Lenny Bruce

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Kenneth Tynan

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

Constant, abrasive irritation produces the pearl: it is a disease of the oyster. Similarly—according to Gustave Flaubert—the artist is a disease of society. By the same token, Lenny Bruce is a disease of America. The very existence of comedy like his is evidence of unease in the body politic. Class chafes against class, ignorance against intelligence, puritanism against pleasure, majority against minority, easy hypocrisy against hard sincerity, white against black, jingoism against internationalism, price against value, sale against service, suspicion against trust, death against life—and out of all these collisions and contradictions there emerges the troubled voice of Lenny Bruce, a night-club Cassandra bringing news of impending chaos, a tightrope walker between morality and nihilism, a pearl miscast before swine. The message he bears is simple and basic: whatever releases people and brings them together is good, and whatever confines and separates them is bad. (p. vi)

[The] primary fact about Bruce … is that he is extremely funny. It is easy to leave that out when writing about him—to pass over the skill with which he plays his audience as an angler plays a big-game fish, and the magical timing, born of burlesque origins and jazz upbringing, that triggers off the sudden, startled yell of laughter. But he is seldom funny without an ulterior motive. You squirm as you smile. With Bruce a smile is not an end in itself, it is invariably a means. What begins as pure hilarity may end in self-accusation. (p. vii)

Bruce is the sharpest denter of taboos at present active in show business. Alone among those who work the clubs, he is a true iconoclast. Others josh, snipe and rib; only Bruce demolishes. He breaks through the barrier of laughter to the horizon beyond, where the truth has its sanctuary. People say he is shocking and they are quite correct. Part of his purpose is to force us to redefine what we mean by "being shocked." We all feel impersonally outraged by racialism; but when Bruce mimics a white liberal who meets a Negro at a party and instantly assumes that he must know a lot of people in show business, we feel a twinge of recognition and personal implication. Poverty and starvation, which afflict more than half of the human race, enrage us—if at all—only in a distant, generalized way; yet we are roused to a state of vengeful fury when Bruce makes public use of harmless, fruitful syllables like "come" (in the sense of orgasm) and "fuck." Where righteous indignation is concerned, we have clearly got our priorities mixed up. The point about Bruce is that he wants us to be shocked, but by the right things; not by four-letter words, which violate only convention, but by want and deprivation, which violate human dignity. This is not to deny that he has a disenchanted view of mankind as a whole. Even his least Swiftian bit, the monolog about a brash and incompetent American comic who tries to conquer the London Palladium, ends with the hero winning the cheers of the audience by urging them, in a burst of sadistic inspiration, to "screw the Irish." But the cynicism is just a facade. Bruce has the heart of an unfrocked evangelist. (pp. vii-viii)

Kenneth Tynan, in his foreword to How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce (copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by HMH Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Kitty Bruce as administratrix of the Estate of Lenny Bruce), Playboy Press, 1965, pp. vi-xi.

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