Lenny Bruce

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Albert Goldman

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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 eventually his model for any sort of artistic statement. An instant shock of recognition, precipitating in a few highly charged seconds a whole wealth of accumulated associations and lending itself readily to dramatic manipulation in skits, bits and movie parodies. As Lenny ultimately saw, you could treat any subject the same way you did a movie star's accent. You could drop back, narrow your eyes, pick out the salient details and roll them up in a tight little verbal ball that would hit like a bullet…. [Eventually] everything became an impression.

When Lenny got into his hot creative period …, he parlayed all his monologist's tricks into a series of classic movie parodies that were direct descendants of Sid Caesar's movie takeoffs. These movie parodies, Lenny's true masterpieces, are really nothing more than large-scale impressions. Instead of doing one character or two characters in a famous scene from some current picture, he does a whole film. He takes off a whole cast of characters and does all the incidental sounds…. (p. 200)

What Lenny did achieve during his first fame … was a single comprehensive metaphor for human experience that grew out of his profound ambivalence toward show business and especially the character of the comedian. You find this basic metaphor in all his greatest work, which invariably poses the question: What if all the great people of this world—heroes of legend, leaders of nations, powers, potentates, principalities, the mighty God Himself—are simply the sort of crude, cynical shyster businessmen and degenerate hustlers that you find on Broadway, the New Jersey shingle business or out on the road pushing baby pictures, Swiss watches and fancy white leatherette Bibles? (pp. 202-03)

The first, and in some ways the greatest application of this new satiric metaphor is a famous routine called Religions, Inc. (p. 203)

In this most familiar of all Lenny Bruce bits, it's perfectly obvious that he has not only expanded the premise—"organized religion is big business"—to Rabelaisian proportions, but he has also rendered with extraordinary accuracy and insight the little worlds of the Bible salesman and the redneck preacher and the telephone-cradled-on-the-neck theatrical agent talking through...

(This entire section contains 3968 words.)

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the night to his "act" out there on the road. Even today—after the record has been played a hundred times and the routine is imprinted on the mind like an old Pepsi-Cola commercial—the exhilarating impiety, the comical obscenity of that last conversation fills the mind with silent laughter. What a way to address the Pope—"HEY, JOHNNY! WHAT'S SHAKIN', BABY!" (p. 204)

Lenny's greatest adventure in TV land—his biggest shot at the medium in a whole lifetime—took place [as a program in the series One Night Stand, which featured bright new entertainment personalities]…. The World of Lenny Bruce was planned as a hipster's vision of New York. It was to be a map of Lenny's sensibility: his favorite neighborhoods and entertainments, his private discoveries and special kicks. Above all, it was to be a dazzling demonstration of Lenny's sophistication—of his absolute and effortless command of all those mysteries that were being touted to the general public as the preoccupations of the essential heavyweights, beginning with jazz and ending with [French Impressionist painter Claude] Monet. (p. 231)

Poor Lenny! He was doomed from the first notes, and hadn't the wit to break off somewhere early on and turn the whole thing into a gag….

Lenny's only proper medium was the small, dark, intimate nightclub, where he could take complete possession of the audience's mind, alternately seducing and antagonizing it, making it laugh and think, fascinating it with the rapid zigzag of his own mind and imprinting finally upon it an indelible impression of himself as the most brilliant, funny, charming, handsome and wise young man in the entertainment business. That was the impression Lenny achieved effortlessly in dozens of club settings all through his career…. (p. 233)

Lenny was most creative when he was most unhappy. During this triumphant era [his first engagement in New York at the Den in the Duane], he lacked the powerful motivation of tsuris, the etching acid that thrown on the soft shifty surface of his mind would burn away all the illusions and nonsense and reveal the stark outlines of his deepest emotions and convictions. Yet so compelling was the creative momentum that he had built up in the preceding two years that even at this moment of eccentric tinkering with TV and cabaret theater—and every-night dope-partying—he could still gather his wits together and fashion a masterpiece: the single most important composition of his entire career.

