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 his girl friend felt him act out that belief. It is said … that he despised women: and it has been offered in argument that his wife, his mother, and his daughter—three women—were the only important people in his life. The argument does not necessarily contradict the proposition. Those women were immensely important to him—in their wifely, motherly, and daughterly roles. But they were still different, which made it "natural" for men to have casual sex and unattached lives, while women were "emotionally involved" and trapped in dependencies. He routinely (a bit too routinely) made "fag jokes" that only occasionally made the same points about the oppression of homosexuals that he made in every story, no matter how outrageous, about blacks, or Vietnamese, or just plain schlemiels. But the long (and tiresome) tirades about the injustices of the justice system went far ahead of the radical analyses of his day, and he saw clearly the banality of tolerance before [Herbert] Marcuse made the notion academically fashionable….
Bruce was not so much a genius at comedy as a forceful actor—on stage and off. He was the first famous dropout of the Sixties: a star who threw it all away not really to prove a point but to prove the pointlessness of it all…. "Words are my weapons," he said, but he was wrong…. His life was his weapon. Words are words.
It wasn't the dirty words that got Bruce into trouble, but his way of presenting himself around the words. What it came down to was a question of perspective: "a lot of shit with a little art in the middle, or a lot of art with a little shit in the middle." (p. 47)
Bruce put his body on the line for the great cultural revolution of the American Sixties, a political event of mixed blessings to be sure, but now a recognized historical development. I think that his greatest contribution was existential; that is, he dug it and did it when that was not only unpopular but unfamiliar: hence insane, "sick." But he also made important advance gifts of style and substance to what became known as the Underground.
For one example: he conveyed and to an extent translated jive talk and the cool...
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mannerisms of black musicians into the square and straight white world. And to that he added usages of his own that became part of standard white "youth" vocabularies a decade after his death. (pp. 48-9)
Beyond that, he was one of the first comic stars to use the nostalgic heroes of popular culture as the butt of his humor. The Lone Ranger shtick (which can be seen as an animated short, Thank You, Masked Man), the Little Orphan Annie routine, and his characterization of movie stereotypes actually constituted a new style of satirical comedy. It's now commonplace, of course, to evoke nostalgic images for whatever trivial reasons. But 15 years ago that process broke through some of the mystification of standard middle-class culture and created a counter to it. Bruce's art was "pop" at its most bitter, and its best.
The last area of ground-breaking Bruce surveyed was sex. Not only did he "talk black" and make cruel jokes about Jackie Kennedy and Little Orphan Annie: he put all that in a sexual context. Burlesque comedians, of course, had been laying on smut for years (and Lenny was literally in that tradition). But they never talked about the First Lady's bosom or rambled on about intercourse with a chicken.
A lot of demolition and excavation work went on before the new foundations of a sexually liberated sensibility began building just a few years ago, and Bruce was there at the start with his own steel ball and dirty spade. The contradictions in his own sexual behavior—as well as within his routines—could not be resolved until the new structures were around for support. Bruce needed the women's and gay movements and the generalized sexual liberation consciousness to help him over his humps and hang-ups: not as therapy, of course, but to provide an alternative to ways of thinking that he had no external basis to question. For instance, his striking preoccupation with homosexuality and what he called "deviation" may or may not have sprung from anxiety or confusion about his own sexuality…. But until there were accepted ways for other people to talk about such matters, and understand them, Bruce had to make his own blind stabs in the dark. It is a sign of his remarkable intuition that so many of them were aimed at the right place.
Bruce had the anti-hero's typical dismal view of himself all along: the anti-egoist's own form of ego-tripping. "All my humor is based on destruction and despair," he said rather grandly. And not so grandly: "I'm a prisoner in a goddamn B movie." He was still, after all, a beatnik; in the absence of promising movements for change, it was every deviate for himself against an unyielding system. I usually recoil from the argument used in apologies for failed political leaders, like John Kennedy, that they would have been somehow "different" or better if they had lived to see the changes that came after their deaths. But it may just be true in Bruce's case. How he would have connected with the quite different world and changed heads just a few years after he died must be speculation, but not entirely the idle kind. Because now we can see him, hear him and read about him against the perspective of a decade he helped to inform. (p. 49)
Andrew Kopkind, "Resurrection of a Junkie Prophet," in Ramparts (copyright, 1975, by Noah's Ark, Inc. (for Ramparts Magazine); reprinted by permission), Vol. 13, No. 6, March, 1975, pp. 45-9.