He would have turned 80 this month. And in our time of ill-lived religious fanatics and retrograde policy planners, we feel his loss all the more.
Lenny Bruce, brilliant U.S. satirist and comedian, pointed his whip and lashed out at America’s hypocrites, whether high-toned charlatans of the church or “some of my best friends are Negro” liberals.
His heyday was the decade between 1955 and 1965, when several leading stand-up comics turned philosophical and radical. But even his contemporaries such as Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart and the comic duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, were much more in a mold that would give shape to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen: gentle lampooners of the middle class and its newfound suburban neuroses.
Lenny Bruce began that way, performing in the “alpine borscht belt” of the Catskills in New York State, but soon he was confronting America with its dark underside, turning the tables on the country’s self-righteous scam-artist leaders. He challenged virtually every taboo, openly using “offensive” language and denouncing racial and religious bigotry.
“If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago,” he said, “Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
He sent up evangelist Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman of New York to the high heavens, and did a hilarious shtick about the Pope in which the pontiff calls him from Rome, and Lenny says, “Yes, operator, I’ll accept the charges.”
“Every day people are straying away from the Church . . . and going back to God” was his way of pointing out how far the established Church itself had strayed from original faith.
I listened to a great many old routines of Lenny Bruce in preparation for this article, and they are still as funny and relevant as ever.
In one, he is in conversation with a black man at a party. Trying to be nice and liberal, he exposes the patronizing prejudices of the white community.
“Hey, all of you people can tap dance,” he tells the black man. “Want somethin’ to eat? They got watermelon and fried chicken.”
But the thing that incensed the stalwarts more than anything else was his use of language. If you want to hear an offensive word, he said, ” ‘segregation’ — that offends me.”
“Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’ ” Lenny Bruce would be amused (if that’s the word) by our world today, where a vice president of the United States can get away with what he was arrested for.
“Let me just take your kids to a dirty movie. All right, kids, the picture’s gonna start. It’s not like ‘Psycho’ with a lot of four-letter words like ‘kill’ and ‘maim’ and ‘hurt.’ “
Lenny Bruce had served in the U.S. Navy between 1942 and 1945, stationed on a ship in the Mediterranean, witnessing the war first hand. Though he was not homosexual himself, he was perhaps the first American comedian to bash the gay-bashers. He demythicized the issue by identifying with the victims of bias.
“I was on a cruiser called the U.S.S. Brooklyn,” he said. “I was the second-best gunner’s mate. I was mating it from 1942 to 1945.”
In other words, the agenda of contemporary American comedy, with its irreverence and issue-based focus, was defined by Lenny Bruce more than 40 years ago. Only the content is missing today.
Alfred Leonard Schneider was born on Oct. 13, 1925, into a Jewish family bifurcated by a strict, arch-moral father who was originally from Kent in southern England, and a fun-loving New York-born actress mother. (His mother changed her name, performing as Sally Marr.) In later years he tried to play up his youthful iconoclasm — “My becoming offensive started in school. I called Columbus a fink” — but he was in reality your typical spoiled, middle-class Long Island kid. His parents’ divorce, when he was 8, may have been the trigger for a change of personality.
After the war he got his big break on Arthur Godfrey’s radio and television shows. But at that time he was not much more than a garden-party-variety comic. I’ve heard those early shticks, and the most that can be said of him was that he was a first-class mimic. (In the ’60s he did a great impersonation of Lyndon Johnson trying to say “Ne-e-e-gro” but coming out with the N-word instead.)
He was at the height of his fame, or infamy, between 1959 and 1961. In April 1959, he appeared on the Steve Allen Show. It went to air live, and the sponsors were terrified. On Feb. 4, 1961, he performed his act to a rapturous audience at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
Lenny Bruce’s personal life was nothing to emulate. He was a habitual drug user who was busted time and again for narcotics after he got hooked while working with jazz musicians early on. He was addicted to jazz. In fact, some people say that his art was akin to verbal jazz. Many of his routines were improvised into a kind of stinging stream-of-consciousness monologue.
He was particularly cruel to his wife, Honey, even informing on her for drug use. It’s ironic that he himself died of an overdose, a needle sticking out of his right arm, in August 1966, while Honey passed away just last month, on Sept. 12, at her home in Honolulu.
In yet another stroke of irony, Lenny Bruce was pardoned posthumously by Gov. George Pataki of New York in 2003 — prompting the question of just what he would say about the good governor and the politicians and judges who impose a false morality on today’s America?
Lenny Bruce is our contemporary. He once defined satire as “tragedy plus time.” How long will we have to wait before we hear another voice of conscience like his?