Lenny Bruce

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Frank Kofsky

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1552

[Bruce] arrived at an innovation that was, for its time, genuinely revolutionary: he would synthesize the vocation of nightclub comedian with the point of view of a radical social critic. In this way, Lenny was able to reach far greater numbers—and, no less crucial, reach them at a visceral level where his words demanded to be taken seriously—than the intellectual radicals were ever able to do. This, alas, was probably the key to his undoing. Had he been content to write his satirical scenarios in, say, Partisan Review or the New York Review, he probably would be alive—and wholly obscure—today. (p. 24)

If it was Bruce's mass appeal that set him apart from other social critics, it was his radical stance that distinguished him from run-of-the-mill supper club comedians, however gifted. Unlike these performers, Lenny never restricted his wit to safe, socially accepted but essentially trivial topics…. Implicitly, his contention was that no proposition ought to be immune from such scrutiny, whether the case for immunity was made on the basis of sacred status or its secular equivalent, "national security."

It is possible, though probably not ascertainable, that Lenny's probing of society's leading institutions and ideologies became increasingly more radical than he had originally intended, as the pace of harassment by the police, the courts, and the other guardians of the status quo was stepped up. What is not at all open to question, however, is that his biting satire revealed a profoundly moral passion from the very outset. This was apparent in virtually every "bit."… (pp. 24-5)

If anybody deserves the spiritual credit for inspiring the slogan "Make Love Not War," it would have to be Lenny Bruce. Yet although Bruce … did devote considerable effort to undermining authoritarian ideologies that promoted sexual repression and irrational thinking generally, that was by no means the totality, or even the most important focus, of his work. Rather, Bruce turned his extremely fertile wit and incredibly quick and retentive mind to just about every form of socially sanctioned but logically untenable ideology. (p. 36)

For Lenny, human life loomed larger than ideology, and such slogans as "Better Dead than Red" comprised the real obscenity. (p. 37)

Perhaps the single greatest index of Lenny's independence of thought is manifested in the fact that, unlike virtually everyone else of his generation …, he never succumbed to the massive doses of cold war hysteria that were unleashed upon the U.S. public from above after World War II. Hence he was able to reject out of hand all forms of anticommunist intervention, whether military or ideological…. (p. 38)

Lenny also had the temerity to think the unthinkable, scoffing at the ultimate orthodoxy, that the cold war had resulted from a noble U.S. response to villainous Red aggression…. (p. 39)

[Bruce often displayed] his own considerable ability to hab rachmones (have compassion) for any group or person in need of it. (p. 42)

With typical Bruce perception, Lenny readily grasped the fact that all the crucial issues of domestic politics during the 1960s would be raised by the Black movement for human rights. Just as quickly, he noted that the liberal approach—integration—was fatally flawed by white condescension and paternalism, and was thus doomed to fail. He was too intimately involved with Black people—they comprised, he estimated at one point, about 30 percent of his audience—not to know that they would scarcely be grateful for tokenistic gestures on the part of white liberals. In short, Bruce was able to anticipate the rise of a Black Power movement that would not regard such would-be "friends of the Negro"...

(This entire section contains 1552 words.)

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with anything remotely resembling affection: "Liberal, schmiberal. Um, hm." (p. 43)

If one had to choose a single word to describe the effect that Lenny Bruce had on those who shared [his] moral concern …—keeping in mind that as early as the beginning of the 1960s Bruce was already dealing with the most controversial topics that he would ever touch, and in the most expressive language possible—that word would have to be "liberating." This was particularly true for that generation of young people. (p. 52)

Lenny increasingly served as a major prophet for young cultural and political enemies of the status quo—that is, for the two groups that were subsequently to crystallize as the counterculture on the one hand and the New Left on the other. (p. 53)

It was precisely because Bruce appeared to be such a potent rallying point for young political and cultural dissenters from the conventional wisdom that he was perceived as a threat by Those In Command. To be sure, by comparison with forms of dissent that would come later—ghetto rebellions, massive protest marches involving hundreds of thousands, explicitly radical and even revolutionary political activity, antiwar organizing within the military, and the like—Lenny's merely verbal onslaughts against the status quo may seem a trifle tame. But to judge Lenny by such a standard would be nothing more than an extended exercise in unhistorical thinking. At the time Lenny was at his peak—roughly from 1960 to 1964, a period that, probably not coincidentally, includes most of his nineteen or more arrests—few of these more massive protest activities had erupted through the surface…. Moreover, to a certain immeasurable but nonetheless very real extent, Lenny's work helped clear the decks for later waves of radical political opposition. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement, for instance …, the Yippies, and other militant left-wing groups were in all likelihood partially inspired by Lenny's own recurrent battles for free speech in the San Francisco Bay area. By the standards of the day, Bruce's work constituted a potentially dangerous attempt to undermine the established order, and as a result Bruce was persecuted for it. (pp. 55-6)

The aim of this campaign of Establishment harassment, in my opinion, was to throttle Bruce by preventing him from performing in public. And, regardless of the fact that Bruce ultimately won acquittal in all but one of the cases in which he stood trial (the Los Angeles "narcotics" arrest)—and continued to maintain his innocence even in that one—throttle him it did. (p. 58)

Lenny needed to work, we may hazard a guess, for more reasons than simply the financial ones. Performing inspired him in his most daring and creative thinking. Cut off from employment, he increasingly became obsessed with his legal defense, most likely in the hope that vindication by the courts would make it possible for him to appear in public once more. The details surrounding his death have never been clear…. Suffice it to say that his circumstances … would probably have resulted in the death of individuals whose physical stamina was far greater than frail Lenny's was. (p. 60)

That such a thing as Lenny Bruce the phenomenon did come into existence is a tribute both to his ideas and the skill and intelligence with which Lenny presented them. (p. 61)

His ideas were so explosive, his skill in presenting them so formidable, his ability to win followers so great, that he was marked out for destruction (at the very least, economic destruction through denial of the chance to perform) as a dangerous man. The more successful Bruce became at reaching and moving his audience, the closer he came to signing his own death warrant.

But the supreme contradiction is that the very act of snuffing out Bruce's life helped give posthumous currency to his words—and to his ideas. By compelling Bruce to become a martyr … his persecutors also helped make him a hero…. While his frontal assault on the leading repressive, authoritarian, and irrational ideologies of the status quo was hardly a complete success for Lenny personally, it unquestionably helped hasten the more overt challenges that were being launched even as he was being pushed prematurely into his grave. Many of the values for which he risked and ultimately sacrificed his own life have begun to triumph with the onset of a new generation—the generation that is causing the memory of Lenny Bruce to live on after the man himself is gone. In this way, Lenny starts to emerge victorious over his adversaries; and his victory can only become more secure with the passage of time.

The fact that Lenny is now being eulogized in front of the footlights testifies more vividly than anything else to the powerful effect he has had on the generation that came to maturity during the last decade. Not only are these comparatively young people resurrecting his life and his work but, by sheer weight of numbers, they have made the subject of Lenny Bruce a "respectable" one for their elders as well. Operating here is a well-known principle of dialectics: with a change in quantity at a certain point comes a change in quality. When enough people subscribe to a heresy, it ceases to be heresy. In this way—as with the cold war, the U.S. in Vietnam, integration versus Black nationalism, marijuana, sexual relations without marriage, the status of women in society, the laws on abortion, and countless other topics—it has finally become possible to think the unthinkable about Lenny Bruce: that he was right after all, that the conventional wisdom is—bullshit. (pp. 61-2)

Frank Kofsky, in his Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist (copyright © 1974 by Frank Kofsky), Monad Press, 1974, 128 p.


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