So, who the hell is Lenny Bruce and why should you give a damn?
Well, hes dead, which always makes you a big hit in the U.S.A. We love dead people. Hell we nearly make them gods. He was a junkie, so that automatically makes him sexy in our hellbent for gothic angst, did you hear the latest Nine Inch Nails world. He was openly Jewish when it wasnt cool to be a Jew...even though many of the people he worked with were (and still are, for that matter) Jewish. He married a beautiful stripper, which makes him the envy of most of the people holding this magazine. And he was a comedian, a funny man who loved words almost as much as he loved his right to speak them. And speak them he did. Lenny Bruce had the guts to say cocksucker when it could get you busted. It got him busted.
When was the last time you said cocksucker? Did you go to jail for it? If not, you can thank Lenny Bruce.
Who knows why (he was such a liar about his own life) Lenny grew up to hate hypocrisy so much. It could be because his mother, Sally, was a nightclub performer when the job was considered too tough for women. Of course, Sally was also a movie character actress (look for her propositioning Art Carney in the final scene of Harry and Tonto), a strip school operator, theatrical agent, dancer (my God, what legs!) and instructor for Arthur Murray. She was hyperactive and passed it on to her son. She was Lennys confidant. She spoke her mind and didnt put up with much shit.
It could have been growing up Jewish. All around him were shiksas, niggers, kikes, micks, honkies and dirty Jews. The world was full of vilified people, and every time he met one...they turned out to be people. And maybe some of the motivation for his tireless fight against what he saw as the forces of evil was his love for the sound of his own voice, his own words. Lenny Bruce was Jewish and a martyr. The really good martyrs love to suffer and spend time on their speeches.
But what about the cocksucking? I mean, you wanna hear about the cocksucking, right? How could saying something like that get you into trouble with the law? Well, back in 1961, when people like Lon Mabon and Measure 31 supporters roamed free upon the earth, you could get in trouble with the cops for doing all sorts of things we take for granted these days. And comedians, keep in mind, make us laugh by talking about things that make us nervous. This makes them the enemy of social order because theyre always looking for frayed edges to tug on.
But back to the cocksucking. Lenny was playing the Jazz Workshop, a club in San Francisco that had strippers and was down the street from a drag club. Lenny commented on a recent news item; a couple of faggot schoolteachers had been reinstated in their jobs, which they were highly qualified to perform, after having been found guilty of homosexuality. The local Hearst newspaper had demanded their immediate removal. Lenny pointed out that there had never been an incident reported in which a kid had gone home and said Today in school I learned five minutes of geography and ten minutes of cocksucking. Bingo. Obscenity. Oh, not the idea that people could be cruelly judged based on their sexual behaviors...that wasnt obscene. Cocksucking, an especially pleasant way to spend an afternoon, was deemed obscene. Uttering the word was deemed obscene. Lenny was obscene, a dirty Jew comic.
Lenny lost his first trial. Judge Axelrod, a kindly Jewish grandfather, was not interested in explanations. Due to his express intention to find Lenny guilty no matter what, the case was deemed a mistrial and retried with a new judge. Lennys attorney, Mr. Bendich, argued that Lennys work was in the great tradition of social satire, related intimately to the kind of social satire to be found in the works of such great authors as Aristophanes, Jonathon Swift... Local college students circulated flyers entitled Welcome to the Farce! demanding free speech rights and criticizing the trial. This time Lenny was lucky, he was found not guilty.
This sort of excitement only incited Lenny to continue his assault on hypocrisy. He had repeatedly pointed out during the trial that the arresting police...and precinct police in general, had been more than happy to repeat the evil c word over and over. Yet his use of the word was naughty. This sort of behavior, he pointed out, is common. Look at the religious zealot who refuses to help others yet will wholeheartedly support the Legion of Decency, joyously telling men, for instance, that tits are wrong. Lenny loved breasts and could find nothing at all wrong or evil about them. They were Beautiful, sweet, tender, womanly breasts that I love to kiss; pink nipples that I love to feel against my clean-shaven face... It was not the breasts that were dirty, Lenny reasoned, but rather that the Legion of Decency was dirty. Its religion of death, its support of capital punishment, its repulsion by what is healthy and sensual were all evidence of its sickness. Death and the fear of death brought people to their knees in front of churches, which was their ultimate goal. Lenny just wished theyd end their hypocrisy and stop bitching about Jesus getting executed.