As anyone who knew Lenny back in those days will tell you, The Palladium was his favorite among all his bits. He regarded it as something apart from the general run of his work, and he treated it accordingly. (p. 235)

What makes The Palladium great is simply the fact that it is Lenny Bruce confronting his own essence. There was only one world that Lenny ever mastered and that was the smarmy little world of small-time show biz. Everything that Lenny achieved as a satirist depended on his ability to translate the great world into this little world. Having used the show-biz metaphor brilliantly to burlesque the high and mighty from the Vatican to the White House, Lenny finally turned the genius of his satire on his own metaphor, his own world and his own self in this climactic bit. (p. 236)

Impersonating [the] English conductor and the house booker, who enters the story later, he achieved a perfection of tone and attitude that is unmatched anywhere else in his bits. What these characters represented in Lenny Bruce's scheme of things was simply the coldest, most sharply crystallized ice of contempt for show business, with its mediocre talents and idiotic stage tricks. The characters were the mouthpieces of Lenny's own scorn. The fact that they're English and therefore—in Lenny's eyes—innately snobbish and condescending makes the irony of the comic's aspiration to "class" even keener. Indeed, the whole transposition of this story of comic hubris to England can be considered a device for intensifying the hate-charge to laserlike destructiveness. (p. 237)

Where the routine [ends] is not with a punch line but with a prophecy. Having made his ultimate statement about show biz—having castigated its desperate whoring after status, its preposterous smugness, its crybaby sentimentality and its secret contempt for the public it fawns upon—Lenny Bruce forecasts with the anarchic conclusion of this bit the future of his own art. Impelled by such a passion of moral disapprobation, alienated on every level from the business in which he makes his money, heaping scorn and derision and contempt upon the whole idea of the stand-up comic, he obviously had to make a move that would dissociate himself completely from the despised self-image of the laff-grabber. How he would do this, what steps would lead him off the stage and into the arena of violent gladiatorial contention with the lions of law and order—all this must have been remote from his conscious mind when he created The Palladium. That it was not so remote from his imagination and his unconscious mind—much the same thing in his case—is proven by the bit. At the end, the message is perfectly clear. When the comic gets good and angry at the audience's failure to respond, he reaches for something heavier than a joke. He reaches for an emotional hand grenade and lobs it right into the house. Not surprisingly, it explodes—and the first person it kills is the comic! That was the prophecy implicit in the conclusion of Lenny Bruce's greatest routine. That he was talking about himself is clear from the booker's last speech, in which he mentions both Lenny's actual age at this time—thirty-four years old—and his addiction to narcotics: a stroke of characterization that would be utterly inappropriate to any Frank Dell type.

Lenny Bruce was talking about Lenny Bruce in The Palladium. He was castigating and casting out the ghost of his old self—the dumb putzy kid with his picture in the shoe-store window—and he was unconsciously predicting the course of his future career after the time when he had abandoned comedy for something far more desperate and earnest—the reshaping of the theater. For which you may read: American society, which more than any society since ancient Rome has taken show business as the symbol of its national values. (pp. 244-45)

The year 1960 marked a period of high professionalism in Lenny's development, and when he began to pick up flack, it wasn't so much because of what he said as because of the attitude with which he articulated these witticisms.

The hostility that had always lain in the back of Lenny's soul, the cruelty that sometimes emerged in his personal relations, the cold, radar-directed destructiveness that darted out in his deadly putdowns—these traits were now beginning to inform his nightclub act. Instead of superficially shocking the audience while subliminally wooing them, Lenny was now presenting an act that was authentically shocking because the nasty cracks appeared more and more to emerge from a nasty mind. Lenny was getting cold and bitter on the stage; his act was becoming an act of provocation. Always the self-conscious craftsman, he knew exactly what he was doing—or, if you want to get tricky about it, he had furnished himself with a convincing rationalization for what he was prompted to do from the bottom of his heart….

He was utterly sick of the long, carefully plotted bits on which he had based his fame. Doing Religions, Inc. and The Palladium hundreds of times from coast to coast had not only turned him against these once favorite pieces; it had turned him against the very idea of the bit as a miniature drama. Lenny had always seen himself as a jazzman, a cat who just walks out there and blows. Now he had the confidence and the technique to be a real jazzman and work free-form every night. That was exactly what he intended to do. (p. 278)

[In 1962 the] once handsome, animated, brilliant performer and commentator was now a fat, bent, shabby-looking street loafer, a horribly dissipated, baggy-eyed, numb-fleshed junkie, with a tragic darkness in his eyes…. [He] gave off almost palpable waves of alienation, a creepy, repellent aura, like a wounded animal or some deranged old bum who had wandered in from skid row…. There was something ominous about this new Lenny Bruce, something that began with the title of his show—Let the Buyer Beware—and extended through his beat, sinister appearance to emerge full-blown when he opened his mouth and began his hour-long Jeremiad. Talking in bursts, like the angry chatter of a Sten gun, riddling off his grimly phrased bits like excoriating be-bop solos, slamming headlong from one bit to another, with the air of a man restlessly groping for some combination of words that will adequately express his rage and pain and vindictive antagonism toward the world at large…. (p. 392)

