Lenny Bruce

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Jonathan Miller

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Bruce is a beat magician, a Yiddish Ariel whose hesitant, mumbling, slipped-gear technique, full of breaks and riffs, untunes the ear of the conventional night-club audience who are used to getting their entertainment in a smooth flow of glossy chatter. He is not a public utility though. He mines his material from odd, irregular veins, surprising himself, as often as not, when he strikes a seam of original humor…. Following his act is like reading [James Joyce's] Finnegan's Wake over and over. (p. 150)

He has been called a sick comedian and yet I don't think the label could have been applied more inappropriately. He deals, it is true, with sex and disease, sometimes with unsettling frankness, but never with relish or just for kicks. He is a collagist, assembling the fragments of urban consciousness without much regard for conventions or taboo. He is almost a verbal Pop artist, pasting together the thousand sordid images of the urban American imagination. (pp. 150-51)

He is not just a snobbish satanist although many of his followers get a lot of satisfaction imagining themselves as members of a new Hellfire aristocracy. Bruce himself is too much of a naive, too innocent in a sense to get much of a social charge from his own ironies. He is really some sort of grubby simpleton whose very lack of sophistication lets him squint through the tissues of modern hypocrisy. He plays the bewildered rural innocent rather than the knowing urban cynic and his encounters with the absurdities of prejudice derive more force from this tone of untutored astonishment than they would from those glib ironies which come so easily out of initiated Weltschmerz. It is refreshing to enjoy this ignorant amazement as he draws up short in the face of color bars, prudishness, and all the other self-lacerating hypocrisies with which America is so unnecessarily tortured. He can exorcise, by astonishment alone, the black magic of four letter words. He simply goes on reciting them at his stunned audiences until the words are emptied of their meaning. Then in a mood of ecstatic re-appraisal he recharges them with joyful and entirely shameless significance. "You only want me for my body," he mincingly mimics some tendentious broad. "For what nicer thing could I want you," he snaps back with startling simplicity. This almost brash simplification often offends those who would otherwise be his most enthusiastic ally. But then he is not preaching to the converted. He rises to the occasion best of all in the conventional niteries where the bull-necked men from out of town are stung to uncontrollable fury by his gadfly innocence. "That's not very funny. Or perhaps I'm just too old to understand this sort of thing. Tell me, is it funny?" Bruce is really Peter Pan, who makes a therapeutic virtue of his failure to grow up, and one really doesn't have to be very new-fashioned to appreciate him. Nostalgic rather, like the romantic poets who out of their childhood suck up joy and a capacity for shocked amazement, surely the best prophylactic against callousness and bored indifference. (pp. 154-55)

Jonathan Miller, "The Sick White Negro," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1963 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring, 1963, pp. 149-55.

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