Its ironic that Lenny had been lauded early in his career for being a clean comic. Once he became famous for being a sick comic, he often wondered what the problem was, what it was that suddenly made his humor sick. While he frequently used Yiddish and popular slang to be more accurate, he avoided the needlessly cruel elements of much clean humor. For instance, during the `30s and `40s honeymoon jokes were popular (how many times?), naughty vacation stories (a startled woman in a tent with an animal feeling her up), Henny Youngman and his ugly girl jokes (Her nose was so big...she was so bow-legged...), Jerry Lewis with his Japanese caricatures, Milton Berle and his transvesticism.
How was Lennys work so different? Was it not, actually, a continuation of a tradition in accusation? Do we not confront the girl the with big nose (and our fear of being like her) when we tease her? Our racism when we use a caricature? Our sexuality in tales of molestation, feminization and gentle leerings? Some of Lennys peers were sharpening their darts for bigger targets as well. Why shoot the little guy when the big guys so much more satisfying?
Mort Sahl liked to work on the Jazz Ages President Eisenhower. Always in a non-subversive way, of course. Lenny saw the slack in Sahls rope and grabbed on. He didnt attack individuals so much as institutions. His occasionally incoherent and densely Yiddish performances managed to spread an appreciation for the power of words (once we stop suppressing racial slang names, thus making them meaningless, we will live in a world free of children who run home crying because theyve been called a name), and a reinforcement of the hip new way of thinking spreading among the young. This young prophet of Generation B (thats beatnik daddy-o) and Generation H (hipsters, dig?..Lennys a member!) educated his flocks with explanations as to why some words are prohibited more than others. Shit, for instance, affects us all. It is a bad word, but not as bad as fuck. Some people do not fuck, either by situation or choice. Some people have elevated not fucking by choice into a position of honor. These people make the rules. Therefore fuck is a very, very bad word indeed.
Lenny loved to laugh at liberals, too. He felt that most of them talked and marched a lot but didnt do anything inside of themselves. To test your liberal friends, he suggested bringing a date from another race and watch the fun begin. One of his best skits, How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties, illustrates the good-hearted but inept attempt of a white liberal trying to make small talk with a black friend at a cocktail party. The conversation inevitably turns to the size of the black mans dick and what kind of women black men most like to schtup. Sisters, comes the stereotypical answer. No other choice, he explains, not when youve got the abnormally large equipment that ships standard with your mahogany models. Every white mans fear: a dark man with a big dick who fucks willing sisters, standing in front of him, drinking a little drink and making a little small talk. And the white man unable to stop anything. Oh, my goodness. Next thing you know the faggots are going to want to get married.
Who was Lenny Bruce and why should you give a damn? It seemed like an easy enough question to answer when I began my research. But Lenny was like an onion; the more I peeled, the more layers I found. And yes, the more I cried. I felt a deep kinship with Lenny Bruce in his desire for honesty in humans and in our representative organizations. I was touched by the depth of his tragic love for his wife, Honey, and hers for him. And I pitied him for his overwhelming humanity...so many lies, so many secrets, so many things done wrong. And yet Lenny Bruce was deeply loved by nearly everyone close to him. He was also a mystery to nearly everyone...perhaps especially so to himself.
In the July issue, to further celebrate the rights Lenny Bruce has helped win for us, well learn more about the women (and the sex) in Lennys life. He claimed to have had sex with 400 women. Yowch! Now thats a lot of schtupping, eh?