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The Comedy Behind the Tragedy

You know Lenny Bruce, the free-speech hero. But how well do you know his work?



Lenny Bruce

Let the Buyer Beware (Shout! Factory)

Lenny Bruce was a comedian before he was a chapter in the history of American obscenity law. Because so much of his myth is wrapped up in matters that weren't cause for laughter, it's easy to forget this. We know him as a free-speech martyr, as a man wrongly persecuted for offending the powers that be, as a pioneer pushing Americans to talk freely about sex, religion, drugs, and race. His name's still invoked every time somebody gets in trouble for "objectionable" comedy. But since his death from a morphine overdose on August 3, 1966, Bruce has become the Bob Hope of hip American comedy, a man whose work is respected but irrelevant. When's the last time you watched Fancy Pants? When's the last time you actually listened to Lenny Bruce?

One problem is that the biographies--like Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover's The Trials of Lenny Bruce and Robert B. Weide's documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth--trade on the man's legal history more than his humor. Bruce forced the issue somewhat: in his late career he laboriously read courtroom transcripts onstage and told audiences awaiting jokes, "I am not a comedian. And I'm not sick. I'm a surgeon with a scalpel for false values. I don't have an act. I'm just Lenny Bruce."

Another problem is that for years the quality of the available recordings of Bruce in performance simply hasn't been very good. Bruce was a natural club comic, but his studio albums sound dull and stifled; his concert discs catch him deep into his late phase of self-involved street philosophizing. There are also some excellent but hard-to-find appearances from 50s TV, a hilarious animated cartoon of his "Thank You Mask Man" routine made by John Magnuson in 1968, and one 1967 performance film that finds him sad and tired. For years, that's been it.

Let the Buyer Beware, a six-CD box set, finally lets listeners hear Bruce at his best. Collecting his essential routines, unreleased performances, interviews, and personal recordings, it also includes archival press clippings and new liner notes by Richard Pryor, Bill Maher, Paul Krassner, archivist Hal Willner, and Bruce's daughter, Kitty. It's the most comprehensive view of Bruce's career there is, and it's peppered with ideas and perfect gags. But it feels like less than the sum of its parts. The greatest comedians have singular, career-defining works, and Bruce never did, thanks in part to the moral authorities who besieged him. But, as the set reveals, much of the blame also falls squarely on Bruce himself.

Leonard Alfred Schneider, aka Lenny Bruce, was born in 1925 on Long Island. His parents broke up the year he was born; he was raised by his mother, Sally Marr, a comic herself. A teenage runaway, he worked on a farm before joining the navy during World War II. When he became a comic after the war, he ran with the hard-core Borscht Belt tummlers: Buddy Hackett, Jack Roy (the future Rodney Dangerfield), Jan Murray, Phil Foster, Georgie Starr, Will Jordan, Alan King. These were the first wave of nightclub comics after vaudeville, the first guys who tried to get laughs with nothing more than a suit and a microphone.

They all hung out at Hanson's, a drugstore and coffee shop on Seventh and Broadway that attracted B-listers and press agents. Walter Winchell, Jerry Lewis, and Hope occasionally popped in to crack jokes and talk shop. The crew performed sets at parties in Starr's apartment; they were booked by the carload for weekend showcases in the Catskill Mountains. Knowing how many Jewish girls were in the Catskills on weekends, Sally Marr sent her boy off with Hackett and Starr with a motherly warning: "Make sure my kid gets some!"

Let the Buyer Beware reaches all the way back to these early days, starting in 1948 when Bruce went on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts with a prescient bit, "The Bavarian Mimic." It starts with some tired impressions of Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, and Peter Lorre--you roll your eyes at how painfully obvious they are--but Bruce then spins the joke by imitating a Bavarian mimic he claims he saw during the war, doing a hilarious gibberish caricature of a hack impressionist. As the movie-star voices cut through the layer of accented quasi-German, Bruce perfectly captures the tone and rhythm of stand-up shtick at the time. Even at 23 he was announcing the major themes of his career. "The Bavarian Mimic" is comedy about comedy--it hips the audience, makes them step back to see how lame that kind of act is. Though he hadn't invented this concept it set him apart from his buds at Hanson's, who were doing the sort of material Bruce was sending up.

By the early 50s, however, Bruce's career was foundering. He was working in LA strip clubs like Duffy's Gaieties, where his wife, Honey Harlow, danced. He got heckled by drunks, but the nontraditional context freed him. One night he walked onstage naked himself. "What are you staring at?" he asked the stunned crowd. "What's the big deal if I get naked?"

Bruce often played to the bands at such places, because the patrons were preoccupied with the dancers. He picked up on the routines of LA jazz musicians, and that included heroin. In "The Lawrence Welk Story," about a junkie jazz musician working for Welk, Bruce found a hipster idiom to match his Borscht Belt goofiness. "I can tell by your eyes you're a good boy," Bruce says in a pitch-perfect impression of Welk's accent, "because they're so small."

Musicians and other hipsters spread the word, and names like Hedy Lamarr, Steve Allen, and Ernie Kovacs became fans in the late 50s. Rocky LoFusello, the owner of Duffy's, made Bruce his regular comic. The era of "The Lawrence Welk Story," along with most of the classic bits that Bruce fans know--such as "Father Flotski's Triumph," "Lima, Ohio," and "Airplane Glue"--fills the box set's first two discs. One of the best bits, "The Palladium" (in a live version that's a vast improvement over previous studio releases), is about a tired comic who's convinced he should be working A-list rooms and gets his manager to book him at London's Palladium. When he bombs night after night and the booker cancels his run, he protests, "I didn't do my fag-at-the-ballgame bit yet!" It's another comedy-about-comedy routine lampooning the hack who doesn't understand the changing world.

