Commentary Magazine


The Comedy of Lenny Bruce

Since the shaman functions as a safety valve, and as a regulator of the psychic life of the clan, he lives under the permanent feeling of bearing a great responsibility. . . . Sometimes, if he loses control of the spirits, he must be killed.

S. M. Sherokogroff

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.

What, then, explains Bruce’s unique effect? Certainly, his impact cannot be attributed to his material alone. By now, so completely have the so-called “sick” comics caught on—and so quickly has the authentic radical satire of a few years ago been rendered innocuous by sheer acceptance and then imitation—that it no longer requires daring, originality, or courage to attack sacred cows like integration, Mother’s Day, the Flag. Such things are done, albeit in diluted form, virtually on every network. Yet Bruce seems immune from that permissiveness that is in the end perhaps more subversive of true protest than censorship. Uniquely among members of his profession (and matched in others perhaps only among jazz musicians), Bruce continues to shock, to infuriate, to be the subject on the one hand of a passionate and almost unprecedented advocacy, and on the other of a constant surveillance amounting to persecution, so that today, at the height of his drawing power, it is doubtful whether a club in New York would dare to book him.

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Bruce slouches onstage in a crumpled black raincoat (“dressed for the bust,” as he confidingly informs the audience, in anticipation of arrest), pale, unshaven, with long black sideburns—beat, raffish, satanic. Ordering the lights up, he surveys the house: “Yeah. You’re good-looking. You got lotsa bread.” He pauses. “Good looking chicks always got lotsa bread. That’s a hooker syllogism.” Having opened on this amiable note, he abruptly switches his tone and manner to lull the audience into temporary security, then launches into an apparently off-the-cuff discourse on themes of the moment:

You know? Liberals will buy anything a bigot writes. They really support it. George Lincoln Rockwell’s probably just a very knowledgeable businessman with no political convictions whatsoever. He gets three bucks a head working mass rallies of nothing but angry Jews, shaking their fists and wondering why mere are so many Jews there.

Even in this relatively minor bit, the distinctive qualities of Brace’s satire are in evidence—it is authentically shocking and nihilistic to a degree that is not altogether apparent at first. To make fun of liberals these days is an act of conventional daring; to make fun of George Lincoln Rockwell these days is an act of slightly less conventional daring; but to make fun of a “proper” moral response to George Lincoln Rockwell constitutes the violation of a taboo. What Bruce is doing by finding in George Lincoln Rockwell an ordinary businessman out for the main chance, goes far beyond the modish cliché of “the guilt we all share”—it amounts to an implication of normality itself in the monstrous. Perhaps this accounts for the slightly hysterical quality of the laughter that his performances usually elicit. It is helplessness in the face of a truly nihilistic fury that makes the parody currently fashionable in the nightclubs and the off-Broadway theaters seem safe and cautious.

Bruce’s vision forbids the smallest hint of self-congratulation, allows no comfortable perch from which the audience can look complacently down on the thing satirized. Even his “conventional” routines take a bizarre and violent course which transforms them into something quite different from mere parody. There is one, for instance, in which an “ordinary white American” tries to put a Negro he has met at a party at ease. The predictable blunders with their underlying viciousness (“That Joe Louis was a hell of a fighter. . . Did you eat yet? I’ll see if there’s any watermelon left . . .”) are within the range of any gifted satirist with his heart in the right place; but Bruce gives the screw an added turn by making the protagonist, besotted with temporary virtue, a forthright and entirely ingenuous Jewhater as well—sincerely making common cause with the Negro. This is closer to surrealism than to simple farce, a fantasy on the subject of bigotry far more startling than a merely perfect sociological rendition of the accents of race hatred would have been. And as the routine proceeds, the fantasy gets wilder and wilder, with the white man becoming more and more insinuatingly confidential in his friendliness (“What is it with you guys? Why do you always want to—everybody’s sister? . . . You really got a big—on you, huh? Hey, could I see it?”) and the Negro becoming progressively stiffer and more bewildered.

