade spawned a whole body of psychologically twisted humor….
"Sick" became the catchword of the '50's. You never said anybody was nuts; you said: "Man, you're sick." The alleged humor built itself off that state of inverted mental sickness, and it was only natural that it would descend to the barnyard in its eventual amplification. It was aided considerably by "hip" talk, a sort of secret language known mostly to musicians and marijuana smokers, in which a whole lexicon of careless scatological terminology was added to the punctuation of ordinary conversation. Four-letter words displaced commas, and the profane attack on any established institution, from church to motherhood, became vital to the hipster's jargon. The end product is a man like...
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[What] explains Bruce's unique effect? Certainly, his impact cannot be attributed to his material alone. By now, so completely have the so-called "sick" comics caught on—and so quickly has the authentic radical satire of a few years ago been rendered innocuous by sheer acceptance and then imitation—that it no longer requires daring, originality, or courage to attack sacred cows like integration, Mother's Day, the Flag. Such things are done, albeit in diluted form, virtually on every network. Yet Bruce seems immune from that permissiveness that is in the end perhaps more subversive of true protest than censorship. Uniquely among members of his profession (and matched in others perhaps only among jazz musicians), Bruce continues to shock, to infuriate, to be the subject on the one hand of a passionate and almost unprecedented advocacy, and on the other of a constant surveillance amounting to persecution, so that today, at the height of his drawing power, it is doubtful whether a club in New York would dare to book him. (pp. 312-13)
Bruce's vision forbids the smallest hint of self-congratulation, allows no comfortable perch from which the audience can look complacently down on the thing satirized. Even his "conventional" routines take a bizarre and violent course which transforms them into something quite different from mere parody. There is one, for instance, in which an "ordinary white American" tries to put a Negro he has met at a...
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Bruce has been exiled from the American way of laughter because of his unyielding insistence on excavating his material from our most cherished hypocrisies and most anxious self-images. His main trouble, and it's getting worse, has come from his attempts to make "dirty" words innocently naked again. He is engaged in showing what those words—and reactions to them—disclose of the sexual and other hang-ups of the moyen American….
For the most part, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People is scoured of self-pity. Essentially it is a sometimes piercingly funny account of the odyssey of Leonard Alfred Schneider, battling through the myths endemic to a Jewish upbringing in New York, seeing other parts of the world from the outside as a Navy gunner and learning the slippery ropes of show business. There are incidents of farce and fraud (with Bruce not always the victim) and sudden illuminations (such as the Marseilles brothel which could have been the setting for Genet's The Balcony). And there are transient times of surcease from being a stubbornly provocative loner (as in his love affair with and marriage to a stripper)….
Bruce's book, like his monologues, is kaleidoscopic in structure, but it has an organic unity in that it keeps coming back to Bruce's unremitting attempts to break through shibboleths and credos-under-glass to find out what is—in himself and in this society. It is a...
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Constant, abrasive irritation produces the pearl: it is a disease of the oyster. Similarly—according to Gustave Flaubert—the artist is a disease of society. By the same token, Lenny Bruce is a disease of America. The very existence of comedy like his is evidence of unease in the body politic. Class chafes against class, ignorance against intelligence, puritanism against pleasure, majority against minority, easy hypocrisy against hard sincerity, white against black, jingoism against internationalism, price against value, sale against service, suspicion against trust, death against life—and out of all these collisions and contradictions there emerges the troubled voice of Lenny Bruce, a night-club Cassandra bringing news of impending chaos, a tightrope walker between morality and nihilism, a pearl miscast before swine. The message he bears is simple and basic: whatever releases people and brings them together is good, and whatever confines and separates them is bad. (p. vi)
[The] primary fact about Bruce … is that he is extremely funny. It is easy to leave that out when writing about him—to pass over the skill with which he plays his audience as an angler plays a big-game fish, and the magical timing, born of burlesque origins and jazz upbringing, that triggers off the sudden, startled yell of laughter. But he is seldom funny without an ulterior motive. You squirm as you smile. With Bruce a smile is not an end in itself, it is...
