Lenny Bruce Nat Hentoff - Essay

Nat Hentoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unlike Mort Sahl, whose heaviest ammunition is aimed at the Republicans, Lenny Bruce, the most controversial of the newer "intellectual" comedians, cuts beneath politics into the daily evasions of what he terms "first-plateau liberals." To my knowledge, no other comedian has ever talked scornfully in his performance on stage of "white Jews" who will not fight segregation or has explained in graphic detail how much "sicker" Philadelphia is than Little Rock. (p. 50)

In spite of his proselytizing, Bruce is much more professional as a straight comic when he wants to be than any of his colleagues who specialize in topical satire. Bruce has no equal in such set pieces as a re-creation of an old prison movie with Nat Pendleton and Barton MacLane or a devastatingly accurate odyssey of a Copacabana comic who wants to play a "class' house such as the Palladium in London, and "bombs" abysmally. Bruce knows show business so intimately that his rundown of a Palladium rehearsal is as precisely detailed as a [Theodore] Dreiser description of how a factory operates.

Bruce uses his considerable comic talent, he points out, "to say as much as I can get away with and still make the audience laugh." In his most coruscating monologues, one of his methods might be termed verbal sleight of hand. By stringing together enough Yiddish firecrackers, jazz jargon, advanced Broadwayese, and such bits as the dissection of old movies, he reaches his audiences with his more serious assaults before they are quite aware that they themselves are also included among his targets. (pp. 51-2)

The question now is how far Bruce will go in further exposing his most enthusiastic audiences—the very same "first plateau liberals" he denounces—to themselves. He has only begun to operate on the ways many of them delude themselves in nearly everything…. (p. 52)

Nat Hentoff, "Where Liberals Fear to Tread," in The Reporter (© 1960 by The Reporter Magazine Co.), Vol. 22, No. 13, June 23, 1960, pp. 50-2.