What he had to say wasn't so much the issue anymore as the way he chose to say it. There were old bits like the Shelley Berman number and the Negro at the party. There were recent pieces like We Killed Christ, and the election of Norman Thomas. There were things that came out of that week's newspaper and out of his recent arrests in Los Angeles. What characterized all this material and held it together—in a unity that Lenny's act had never before possessed—was the mordant, biting tone with which every subject was seized and slashed and slapped in the audience's face. By pressing and compressing every bit until it achieved a harsh, strident musical line, by volleying these bits one after another into the audience's mind with no softening of tone or relenting of vigor, Lenny created a phantasmagoric nightscape, a wretched, suffering and embittered world. Like another Juvenal excoriating another Rome, Lenny lashed out at the hypocrisy, the cant, the self-deluding moralism of the police, the politicians, the liberals and the journalists. He also lashed himself in the guise of the Good Man, the man who says, "When I cheat, I always tell my wife." That was a new bit and its sour-mouthed irony encapsulated the mood of the whole show…. Men and women, husbands and wives, they make each other wretched and they drive their kids crazy, schlepping them back and forth in endless family quarrels.

So much for the family, that happy American home that Norman Rockwell and his ilk were always celebrating…. Now, we take the next step up the ladder of social organization to the body politic: our country, right or wrong. How right is our country, Lenny began to ask, when it stations its armies over half the earth, lets its troops rape Italian mothers for candy bars and burns up its enemies at long range with atom bombs? Where is the right and wrong of war? "If the Japs had won, Jim, they would have strung up Truman by his balls!" (pp. 392-93)

That was the new Lenny Bruce. Not brilliant, imaginative or "inside." Not hilariously funny. You couldn't sing it in the back of the cab on the way home from the show. But it was true and it was right…. Like many a man before him, like that archetypal character—the old mad king out on the blasted heath—Lenny Bruce had been humanized through suffering. He had suddenly become a man. That was the meaning of it all—the obesity, the shabby clothes, the harsh tone, the ad hominem appeals to "Jim." Lenny Bruce, the Golden Boy of American comedy—the cute, the clever, the sick little, mean little, bright little master of the Funny-Funny-Funny pinball machine—had become a man! It had taken years. It would cost him his life. But he had finally found his fate and his theme. (p. 394)

Lenny worked at the Village Vanguard from January 3rd to February 10th. The terrible mental pressure of his fears and his angers continued to distend his act during this period, until finally something broke in his brain and he emerged as a startling new stage character—the shaman, exorciser of demons.

"In every primitive tribe," writes the Hungarian psychoanalyst Geza Roheim, "we find the shaman in the center of society, and it is easy to show that he is either a neurotic or psychotic: or at least that his art is based on the same mechanism as a neurosis or psychosis. The shaman makes both visible and public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of society. They are the leaders in an infantile game and the lightning conductors of common anxiety. They fight the demons so that others can hunt the prey and in general fight reality."

The shaman is not a priest, nor is he a medicine man. The closest thing to him in the Western world (shamanism is primarily a phenomenon of oriental civilizations, especially of the peoples who live along the line that descends from Siberia through Tibet to Indonesia) is the exorcist, the caster-out of demons and devils. The shaman, however, is also an artist—an artist who employs his art for the well-being of the tribe. What he offers the tribe is a performance, an act of intense make-believe. Gathering the people together in a lodge, he first puts himself into a trance. Then, through the use of drugs, drums, chants and other devices, he reaches a state of ecstasy. Eventually, he launches out on a spirit voyage. He travels in an imaginary boat or climbs an invisible tree. His destination is the other world. Along his path he encounters demons and gives battle. Every step of the way, every encounter and blow, he describes vividly to his audience, which sits around in fearful concentration. If the shaman reaches his goal in the spirit world and obtains the information or the powers which he is seeking on behalf of his people, his voyage is celebrated as a triumph for the whole tribe. If the shaman fails to reach the goal or loses control of the spirits, he must be killed.

