The Comedy of Lenny Bruce
Several months ago in Chicago, the comedian Lenny Bruce was convicted of obscenity and sentenced to one year in jail and a $1000 fine. Shortly afterward, he was also convicted by a Los Angeles court of narcotics possession. These convictions, currently being appealed, are by no means the only run-ins Bruce has had with the authorities. Since returning from his world tour last year, Bruce has been arrested seven times in all: twice in Los Angeles on suspicion of narcotics possession; four times for obscenity (he was acquitted in San Francisco and Philadelphia); and once for assault in Van Nuys, California. Earlier, he had been twice barred from entering England; on the first occasion, he was turned back within an hour at the airport, when authorities simply denied him a work permit. The second time, entering England via Ireland, and bearing with him affidavits attesting to his probity, sobriety, and general moral earnestness, Bruce was allowed to stay the night, only to become on the following day the subject of emergency intervention by the Home Secretary, who declared his presence not to be “in the public interest.” On these occasions, as in previous encounters with the agencies of law-enforcement, Bruce showed himself courteous, even disarmingly so, to his antagonists and a trifle bewildered, it seemed, at the havoc he could create merely by turning up. He boarded a plane and went back home.
Bruce has been called “blasphemous,” “obscene,” and “sick”—and not only in the expected quarters (Walter Winchell, Robert Ruark, assorted Variety pundits, etc.) but by critics like Benjamin DeMott and Kenneth Alcott. On the other hand, of course, there are equally sophisticated critics like Robert Brustein and Kenneth Tynan who have arrived at opposite conclusions, finding Bruce not only essentially “healthy,” but the physician, as it were, for the illness from which all of us are suffering. While certain spokesmen for an American “underground” have claimed him for their own, Bruce has also earned a vast popular following, far exceeding the limits of any coterie. Long before his present notoriety, indeed, he was one of the most successful nightclub performers in the country, earning on the average of $5,000 a week and with his record-album sales totaling well over 100,000. Fellow comics are among Bruce’s keenest admirers, and, if not always admitting their debt to him publicly, frequently reveal it by imitation. Among his most articulate disciples are the British social satirists of groups like “The Establishment” and “Beyond the Fringe,” who have been even more unstinting than the Americans in acknowledging both his fascination and his influence.
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