Lenny Bruce

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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 literary magazines into noise that might actually disturb the powerful.

No need for Lenny to become inward with the complicated quarrels of psychoanalytical theorists about the historical meaning and function of repression; exegesis of problems of cultural continuity was also, quite plainly, not on. To burden a comic with the familiar wearying ambiguities of men of mind would be to steal from his power to sting the complacent. He needed to know only enough to sneer. (p. 92)

Bruce was often praised for novelistic invention, the capacity to seize on the single detail that can spring an imagined person or situation into sight. For the present writer the major marvel was Bruce's way of erupting into voices—his sudden jagged furious casting off from himself into multiple personae. How many languages this man knew from inside! With what ferocity, agility, and swiftness he darted among them, snapping, searing, a wild mimetic wire—"early American demagogue," "hick," "old Jewish man," "impersonal commentator," "MCA shill," "senile moron," "delinquent kid," "toughie gunman," "Britisher," "German agent," "religious leader," dozens more. Time and time over the laughter welled from an image of furious incomprehension—somebody stunned to blankness by accents that (in that day) hadn't been heard before….

[Much of Bruce's] best comedy depended on a body of experience—show biz—that the bright-boy fans knew little about. Bruce's fiercest jokes were on his own world, not that of "organized religion" or organized repression. He was forever inviting his audiences to imagine the MCA shill as Universal Man—as Cardinal, as Pope, as President, as key Counselor to Youth: would this not be hell and are we out of it? The irony cut many ways, to be sure, and the comedian's control of it was uncertain, lacking in moral clarity (the comparison with Swift is waffle). But at many moments this "standup joker" has the harsh, aggressive abstractness of the show-biz-exploitative mind in exact focus. And in nailing its unreality he obliquely judged all whom show biz cons. (p. 94)

As goes without saying, Lenny Bruce's life story will sink beyond meaning in an instant if made to bear Symbolic Weight. It is, at the maximum, best seen as one more reminder of the poverty of interaction among the lettered, half-lettered, and unlettered in this avowedly democratizing society—a symptom, maybe, of the casualness with which obligations continue to be sloughed off. (p. 97)

Benjamin DeMott, "Lenny Bruce: Case Continued …," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LV, No. 13, March 25, 1972, pp. 88, 90-2, 94, 97.

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