Similarly, Bruce has a fairly conventional routine that might have been dreamed up in its general outline fifteen years ago by a stand-up comedian from the Lower East Side, but that he pushes to what would have been unthinkable lengths fifteen years ago. The performer, in the guise of himself, encounters a “typical” Jewish couple while on a Midwestern tour; they are at first shy and admiring, until the inevitable question is asked and the discovery is made—Bruce is Jewish; then their respect and timidity give way first to a slightly insulting familiarity and finally to overt, violent aggression. The routine which, again, would once have been played for folksiness, becomes bizarre and disturbing when Bruce uses it to expose within the couple depths of prurient malevolence far in excess of their apparent “human” failings. The climax is an orgy of vituperation in the familial mode that becomes a glaring and devastating comment on Jewish life in America.

Until a few years ago, this kind of humor had never been seen in a night club or theater. It appeared to be completely original, yet obviously it mined a rich, seemingly inexhaustible vein and was, moreover, enforced by a highly finished technique. Critics responded to Bruce at first as though he were sui generis, a self-created eccentric of genius without discernible origins. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. What Lenny Bruce is doing today in public had been done for years in private, not only by him, but by dozens of amateurs all over New York City—at private parties, on street corners, in candy stores. His originality consists in his having been the first to use this private urban language in public, and his genius lies in his ability to express the ethos out of which he comes in unadulterated form.

He is, in other words, a genuine folk artist who stands in a relation to the lower-middle-class adolescent Jewish life of New York not unlike that of Charlie Parker to the Negroes of Harlem. And like Parker, he derives his strength from having totally available to himself—and then being able to articulate—attitudes, ideas, images, fragments of experience so endemic to a culture that they scarcely ever come to conscious awareness. Thus for many people the shock of watching Bruce perform is primarily the shock of recognition.

Bruce—who grew up in Brooklyn, the son of an “exotic dancer” who now runs a school for strippers and coaches comics—grew up as part of the adolescent “underground” that exists beneath the lower-middle-class gentility of such Brooklyn neighborhoods as Bensonhurst, Borough Park, and Brighton Beach. Adolescent defiance is scarcely unique, but the group of which Bruce was a part acted out its anger not only by rubbing shoulders with the socially outlawed (pushers, prostitutes, loafers, show-business types, Negro jazzmen) but also through staging sessions of ritualistic parody in which they vented their contempt for the life around them. On Saturday nights, for instance, they would get together and everyone would have his turn “onstage” to review the events of the week—each performer egging himself on to greater heights of exaggeration, outrage, and sheer fantasy in describing things that had happened in the family, in the neighborhood, and in the dark sexual corners of their world. It was in this “home-cooking” school that Bruce learned how to free-associate on his feet, and it was here also that he trained himself in the technique of the “spritz”—the spontaneous satire that gathers momentum and energy as it goes along, spiraling finally into the exhilarating anarchy of total freedom from inhibition.

The psychological mechanism of this kind of comedy is well enough known by now: it is a means of expressing hatred and contempt and still escaping punishment. But the matter is complicated by the fact that the comic’s sensitivity to imperfection and ugliness is heightened by a conviction of his own inadequacy, vulgarity, and hypocrisy, leading him to become doubly intolerant of these faults in others. They haunt him; they are demons which he seeks to exorcise by comic confrontation. The psychological source of such satire is, thus, a persistent, ineradicable hatred of the self, and this is particularly striking in the case of Bruce, whose sense of moral outrage is intimately connected with an awareness of his own corruption. (“I can’t get worked up about politics. I grew up in New York, and I was hip as a kid that I was corrupt and that the mayor was corrupt. I have no illusions.”) If the practitioner of this kind of comedy is in any way morally superior to his audience, it is only because he is honest, and willing to face himself, while they, the audience, are blind enough to think they are pure.

From Brooklyn, Bruce went into the Navy, was discharged at the end of the War, and after serving a hitch in the Merchant Marine, returned to New York where he submerged himself in the show-business jungle of Times Square. For several years he moved around digging other comics, haunting their hangouts, trying to work out an act of his own. Finally, in 1951, he appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show and won. Soon he was doing a conventional “single” at the Strand and other burlesque houses, but he loathed “the business” as much as he depised the Brooklyn of his youth, and for many of the same reasons.