In the early 60s, Bruce's act and the law began feeding on one another. "Pretty Bizarre Show," in which he used the word "cocksucker," got him arrested in San Francisco in 1961. Subsequent routines like "To Is a Preposition; Come Is a Verb" and "If Your Body Is Dirty, the Fault Lies With the Manufacturer" added to his rep as a filthy comic. He milked his notoriety, making more than $100,000 a year from his albums, television appearances, and club dates. He played Carnegie Hall in 1961. Predictably, the squares came down on him: Winchell called him "America's number one vomic." But hipster critics also saw a facileness in the way he attracted legal trouble and then made it part of his act. Woody Allen signed petitions supporting Bruce's First Amendment rights, but as to his comedic gifts he later wrote that Bruce was "decent, but not great. I think that many middle-class people and squares followed him very avidly because he was--at a time when it was forbidden--talking dirty, and clearly on dope. And a huge amount of his audience were straight middle-class people who thought they were doing something wicked, that they were suddenly 'in the know,' that they were suddenly hip or rebellious. . . . I found him talented but pretentious."

By late 1962 Bruce was beginning to seem ground down by the authorities. The set's fifth disc features an unreleased recording of a bust at Chicago's Gate of Horn club. It's a powerful, revealing document: as the cops enter and announce themselves, Bruce wearily sighs, "I knew that, I knew that."

Bruce certainly wasn't the only comic working blue at the time; Buddy Hackett and Redd Foxx were also using foul language in their acts. In his liner notes for the box set, Paul Krassner argues that Bruce's problems had less to do with his swearing than with his discussion of religion in bits like "Religions, Inc." or "Christ and Moses," in which he mocked New York's Catholic leadership; Catholic cops began looking for any excuse to run him out of town. A 1962 Variety article explained that "the prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce's indictments of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the comic's act."

Bruce's routines about race, written at the height of the civil rights movement, added more controversy. In "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties," Bruce plays a self-satisfied liberal gradually revealing himself as a patronizing bigot as he strains to let a black man know he's OK with civil rights, if not with "one of them" marrying his sister. The box set's very first bit--"Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight?"--still has the power to make an audience squirm. The crowd on the recording falls silent at the opening line. "What did he say?" Bruce asks, voicing their anxiety. "He's really getting out of his nut. 'Are there any niggers here tonight?' Is he that desperate for shock value? Has he scraped the bottom to be that cruel to say, 'Are there any niggers here tonight?'" He then pulls them back in beautifully, with a litany of slurs, asking if there are any kikes, micks, dykes, or spics in the room, and as the laughter builds he imagines President Kennedy introducing "all the niggers in my cabinet." He argued that if we used the word all the time it would lose its power and kids might not come home crying when they heard it on the playground.

But Bruce sometimes found himself offending the very people whose approval he sought. In 1960 he humiliated Pearl Bailey by dousing her with a fire extinguisher onstage and berated her "Uncle Tom bits" in a snide letter. Such criticisms would've been one thing coming from Billie Holiday or Dizzy Gillespie; from Catskills Lenny Schneider they were quite another. In the bit "Dick Gregory," black comic Dick Gregory invites Bruce to a civil rights march in order to "trick whitey, fuck up boss Charlie," and Bruce realizes that he's never met a black man as angry as Gregory. "I'd never heard outward hostility, never a spoken word," Bruce says. "They're pissed off and justifiably so." For all his appropriate slang and down attitude, he was clearly more accustomed to preaching to, or for, blacks than actually listening to them.

In 1964 Bruce was appealing one of his cases in New York before Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice on the Supreme Court. In a rather dense moment of hubris, he compared his plight to that of a "nigger in Alabama who wants to use a toilet."

"You are not a Negro, Mr. Bruce," Marshall said.

"Unfortunately not," he replied.

Let the Buyer Beware doesn't ignore Bruce's flaws, but it does play into his martyrdom. The liner notes tend to blame everyone but the man himself for his downfall. An utterly in-denial eulogy by jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason--published in the San Francisco Chronicle two days after Bruce's death and reprinted in its entirety here--claims that the squares killed Lenny by hounding him until he died, and that nobody helped him when he was down. But Bruce had support. Phil Spector and Buddy Hackett provided handouts and networked on his behalf; Spector even refurbished and reopened LA's Music Box theater toward the end of Bruce's life just to give him stage time. Thirty-eight years after his fatal overdose, we know that addicts get help when they want to, not when somebody else wants them to.

Because it tracks his decline, the set's sixth and final disc highlights some painful moments; listening to Bruce parse legal points on the phone with his lawyers is to hear a drowning man gasp for air. On "My Name Is Adolph Eichmann," recorded in 1962, he resurrects that Bavarian accent to play the Nazi war criminal, demanding that his accusers justify Hiroshima if he has to answer for the Holocaust. It's not funny. It's oversimplified satire, an attempt to wallop the audience with ugly irony.

Standing up for the First Amendment doesn't make Lenny Bruce a great artist any more than it does a Klansman or a pornographer. Vladimir Nabokov and Allen Ginsberg had their brushes with obscenity law not long before Bruce did, but they never let themselves be defined by them. "There's nothing sadder than an aging hipster," he once said. But he proved himself wrong.

Let the Buyer Beware has many brilliant moments, but it reveals a comedian who was never able to develop his game beyond his early innovative club routines, the way that Richard Pryor did in his concert films, Woody Allen did with Annie Hall, or Bill Hicks did on Bruce's own turf. Just when things were coming together for Bruce in the early 60s, he fell apart. What's on Let the Buyer Beware is as good as it ever got.

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