Lenny Bruce

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John D. Weaver

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Two years after the death of Leonard Alfred Schneider …, the Lenny Bruce cult continues to flourish, especially among the young who never saw the prophet, never heard his voice or touched the hem of his garment. They know only his records and his writings, neither of which do justice to the man or his message.

At the peak of his powers, when he populated his pulpit with dozens of flawlessly articulated characters,… Lenny was incomparable, both as a comedian and as an evangelist. Toward the end of his ministry broke and beaten, his face puffy, his gaze uncertain, the man was something of a disaster area and his message had become a bit garbled. Both, however, have claimed the reverence of a generation whose own world is anything but tidy and rational….

In student-union lounges where John Kennedy's thousand days have come to be regarded as Camelot on the Potomac, Lenny's final agony has become Calvary on the Pacific. In this hip version of the Passion Play, Lenny preached against the straighties, was crucified by the fuzz, and resurrected by the under-ground press….

Long before the Flower Children began to flock to the holy land of Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip, Lenny had worked the same wilderness, clearing the way for their sexual candor, their drug hangups, their freakouts. He had preached peace and pot, demanded an end to capital punishment, and called on organized religion to stop building new monuments to God's glory and start feeding His poor….

To the young, Lenny is a groovy messiah who drove money-changing hypocrites from suburban temples where they had been salivating at the sight of a new and pretty leg in the choir loft. To their elders, he was a foul-mouthed drug addict who lived by the toilet and, fittingly enough, died by the toilet….

A dark, slender, intense young man, he prowled the stage like a nervous cat, clutching a hand microphone. In those early days he punctuated his ramblings with set pieces (Non Skeddo Flies Again, The Kid in the Well, Father Flotski's Triumph, Adolf Hitler and M.C.A.). He used the jargon of the jazz scene, fortified by Yiddish expressions … and the public-rest-room prose that was to become his hallmark. The words at that time were a natural, inconsequential part of his act. In his latter years they were the act.

Lenny found nothing objectionable in the four-letter Anglo-Saxon words that served Britain's hardy islanders well until they learned 11th Century manners from Norman conquerors who taught them to say "fornicate" and "excrement."… He was simply trying to explain that the truly offensive words of the 20th Century have nothing to do with copulation or defecation. Today's dirty words, he contended, are those that put a human being down because of his race, his religion or his national origins….

The ethnic words were intended to shock white Christians, to force them to face deeply buried feelings about black people, Jews and foreigners. The old Anglo-Saxon words made them even more uncomfortably aware of repressed guilt and shame and revulsion. Lenny was dragging his audiences into dark psychic byways they shrank from entering, then flicking on a light switch to show there was nothing to be afraid of.

Audiences squirmed and swallowed crooked, their uneasy laughter making it clear to everyone in the congregation, and especially to themselves, that of course they had never believed in the bogeyman….

In one of his early bits, Lenny acted out a brief encounter with two anti-Semitic Texans who came into a Sunset Strip café one evening when he was having...

(This entire section contains 900 words.)

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dinner. Taking offense at their remarks, Lenny sprang up, adjusted an imaginary cape, and introduced himself as "Superjew." One punch sufficed to send Superjew hurtling backward through the window, depositing him on the pavement in a puddle of blood and broken glass.

Such was the pattern of Lenny's life, the fantasy of the avenging thunderbolt from on high colliding with the reality of a frail nebbish pitting himself against the world's cruelty and violence. Onstage, Superjew's message confounded his elders in the temple, but once the man stepped outside, twenty-five dollars richer for the evening's work, he was simply a lonely schlepper shambling off to an all-night movie on Western Avenue. (p. 72)

Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were products of the Eisenhower years, when the land was awash with pieties and platitudes. Mort struck first, zeroing in on the era's political shortcomings. Lenny attacked its spiritual defects. They were often erroneously dismissed as beatniks, but neither of them had turned his back on society. Quite the contrary, they were calling it to repentance, trying to save it. (p. 74)

Lenny's combination of pacifism and pornography has turned on a peace-loving generation of young rebels at a time when their middle-aged parents have grown accustomed to watching war in living color during the cocktail hour. Small children are free to toddle in while young men are being blown to bits between cigarette commercials, but would be sent packing if they wandered in while a young woman was slipping out of her clothes. On the side of the generation gap where Lenny has come to be revered, the ultimate obscenity is war, not love. (p. 75)

John D. Weaver, "The Canonization of Lenny Bruce," in Holiday (© 1968 Holiday Magazine Corporation; permission to reprint granted by Travel Magazine, Inc., Floral Park, N.Y. 10001), Vol. 44, No. 5, November, 1968, pp. 72-5.


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