[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 party at ease. The predictable blunders with their underlying viciousness … are within the range of any gifted satirist with his heart in the right place; but Bruce gives the screw an added turn by making the protagonist, besotted with temporary virtue, a forthright and entirely ingenuous Jew-hater as well—sincerely making common cause with the Negro. This is closer to surrealism than to simple farce, a fantasy on the subject of bigotry far more startling than a merely perfect sociological rendition of the accents of race hatred would have been. And as the routine proceeds, the fantasy gets wilder and wilder, with the white man becoming more and more insinuatingly confidential in his friendliness … and the Negro becoming progressively stiffer and more bewildered. (p. 313)
Until a few years ago, this kind of humor had never been seen in a night club or theater. It appeared to be completely original, yet obviously it mined a rich, seemingly inexhaustible vein and was, moreover, enforced by a highly finished technique. Critics responded to Bruce at first as though he were sui generis, a self-created eccentric of genius without discernible origins. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. What Lenny Bruce is doing today in public had been done for years in private, not only by him, but by dozens of amateurs all over New York City—at private parties, on street corners, in candy stores. His originality consists in his having been the first to use the private urban language in public, and his genius lies in his ability to express the ethos out of which he comes in unadulterated form.
He is, in other words, a genuine folk artist who stands in a relation to the lower-middle-class adolescent Jewish life of New York not unlike that of [jazz musician] Charlie Parker to the Negroes of Harlem. And like Parker, he derives his strength from having totally available to himself—and then being able to articulate—attitudes, ideas, images, fragments of experience so endemic to a culture that they scarcely ever come to conscious awareness. Thus for many people the shock of watching Bruce perform is primarily the shock of recognition. (pp. 313-14)
[The] comic's sensitivity to...
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imperfection and ugliness is heightened by a conviction of his own inadequacy, vulgarity, and hypocrisy, leading him to become doubly intolerant of these faults in others. They haunt him, they are demons which he seeks to exorcise by comic confrontation. The psychological source of such satire is, thus, a persistent, ineradicable hatred of the self, and this is particularly striking in the case of Bruce, whose sense of moral outrage is intimately connected with an awareness of his own corruption…. If the practitioner of this kind of comedy is in any way morally superior to his audience, it is only because he ishonest, and willing to face himself, while they, the audience, are blind enough to think they are pure. (p. 314)
[The] novelty of [Mort] Sahl's act undoubtedly stimulated Bruce's own breakthrough and there was an audience ready to respond to Bruce's first original creation—a series of satirical bits based on a potent symbol evolved in the early "home-cooking" days—the shingle man.
A type of "con" man prevalent in the 40's, the shingle man spent much of his time on the road, usually traveling in groups, doing comic routines, smoking marijuana, taking time off now and then to talk gullible slum residents into buying new roofing. Though strictly a small-time operator, the ruthlessly manipulating shingle man came, in Bruce's universe, to represent any and all wielders of power and authority—up to and including the most grandiose. The great world, in short—all political, social, or religious activity—is nothing but a gigantic racket run by shingle men. (pp. 314-15)
Lavishly applying the metaphor of the shingle man to every social institution in the book, Bruce embarked upon a career whose underlying intention has remained constant, though his style has gone through many changes: to set up a remorselessly unqualified identification of power and respectability with corruption. (p. 315)
While he lacks the dramatic gifts of Elaine May, Sid Caesar, or Jonathan Winters—with their actors' techniques of mimicry, foreign accents, and sound effects—Bruce is nevertheless at his best in personal narratives put across with just a suggestion of the dramatic. His work, in fact, is intensely personal and provides an obvious outlet for his private rage; nevertheless, there is a part of Bruce that is utterly disinterested. Like any satirist, he knows that the only effective way to attack corruption is to expose and destroy it symbolically; that the more elaborately and vividly this destruction is imagined, the greater will be his own satisfaction, and the more profound the cathartic effect on the audience…. [He] has taken on himself the role of exorcising the private fears and submerged fantasies of the public by articulating in comic form the rage and nihilistic savagery hidden beneath the lid of social inhibition. (p. 316)
[Bruce regards his audience] as an object of sadistic lust, he hates and loves it; it is the enticing enemy, and he attacks it repeatedly. In the past his aggression was masked, but now it is naked. He may pick up a chair and menace a patron; if the audience laughs, he will observe soberly that he might have killed the man and that if he had, everyone would have accepted the murder as part of the act. Here he demonstrates, almost in the manner of a classroom exercise, the repressed violence of modern society. By making the audience laugh at incipient murder, he has tricked them into exposing their own savage instincts. The implication is that given the slightest excuse for condoning a killing, even the absurd rationale of its being part of a nightclub act, society would join eagerly in the violence it so conscientiously deplores.
This public display of the ugly, the twisted, the perverse—offensive though it is at times—nevertheless serves a vital function, for it gives the audience a profound sense, not only of release, but of self-acceptance. Again and again, Bruce violates social taboos—and he does not die! Like the witch doctor or the analyst, he brings the unconscious to light, and thereby lightens the burden of shame and guilt. By its very nature his material cannot come out clear, decorous, and beautifully detached; it must be, and is, charged with self-pity, self-hatred, fear, horror, crudity, grotesquerie.
What is unsatisfactory in Bruce's work is his frequent failure to transmute his rage into real comedy. Sometimes he has nothing more to offer than an attitude ("Everything is rotten. Mother is rotten. The flag is rotten. God is rotten.") At other times, what starts with a promise of rounded development will flatten out into a direct and insulting statement. A sophisticated listener forgives the comic these lapses, understanding that the ad lib approach and the often intractable material are apt to betray the performer into mere obscenity; but people with no natural sympathy for this approach are shocked and offended—there has never been a lack of people in the audience to walk out during Bruce's act.
The reason for these occasional lapses into crudity is the almost total lack of "art" in Bruce's present act; he deliberately destroys the aesthetic distance which is a convention of the theater, established by tacit agreement between audience and performer that what is happening on the stage is an illusion of life, rather than life itself. Like other performers who deal in direct communication, Bruce has always tried to reduce the barrier between the stage and reality. He has never wanted to appear as an entertainer doing an act, but rather as himself, no different onstage from off, not really a performer, but a man who performs in order to share with others his most secret thoughts and imaginings. The desire, however, to eradicate the distinction between art and reality has at this stage almost completely destroyed the artistry with which Bruce formerly presented his material. Gone, now, are the metaphors of the shingle man and the show business manipulator; gone, too, are the story-telling devices of the personal narrative and the dramatic impersonations. All that remains are sketchy, often underdeveloped, sometimes incoherent, scraps of former routines. (pp. 316-17)
Albert Goldman, "The Comedy of Lenny Bruce" (reprinted by permission of The Sterling Lord Agency, Inc.; copyright © by Albert Goldman), in Commentary, Vol. 36, No. 4, October, 1963, pp. 312-17.