Martin Williams

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

Probably it is a symptom of our particular American education that nowadays when a man gets off a few good ones aimed at City Hall or the local upper crust, our journalists will usually describe him as a "devastating social satirist" or something of the sort. Such pronouncements may become heavy burdens even for high comic artists to bear; they form an almost impossible billing for a promising night club comedian. Worse, they may encourage a comedian to look at his work in quite the wrong way.

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Bruce did get off some very good ones. And he had the audacity not of a satirist but of a good low comedian, an audacity that popular American comedy has probably not seen since the heyday of pre-striptease burlesque. No attitude seemed too sacred for Bruce to lampoon, no word too improper for him to utter; he seemed perfectly willing to say absolutely anything. An intriguing airplane sketch on ["The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce"], with Bruce as usual taking all the parts, offered a slovenly pilot who showed up for his flight after a couple of fortifying hours in the airport bar (he is afraid of heights, you see) and proceeded to expose every scurrilous suspicion one has ever secretly entertained about non-scheduled airlines. But Bruce followed this with a perfectly conventional bit about a kid who marked up the walls of the airplane with a crayon. Such irrelevance-for-a-laugh may be accepted low comedy, but it is hardly the sign of a true satirist.

Mostly Bruce saw everything as a part of the milieu of Lenny Bruce. There was a sketch about Hitler's discovery by a talent agency …, about Ike and Nixon …, about policy-making at the AMA …, about a conclave on integration by a group of revivalist preachers. All of these could be effectively lampooned so long as Bruce could pretend the people involved talk like booking agents, actors' managers, and hard-bitten publicity men.

Subsequently Bruce's work has taken a more pointedly superior, not to say self-righteous, position. Or to put it another way, Bruce seems to be losing his sense of comic fun. He had one lampoon [on "Lenny Bruce: 'I Am Not a Nut, Elect Me'"] about a rather pathetic, small-time comedian of innate bad taste, and his ambitions to play the London Palladium. It came very close to straight snobbery. On his recent "Lenny Bruce, American" … he comments on the problems of Bruce on tour and his bouts with small-town life. He suggests one might spend idle afternoons going through the local Woolworth's. Many of us would do just that, I think, and we laugh. But one gets the feeling that neither Bruce nor his audience is conceding that he would actually do anything so square, and the joke is really on those who would.

Bruce remains, nevertheless, a very talented man. (p. 60)

[Humor] is not, as some current commentators would have it, always a disguised hostility. Humor may even hold a kind of grudging respect. Try, for example, the famous burlesque encounter between a square disc jockey and a musician on "The Interview" [on "Lenny Bruce's Interviews of Our Times"]. It is painfully accurate, it is devastatingly skillful, it is hilarious, it is very nearly a work of low comic art. (p. 61)

Martin Williams, "The Comedy of Lenny Bruce," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1962 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission,) Vol. XLV, No. 47, November 24, 1962, pp. 60-1.

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