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The decisive moment for his career came in 1958 while Bruce was working on the West Coast as a screen writer and nightclub emcee. At about this time Mort Sahl, also on the Coast, was becoming famous. (“I was just a product of my time,” Sahl has said. “This license was lying around waiting for someone to pick it up.”) Nevertheless, the novelty of Sahl’s act undoubtedly stimulated Brace’s own breakthrough and there was an audience ready to respond to Brace’s first original creation—a series of satirical bits based on a potent symbol evolved in the early “home-cooking” days—the shingle man.

A type of “con” man prevalent in the 40’s, the shingle man spent much of his time on the road, usually traveling in groups, doing comic routines, smoking marijuana, taking time off now and then to talk gullible slum residents into buying new roofing. Though strictly a small-time operator, the ruthlessly manipulating shingle man came, in Brace’s universe, to represent any and all wielders of power and authority—up to and including the most grandiose. The great world, in short—all political, social, or religious activity—is nothing but a gigantic racket run by shingle men. In a Bruce routine called “Religion, Inc.,” for example, organized religion was reduced to a three-way phone conversation between the Pope, Billy Graham, and Oral Roberts making plans in hipster jargon (“Hey, John! What’s shaking, Baby?”) for a world-wide religious revival complete with giveaway items (a cigarette lighter in the form of a cross and cocktail napkins bearing the imprint, “Another martini for Mother Cabrini”).

Similarly, in another routine of this period, Bruce portrays Hitler as the brainstorm of a couple of shrewd theatrical agents, who discover the new “star” while he is painting their office and set him up with costumes (an armband with the four “7’s”), music, routines—in short, an act. Lavishly applying the metaphor of the shingle man to every social institution in the book, Bruce embarked upon a career whose underlying intention has remained constant, though his style has gone through many changes: to set up a remorselessly unqualified identification of power and respectability with corruption.

It is a mistake to regard Bruce simply as a social satirist, for. he has long since transcended the limitations of that role, just as he has long since gone beyond mere irreverence in his routines. Indeed, for the most apposite metaphor describing what Bruce does, one must turn from show business to the seemingly remote domain of cultural anthropology. Gézÿ Roheim’s description of the shaman, exorciser of public demons, sharply reveals the true character of Lenny Brace’s present “act.” “In every primitive tribe we find the shaman in the center of society and it is easy to show that he is either a neurotic or a psychotic, or at least that his art is based on the same mechanisms as a neurosis or psychosis. The shaman makes both visible and public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of society. They are the leaders in an infantile game and the lightening conductors of common anxiety. They fight the demons so that others can hunt the prey and in general fight reality.”

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Although “sick” humor appears to be a remarkably unfeeling reaction to misery, particularly to physical deformity, it actually is an oblique protest against the enforced repression of those instinctive emotions of revulsion, anxiety, and guilt evoked by deformity. It represents a distorted rebellion against the piety that demands automatic sympathy for literally every form of human limitation. Though neither Mort Sahl nor Bruce can be wholly identified with “sick” comedy, the shock techniques used by both gave them something in common with the outrageous jokes that were spreading through the country during the mid- and late 50’s. (With Sahl, also, Brace shares other things—the technique of the encyclopedic monologue, the courage to deal in forbidden subjects, the use of hipster language, and an obvious identification with the jazz world.) For a time Brace’s act was sprinkled with “sick” jokes, but they never constituted more than a small portion of his verbal arsenal.

Unlike Sahl, however, whose specialty is political satire, Brace has never had much to say about politics; the abuse is too obvious. There is a further difference: Sahl is primarily a wit and a social commentator; while Brace’s imagination is a more creative one, which has enabled him to produce a remarkable variety of characters, situations, and lines of comic action. The next stage in Brace’s development saw the shingle man superseded by a richer, more personal metaphor—show business itself. Balancing his own profound self-contempt against his loathing for the “business,” Brace created his most complex parable, a routine called “The Palladium.” A cocksure little nightclub comic, crude, untalented, but “on the make” for success, is disgusted with working the “toilets” (second-rate clubs) and determines to take a crack at the big-time. Booked into the London Palladium, he is slated to follow “Georgia Gibbs,” a performer who knows exactly what the public wants and “puts them away” every time. His vulgar, corny gags fail to get a laugh and he “dies.” Desperate to succeed, he begs for another chance, but is swamped in the wake of the singer, who caps her cunningly contrived performance with a lachrymose tribute to “the boys who died over there.”

