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HIS 50TH YORTSAYT, AUGUST 3RD
by Marty Roth
Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on
Never did get any Golden Globe award, never made it to Synanon
He was an outlaw, that’s for sure
More of an outlaw than you ever were
Lenny Bruce is gone but his spirit’s livin’ on and on
—Bob Dylan, “Lenny Bruce”
OUR DRINKS WITH LENNY happened in the late 1950s. We were living in Chicago and often watched a local late-night broadcast called Kup’s Show because it sometimes built to explosive moments–like Jimmy Hoffa crushing Mortimer Adler, the University of Chicago’s philosopher king, in an argument about whether truckdrivers read books. The host, Irv Kupcinet, was a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The show that evening featured David Douglas Duncan, a well-known photojournalist, and Lenny Bruce, whose name had made it to us through the college grapevines. What we (four of us) watched was stunning: impromptu satiric riffs both blasphemous and profound. We fancied ourselves cool young sophisticates, fans of Mort Sahl and Nichols and May, but we had never heard anything like this. Bruce went on the attack immediately with an impromptu skit about an alcoholic Eisenhower, one of Duncan’s famous subjects.
He told the audience he was on the show during the intermission of his current gig at Mr. Kelly’s, and we looked at one another and said, Let’s go. When we walked into the club, Lenny saw us from the stage and shouted, “Did you see me on Kup’s show?” and asked us, to my amazement, to wait for him after his last set. We waited and watched while Lenny, in a notorious gang club, did a routine about a comic (Shelly Berman) doing a routine about the stupidity of mafia thugs in front of a table of mafia thugs who could never believe that the comic might be talking about them. His routine was met with silence while we broke up in deep, slightly terrified laughter.
THE JEWISH and African-American subcultures of the 1960s gave him his edge -- the Jewish hustler’s shpil and the lazy staccato phrasings of bebop (talk and music). Mainstream Jews were hard on Lenny, and Lenny was hard on them: Oral Roberts calling out at the meeting of an imagined enterprise called Religions Incorporated, “Tell us what to do with the Heavenly Land when we get it, Rabbi Wise!” “I tink ve should subdivide.” Or Barry Goldwater after winning the US presidential election: gets in, gets before the T.V. camera for the acceptance speech, and he rips off the mask and you see the big nose and the semitic look and the spittle coming out and (screaming vindictively): yahahahaaaaaaa! we’ll burn all the churches!
In one of his skits he had a Reform rabbi say,
Today, on Chin-ukka, with Rose-o-shonah approaching, do you know, someone had the khutpse to ask me, “Tell me something, doctor of law, is there a God, or not?” What cheek! To ask this in a temple! We’re not here to talk of God -- we’re here to sell bonds for Israel! Remember that!
The Lenny we met that night was obsessive, paranoid and beleaguered. He talked about nothing but the forces that were out to get him. He put us on his mailing list and until shortly before his death we received sheaves of orange-tinted xerox reprints detailing his troubles with the law. And he had plenty of troubles, a series of obscenity trials in the name of a linguistic purity the French Academy might envy -- he spent more of his last years in courtrooms than nightclubs -- until his final curtain call on a toilet seat with a needle in his arm.
Lenny was a phenomenon for the ages. In our estimation, the only comics who could touch him were Richard Pryor and another Chicago performer, Lord Buckley. Routlines like “Religions Incorporated,” “Non Skeddo Flies Again” and “The Palladium” belong on a master list of dark comic marvels alongside Pudd’nhead Wilson, Day of the Locust, Naked Lunch and “The Vatican Rag.” Not a stretch for an artist whose admirers included Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Nabokov, Ingmar Bergman and the Beatles.
In “The Tribunal,” Lenny creates an afterlife fantasy of performers having to pay for their tremendous overvaluation:
Someday they’re going to have a tribunal. We’ll all have to answer, I’m sure of that. I’m just waiting for the day. I’m saving some money to give back, I know I was stealing, I didn’t mean to take it, they just gave it to me. We’ll all have to answer. They’ll line us up, the guy’ll be in the black shroud. All the performers. All right, line them up, all the offenders there. State their names and their salaries. The sentences will then be meted out. The first offender, what is your name there? Frankie Laine. How much did you make a week, Mr. Laine? Ten to twelve thousand dollars a week. Remarkable! What do you do to earn from ten to twelve thousand dollars a week. 'To spend one night with . . .' Burn his wig! Break his legs, thirty years in jail. Get him up here, the next one. What is your name? Sophie Tucker. And how much do you make a week Miss Tucker? Twenty to thirty thousand dollars a week. What do you do to earn twenty to thirty thousand dollars a week? I’m the last of the red-hot Jewish -- Burn her Jewish records and jellies and the freight gowns with the sweat under the arms, get rid of her! Get him up here, the next one, the one that’s worshiping the bronze god of Frank Sinatra. What is your name? Sammy Davis Junior. And how much do you make a week Mr. Junior? Twenty, sometimes thirty thousand dollars a week. What do you do to earn that? Hey Dean, I got a booboo. That old black -- Take away his Jewish star and stocking cap and the religious statue of Elizabeth Taylor. Thirty years in Biloxi.
See Edward Azlant, “Lenny Bruce Again: 'Gestapo? You Asshole, I'm the Mailman,’” Studies in American Humor 3(15), 2007, 75-100; Maria Damon, “The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightning Rod: The Case of Lenny Bruce,” Postmodern Culture 7(2), 1997 and Peter M. Robinson, The Dance of the Comedians: The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy.
Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the reinstallation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For the last ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.