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John D. Weaver
Two years after the death of Leonard Alfred Schneider …, the Lenny Bruce cult continues to flourish, especially among the young who never saw the prophet, never heard his voice or touched the hem of his garment. They know only his records and his writings, neither of which do justice to the man or his message.
At the peak of his powers, when he populated his pulpit with dozens of flawlessly articulated characters,… Lenny was incomparable, both as a comedian and as an evangelist. Toward the end of his ministry broke and beaten, his face puffy, his gaze uncertain, the man was something of a disaster area and his message had become a bit garbled. Both, however, have claimed the reverence of a generation whose own world is anything but tidy and rational….
In student-union lounges where John Kennedy's thousand days have come to be regarded as Camelot on the Potomac, Lenny's final agony has become Calvary on the Pacific. In this hip version of the Passion Play, Lenny preached against the straighties, was crucified by the fuzz, and resurrected by the under-ground press….
Long before the Flower Children began to flock to the holy land of Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip, Lenny had worked the same wilderness, clearing the way for their sexual candor, their drug hangups, their freakouts. He had preached peace and pot, demanded an end to capital punishment, and called on organized religion to stop...
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Bruce's humor was savage as well as irreverent. A slight, intense figure, he would begin his turn, which lasted, I would guess, perhaps the better part of an hour, with a kind of warmup chat, and follow it with a couple of set routines. The chat [was] a somewhat disjointed "free-association" affair having to do with aspects of contemporary life that Bruce either admired or despised, and raddled with the obscenities that were to hobble him…. [He would then settle] into one or another of his memorable plotted efforts, such as the hilarious "Comic at the Palladium," in which his latent skill as an actor was at its most apparent, or "Religions, Inc.," that biting investigation of the executive level in organized religion. He lit up the night, there's no denying it, [with] his one-man war against cant and hypocrisy in high places…. The impression he gave was that of a cocky, half-educated young man bursting with opinions. (pp. 92, 95)
By the time of "The Berkeley Concert," which occupies about an hour and a half, the substantial routines of old had given way entirely to the small-talk approach that had once taken up just the first part of his act. It is, though, of course, no ordinary small talk; it is glittering, corrosive, and generally funny talk divided into various topics, one deftly flowing into another, and with occasional remarks that illuminate or summarize something discussed much earlier. There is probably too much...
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At one level [Bruce's] pitiable disasters amount only to another standard-form show biz fall—a chapter to be fitted between, say, James Dean and Janis Joplin. But at a different level the story moves out through the politics of obscenity to broad themes of responsibility—a range of unmet and largely unacknowledged moral and pedagogical obligations flowing from the intensified egalitarianism of the present age. Bruce's agonies, viewed in the latter perspective, cease to seem merely accidental or personal. And the reckoning made of them, by those who from year to year recover the performer to memory, emerges as a guide to conventional wisdom across the spectrum of contemporary cultural politics. (p. 88)
Lenny Bruce was unquestionably tormented by personal ambition, by resentment of the humiliations suffered by every "common" entertainer (celebrities inspire curiosity and judgmental scrutiny, not respect), and by awareness of the shabbiness, stupidity, and uncreativity of performers publicly regarded as his peers. But other forces drove him hard, and among these none seems to have matched the potency of the encouragement and tutelage of his educated audiences—hip reviewers, political and cultural liberals. The latter took up this comedian as a spokesman—at another level from theirs, naturally—a performer capable of translating the taunts at official morality hitherto contained in unread modern classics or small-circulation...
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[Why do] they love him, this over-40 veteran of the strip circuit and the sleazy clubs, who had become more or less famous without ever making it big?
What, in short, had—has—Lenny Bruce to do with [the] counter culture?… Lenny never, rigorously never, said "look away" or "look higher" or "deeper." Lenny always said "look squarely at." [J.R.R.] Tolkien, sure. [Hermann] Hesse, sure. [Robert] Heinlein, fascist implications and all, sure; you remember about that, too. But Lenny.
Was it because Lenny had had a drug bust? Identification? Hell, Robert Mitchum had a drug bust. Why not Bill Graham Presents In Concert GENE KRUPA? And anyway Lenny never talked about "the psychedelic experience," or any of the rest of that mid-'60s Learyesque Huxterism that made such good songs for Hair.