The little comic lacks the wit to change even a single line of his mechanical act, and again he is about to “die” when, confronting disaster, he blindly ad libs a line: “Hey folks, How ’bout this one—screw the Irish!” This puerile bid for attention instantly transforms the somnolent audience into a raging mob who sweep the comic off the stage and wreck the theater.

Clearly, show business for Brace stands for American society itself—and, indeed, in no other country have entertainers come to be more profoundly symbolic of national values than here. The anxiety to please which takes the form of tear-jerking sentimentality and fake humanitarianism in “Georgia Gibbs” is no less ruthlessly dramatized in the portrait of the brash little comedian, whom we can take as a comic degradation of Bruce himself, and whose story is a reflection of Brace’s own development. Not only does he expose the agonies that assault the performer whose very life depends on his success with the audience; he also satirizes one of the most remarkable features of his own present role as shaman—the direct, brutal onslaught on the passions and prejudices of his audience that stems from desperation in the face of failure and that sets off an appalling explosion of primitive hatred.

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While he lacks the dramatic gifts of Elaine May, Sid Caesar, or Jonathan Winters—with their actors’ techniques of mimicry, foreign accents, and sound effects—Brace is nevertheless at his best in personal narratives put across with just a suggestion of the dramatic. His work, in fact, is intensely personal and provides an obvious outlet for his private rage; nevertheless, there is a part of Brace that is utterly disinterested. Like any satirist, he knows that the only effective way to attack corruption is to expose and destroy it symbolically; that the more elaborately and vividly this destruction is imagined, the greater will be his own satisfaction, and the more profound the cathartic effect on the the audience. Thus, gradually moving from a wholly conventional act through a series of increasingly wild and outspoken routines, Bruce has indeed become the shaman: he has taken on himself the role of exorcising the private fears and submerged fantasies of the public by articulating in comic form the rage and nihilistic savagery hidden beneath the lid of social inhibition.

In one of his recent routines Bruce orders the house lights out and then announces: “Now, you know what’s going to happen? I’m going top—on the audience. The clapping is from those who had it before and enjoyed it.” This promise of outrage is not kept, but is followed rather by Brace’s version of how the audience had reacted. “What did he say?” Brace asks, taking the part of a male patron, “Did he say he’s gonna “S” on us?” Now he mimics a woman’s voice: “Oh, shut up, Harry! He does it real cute.”

This routine vividly illustrates Brace’s attitude toward his audience; he regards it as an object of sadistic lust, he hates and loves it; it is the enticing enemy, and he attacks it repeatedly. In the past his aggression was masked, but now it is naked. He may pick up a chair and menace a patron; if the audience laughs, he will observe soberly that he might have killed the man and that if he had, everyone would have accepted the murder as part of the act. Here he demonstrates, almost in the manner of a classroom exercise, the repressed violence of modern society. By making the audience laugh at incipient murder, he has tricked them into exposing their own savage instincts. The implication is that given the slightest excuse for condoning a killing, even the absurd rationale of its being part of a nightclub act, society would join eagerly in the violence it so conscientiously deplores.

This public display of the ugly, the twisted, the perverse—offensive though it is at times—nevertheless serves a vital function, for it gives the audience a profound sense, not only of release, but of self-acceptance. Again and again, Brace violates social taboos—and he does not die! Like the witch doctor or the analyst, he brings the unconscious to light, and thereby lightens the burden of shame and guilt. By its very nature his material cannot come out clear, decorous, and beautifully detached; it must be, and is, charged with self-pity, self-hatred, fear, horror, crudity, grotesquerie.

What is unsatisfactory in Brace’s work is his frequent failure to transmute his rage into real comedy. Sometimes he has nothing more to offer than an attitude (“Everything is rotten. Mother is rotten. The flag is rotten. God is rotten.”). At other times, what starts with a promise of rounded development will flatten out into a direct and insulting statement. A sophisticated listener forgives the comic these lapses, understanding that the ad lib approach and the often intractable material are apt to betray the performer into mere obscenity; but people with no natural sympathy for this approach are shocked and offended—there has never been a lack of people in the audience to walk out during Brace’s act.