Lenny's act was pure shamanism: the drugs, the lights, the chants and drumbeats. His spooky appearance and strange surrealistic visions. His symbolic acts, like climbing on chairs and throwing open stage doors. The threats of violence, the emoting, the deep primitive psychological fantasies. You could picture him perfectly in the setting described by the books. In the darkened, cavelike club, charged with tension, the audience sits hunched over, tense, breathless, their eyes fastened on the weird figure in the center of the magic circle. While the tribe looks on in fearful absorption, the shaman prepares himself with drugs in anticipation of the terrible struggle with the tribal demons. Then when the "unspeakable" has been shouted forth, there is mingled with the urgent applause a sigh of release. Purged of their demons by the shaman, the tribe has been freed for the moment, to "hunt the prey and … fight reality."

A wondrous achievement! But it entails a danger: losing control of the spirits! Some people want to be aroused and put through profound and shocking experiences. Others not only resist and resent such treatment but want to make it impossible for anyone else to undergo such a séance. As you pondered Bruce's amazing record of recent arrests, you could see that one of his troubles was simply the fact that he was turning everybody on. He had polarized the public: while one group was worshiping him, another was seeking to lock him up. If you followed the parallel of the shaman to its logical conclusion, it was clear that Lenny Bruce was letting the spirits get out of control. He was arousing more demons than he was defeating. If things got bad enough, Lenny might suffer the fate of the failed shaman. The tribe might turn around and kill him. (pp. 401-02)

Lenny was an alienated conservative, an exacerbated conservative, a typical satirist seeking revenge for outraged moral idealism through techniques of shock and obscenity as old as Aristophanes and Juvenal. All satirists are conservatives. It's an axiom of literary criticism: a lesson for sophomore-survey students. Turn Swift or Juvenal or Aristophanes inside out: insist upon the positive content of their beliefs—and what do you find? Something like the Houyhnhnms [in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels]: a cold, abstract, unreal universe of "reason" and "common sense" and "sanity" that is simply the pale moral reflex of unexamined moral prejudices.

Satirists are the last men in the world with whom the liberals and the avant-garde should consort. They are radical only in their choice of words. What they have to express is not a passion for change and improvement or a millennial vision of the earthly paradise but an endless reiteration of the follies and sins of humankind. Satirists are moralists, and the moralists of this world are precisely those people who are in the rear—not the vanguard of society.

Lenny Bruce was a man with an almost infantile attachment to everything that was sacred to the American lower-middle class. He believed in romantic love and lifelong marriage and sexual fidelity and absolute honesty and incorruptibility—all the preposterous absolutes of the unqualified moral conscience. He stood at the opposite extreme from the psychoanalyst or the social worker or the lower-court judge who, day in and day out, is compelled to examine humanity precisely as it is and come to terms with human imperfection. Lenny doted on human imperfection: sought it out and gloated over it—but only so he could use it as a memento mori for his ruthless moral conscience. So that he could sentimentalize and rhapsodize and carry on as if Eve had never bitten the apple. That was the essence of his moral being: that noting and emoting over human sin. A world where things were not conceived in the first instance in moral terms was unthinkable to him—as unthinkable as a world where sin did not instantly bring punishment down upon it. It's true, of course, that when Lenny got very defensive, he would grab sometimes for the clichés of the liberals and radicals: he would say that there was nothing dirty about the body or that "fuck" denoted "warmth" and "love" and that "the mores" were more important that the "the morals." That was Lenny "the philosopher" talking, generally for publication in a local newspaper. The man, the artist, the entertainer operated on different principles: he knew very well what dirty words were, how they struck a middle-class audience and what they denoted in terms of anger and ugliness. After all, in his day he had been "the sickest of the sick comics." The attempt to make Lenny superior to morality, to make him a hippie saint or a morally transcendental artiste, was tantamount to missing the whole point of his sermons, which were ferociously ethical in their thrust and firmly in touch with all the conventional values. (pp. 452-53)

Lenny Bruce was a fuckin' American hero, man. Fighting for the same shit that heroes always fought for in this country. If he was a martyr, it was only because the people of prejudice and limited education didn't understand what he was trying to do. (p. 507)

What Lenny knew at the end—and for many years prior to his death—was that he was in the grip of something much bigger than himself. He was the hero of a myth not of his own making. He was simply its latest embodiment. Just as there were many hanged gods before Christ, there were many brilliantly inspired and desperately self-destructive heroes in the cult of the American Underground. Once Lenny committed himself to the jazz life, to the jazz myth, he was destined to the doom that awaits all such cometlike figures flashing across the American night. He never withheld himself from his fate. Never sought to deflect his destiny. He knew he was doomed as well as he knew his name. (p. 544)

Albert Goldman, in his Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (copyright © 1974 by Alskog, Inc., and Albert Goldman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1974, 545 p.


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