Was it some prophetic quality? Ralph J. Gleason has suggested that. But he is even older than Lenny Bruce, and for all his fame as a writer about the rock culture he was never as good (forgive me, Ralph) as when he was writing about jazz and its culture. Because that was Ralph's culture, too; he didn't report it, he lived in it. And so did Lenny, that was his culture (yes, and mine too). "I don't understand Chubby Checker," Lenny says in the 1961 performance on this record; but he tells a joke about Gene Ammons.
No, not a prophet, I think…....
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Before the Kuhs [the reference is to prosecuting attorney Richard Kuh] of his country wore him down, Lenny had become a prodigiously skillful juggler of images, fantasies, flashbacks, jump cuts—all fused into a constantly surprising stripping of personal and social history to the antic bones of the American way of life. Many American ways of life. By then, the mores of show business interested him much less than the opaque barriers behind which all manner of unmeltable ethnics and unbridgeable classes girded themselves for daily survival by making self-deception the only true national faith….
Although everything he said inevitably, inextricably, related to his own pilgrim's progress into the quicksand, the man was protean. In his crackling kaleidoscopic way, Lenny was this age's stand-up equivalent of [Honore] Balzac and [Charles] Dickens. The novel may no longer have been bringing the news of how "the others" live, but Lenny was.
What exactly was he? Not an intellectual; certainly not an ideologue. Yes, he was a performer, but in a quite new dimension. "I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce."
He was also not a writer. Just as writing down the notes of a [John] Coltrane solo takes all the overwhelming life out of it, so written transcripts of Bruce at his improvisatory work are as bleakly misleading as imitations of him….
The only way to connect with the meaning of Lenny—at...
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Bruce's acts depended to a great extent on a multitude of masks, as swiftly dropped as assumed, and each distinguished by a particular tone of voice and manner of delivery. Each act, moreover, would be lavishly decked out with a highly refined version of Victor Borge's "verbal punctuation," and continually interrupted by an exclamatory voice which must be taken to represent the reactions of Bruce the man to the statements of Bruce the comedian. The seriousness of his performances—and they were serious, though it is easy to overestimate just to what extent—depended on the multiple levels of implication that these devices suggested…. Bruce's shows were built around units, dramatic scenes, which he often repeated in future shows, but never in the same order and always with the addition of some novelty. The order and nature of the items was dictated by the need to build shows with a dramatic 'shape' to them, as well as by local considerations such as the threat of yet another prosecution or the mood of the audience. (p. 311)
Bruce's whole career depended on his ability to express his outrage at the world which he found himself in whilst simultaneously carrying his audience along with him. It would be false to say that the things which he said were in themselves outrageous, since the force of his act depended on his ability to keep the sympathetic attention of his audience and in order to do this he had to offer something more subtle...
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Bruce's life was disturbed and soiled by the physical, social and moral mess which city life on its lower levels often fosters. His attitude toward male sexuality, for instance, was distorted. He asserted with unconcealed pleasure that men are incapable of fidelity. But he was essentially intelligent, observant, extraordinarily receptive to a wide range of impressions. He was fundamentally honest and, for all that was coarse in him, he possessed an acute sensibility. He seems to have absorbed everything from his environment, so that while he was infested with its poisons, he was also sound enough to eject them in dismay, mockery and laughter. The result was ambiguous and, for those who are themselves balanced, largely salutary.
Bruce uncovered the sores of our urban life. He disclosed its filth and confusion without shame because he regarded them as the reality of contemporary existence. He thought them "funny" and was still keen enough to know that they were humanly destructive and that they had their source in the corruption of our society. His "art" was therefore partly a symptom of diseases of which we are victims and, in greater part, a curative. In this way it served a satiric function. If we do nothing but guffaw at its improprieties, we betray complicity with its negative aspects; if we also view it as evidence of what is noxious in the world about us, we must applaud it.
There are artistic as well as...