The reason for these occasional lapses into crudity is the almost total lack of “art” in Brace’s present act; he deliberately destroys the aesthetic distance which is a convention of the theater, established by tacit agreement between audience and performer that what is happening on the stage is an illusion of life, rather than life itself. Like other performers who deal in direct communication, Brace has always tried to reduce the barrier between the stage and reality. He has never wanted to appear as an entertainer doing an act, but rather as himself, no different onstage from off, not really a performer, but a man who performs in order to share with others his most secret thoughts and imaginings. The desire, however, to eradicate the distinction between art and reality has at this stage almost completely destroyed the artistry with which Bruce formerly presented his material. Gone, now, are the metaphors of the shingle man and the show business manipulator; gone, too, are the story-telling devices of the personal narrative and the dramatic impersonations. All that remains are sketchy, often underdeveloped, sometimes incoherent, scraps of former routines.

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The new material consists of deep, psychologically primitive fantasies, hurled at a defenseless audience without the mitigating intervention of art. Frequently, Bruce assaults his listeners with scatological outbursts consisting of the crudest and most obvious anal and oral sadistic fantasies, undisguised. There is currently a comic picture book in circulation [Stamp Help Out) with a photograph of Bruce on the cover, stripped to the waist like a heroic frontiersman, engaged in shattering a toilet bowl with an axe—Bruce’s comment on the surgically white “powder room” of our culture.

Much of his current material is in fact unquotable—not so much because of the language but because its comic effect depends on non-verbal associations and is thereby scarcely intelligible in the reading. In one bit, for instance, he tells how, when the Avon representative called at his house, he drugged her, stripped her, decked her out with galoshes and moustache, raped her, and then wrote on her belly, “You were balled.”

In another long and complicated routine, which changes from one performance to another, he explains that the Lone Ranger’s bullets are really pellets of Ehrlich’s 606 (“That’s why he keeps his mouth tightly shut”) and that the Lone Ranger is a homosexual (“Bring Tonto here. I wish to commit an unnatural act. Wait a minute! Bring the horse too!”). (This deliberate perpetration of outrage on the persons of the most innocuous figures of American folklore—the Lone Ranger, the Avon representative—is, of course, one of the leitmotifs of the recent “sick” humor. The same thing was once done in a grimier way in those pornographic comic books that showed the heroes of the comic strip—familiar to every American child—in complicated sexual situations.)

As his material has become more direct, Bruce has tended more and more to be the act. Because the imaginative impulse is naked, unsublimated, Bruce’s intention is less and less communicated by what he says, and depends now, to a great extent, on affective devices—his manner, his tone, especially his physical appearance. Whereas in the past Bruce would walk briskly out on the floor, good-looking, impeccably groomed, wearing a chic Italian suit, now he comes on stiff-legged and stooped, wearing shabby clothes, his face a pale mask of dissipation. Having discarded the civilized mask that people wear in public to protect themselves, Bruce comes before his audience as a mythic figure—beat, accused junkie, “underground” man—who has suffered in acting-out their own forbidden desires. Where they are cautious, he is self-destructive, alternately terrifying the audience (the very fact that he doesn’t care is awesome) and arousing their sympathy and concern. (He now regularly opens his act by enacting and commenting on his recent arrests.) Merely looking at Bruce these days is a disturbing experience.

Finally, Bruce is dramatizing his role as shaman by embellishing his act for the first time with consciously contrived bits of hocus-pocus. He turns the lights on and off, strikes drums and cymbals, swings into crude chants. He prowls about the stage, sometimes exposing himself to the audience, at other times crouching in the darkness and hiding from it. He opens and closes doors and climbs onto furniture to symbolize his power over the bewildered spectators.

In the darkened, cave-like club, charged with tension, the audience sits hunched over, tense, breathless, their eyes fastened on the weird figure in the center of the magic circle. While the tribe looks on with fearful absorption, the medicine man puts himself into a trance in preparation for the terrible struggle with the tribal demons (anxieties). And then—when the performance is over and the “unspeakable” has been shouted forth—there is mingled with the thunderous applause a sigh of release. Purged of their demons by the shaman, the tribe has been freed, for the moment, to “hunt the prey and in general fight reality.”

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