Here at the beginning of the 21st century, the concept of a comedian being hauled into court for something he said on stage seems absurd. And yet, that is exactly what happened to America’s most martyred comedian, Lenny Bruce. While there have been countless books and films about his life (including the wildly inaccurate
In Indiana, I occasionally went to a comedy club to hear the stand up comedians that came around the college circuit. I ran into one in the parking lot after the show, and we hung around chatting for a few minutes before he had to drive to the next city on the circuit. It’s looked like a miserable life, actually.
This guy was the opening act for another comedian, and during the show whenever he made a dirty joke, he would hold up his fingers and say, “That’s three penis jokes, in case you’re counting.”
Sharing a smoke in the car afterwards, I asked him what that was all about, and he said that it had to do with inter-comic rivalry. He said the comic who came after him in the show had been complaining about him being ‘too dirty’, which apparently was a euphemism for being funnier than the headliner. He said that sometimes the headlining comic, when he was in trouble on stage, would resort to base crudeness in order to pull his show out of it’s nosedive. When it didn’t work, he would accuse the first comedian of being too dirty, and leaving him with an unresponsive audience.
It’s this kind of ‘dirty’ that Lenny Bruce hated. He despised using dirty words just to provoke a titillating reaction from an audience. He thought it smacked of poor comedy craftmanship. What he loved was language, especially taboo language, and he used it in his routines in order to make you think about it. To step into his shoes for a minute, Lenny would probably say that the status quo of prejudices and closed minds are perpetuated by the fact that these topics are too taboo to be discussed. An excellent example of this is a slightly musical bit called, “To is a preposition, Come is a verb”.
During this bit, Bruce would repeat the phrase ‘to come’ in various contexts in order to make us think about the phrase, and the absurdity of the way in which we avoid using it. In another bit called “How to relax your colored friends at parties”, Bruce would present all the prejudices of white 1950’s culture in the context of running into a black neighbor at a local cocktail party. Presented in this way by Bruce, the audience is forced to confront many of the stereotypes that were circulating, spoken or unspoken, at the time, and realize how ridiculous they are. I happened to also buy Chris Rock’s
Accompanying this book is a CD which was compiled to focus on the acts that got Lenny into trouble. It’s narrated by Nat Hentoff, and has various bits that landed him in court, including one taping of a show where they actually arrest Lenny on stage. The manager comes on to announce that the cops have busted the place. If you’re looking for a good example of Lenny Bruce in concert, though, this isn’t going to satisfy you.
The hardest part about this book is watching Bruce’s life go down the toilet. At one point he was unable to perform in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles due to pending legal action. Unable to perform, he was unable to bring in any money to cover his legal fees. His drug habit took over and when he finally started to get out from under his legal troubles and perform again, he was no longer funny. The Lenny Bruce who emerged from his court troubles was reduced to reading trial transcripts on stage for laughs. Unable to move on and reclaim his mantle as funniest guy in America, he eventually OD’ed in his bathroom while in the grip of depression. A sad ending for a man we all owe a great debt to.
Lenny Bruce’s records at Amazon.Com: