Lenny Bruce

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Douglas Watt

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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 preoccupation with sex, and there are certainly far too many scatological references, but it is, all the same, a performance of considerable virtuosity. The listener, very much aware of the sorry circumstances, is apt to feel, as I did, that Bruce can hardly wait to sting the police, who are unquestionably represented out there in the crowd. His quick and repeated employment of shock words and phrases, along with his blistering comments on the Catholic Church, is now almost surely directed as much at them as at his audience in general, and his little parable about a developing society that is obliged to sign on an enforcer (the man being hired is told confidentially that some people might think it takes "a certain kind of mentality to do that work") unmistakably is….

Bruce was, at this time … fearful of losing the younger audience, to which, by then, racy language had become only mildly stimulating. At any rate, one becomes aware, without unduly exercising one's imagination, of a man practically rushing to an end that may have been propitiously, if unconsciously, timed to keep him from turning into a relic entertaining for handouts in café corners much as, say, Maxwell Bodenheim once peddled copies of his poems in Greenwich Village boîtes. The sad fact is, I suppose, that Lenny Bruce was really a wayward evangelist. Given a law degree and an interest in politics, he might have used them to brilliant purpose, possibly as a Naderlike but witty watchdog of the public interest. But then he wouldn't have been Lenny Bruce, an almost classic figure of the tragedian wearing the mask of comedy. (p. 95)

Douglas Watt, "Musical Events," in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLV, No. 17, June 14, 1969, pp. 92, 95.

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