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Probably too much has been and will be made of Lenny Bruce. For all his passion for truth, his vision was one-dimensional and circumscribed by the world of strip-joints, jazz, narcotics and obsessive sex in which he lived. There is a primitive honesty in this world, perhaps, but he was mistaken to believe that it represents the "truth," a basic heritage that we are all afraid to face. In his last years, his satire, when it was not a tantrum of abuse, was often a self-righteous lecture. His defenders who compare him now to Swift are overstating the case considerably: granting that "Lenny was his own act," in Nat Hentoff's phrase, and that he cannot be fairly recaptured in transcripts, imitations or even recordings, his body of work, by any definition, was pathetically slim. (p. 214)
Michael Murray, "Media: Wilbur Mills and Lenny Bruce," in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CI, No. 8, November 29, 1974, pp. 213-14.∗
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Nature had designed Lenny Bruce to be the kamikaze of the angry comics. He had an inexhaustible fountain of rage frothing up inside him. He also had the sort of spirit that exults in shaming people, and turning them bottomside up. (p. 184)
Lenny Bruce was a hipster. Lenny stood at the exact focal point of that great myth of the fifties: the Underground Man. In that age of universal conformity, it was believed, there lurked beneath the familiar surface of life an anachronistic underworld of ruthlessly appetitive and amoral beings who achieved heroic intensities through the violence of their rebellion against the middle-class norms. (p. 194)
Lenny aimed to be a real hipster. He hung out with the heavy cats—got right down with them. When he took off some okeydoke spook, he had the sound! He could get his voice up in that high falsetto jive range. Do those long, boxed-out pauses—those four-bar rests. Come up with the kind of words that you couldn't find in any Hiptionary….
Actually, the ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image. (p. 195)
The vocal impression was not only the basic building block of Lenny's act; it became...
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[Bruce] arrived at an innovation that was, for its time, genuinely revolutionary: he would synthesize the vocation of nightclub comedian with the point of view of a radical social critic. In this way, Lenny was able to reach far greater numbers—and, no less crucial, reach them at a visceral level where his words demanded to be taken seriously—than the intellectual radicals were ever able to do. This, alas, was probably the key to his undoing. Had he been content to write his satirical scenarios in, say, Partisan Review or the New York Review, he probably would be alive—and wholly obscure—today. (p. 24)
If it was Bruce's mass appeal that set him apart from other social critics, it was his radical stance that distinguished him from run-of-the-mill supper club comedians, however gifted. Unlike these performers, Lenny never restricted his wit to safe, socially accepted but essentially trivial topics…. Implicitly, his contention was that no proposition ought to be immune from such scrutiny, whether the case for immunity was made on the basis of sacred status or its secular equivalent, "national security."
It is possible, though probably not ascertainable, that Lenny's probing of society's leading institutions and ideologies became increasingly more radical than he had originally intended, as the pace of harassment by the police, the courts, and the other guardians of the status quo was stepped up....
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Lenny Bruce's life was an event in the history of radical culture in America, as well as an episode in the development of comedy. From beginnings as a lousy Jewish "comic" whose jokes were soggier than the knaidlach at the Concord, he created a raucous and raunchy style that turned tastelessness into high humor….
[By] the early Sixties he had gathered a reputation and a following that marked the breakout of beat art into mass culture. If you accept the validity of such milestones, the Underground began with Bruce….
[Bruce's art] was perverse, radical, lower-class and unassimilatedly Jewish….
Lenny Bruce was threatening to "square" America (at least to those square Americans who encountered him) precisely because of [these] qualities…. Bruce had his antecedents (Sahl, Shelley Berman), his contemporaries (Joseph Heller, Vonnegut) and his descendants (R. Crumb, Dick Gregory, the Fugs, the Firesign Theater). But he was not simply a point on the continuum of humor from Milton Berle (the "Sherman Hart" of the movie) to Monty Python. (p. 46)
Bruce both outstripped his times and fell behind them, in his own life no less than in his humor. There was no simple progression from ignorance to revelation; he always worked both sides of the contradictions.
Today we would call him a committed sexist. "Chicks are different," he told his audiences, and his wife and...
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