Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lenny Bruce

For more than 30 years I’ve had some Lenny Bruce albums: “Thank You Masked Man”, “The Berkeley Concert”, “The Law, the Language and Lenny Bruce”. I think I also had “The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce”, but I believe that got stolen and sold by a heroin addict I used to live with in New York back in 1985.

Ah, those were great days.

Inspired by my friend Dennis Perrin’s stand-up comedy endeavors, and my desire to re-experience my nostalgia-colored “better times”, lately I’ve been buying late-50s early-60s comedy records. There is something about the times. Despite the racism, sexism and other isms back then, there was a sense of style and sophistication in the air. Nightclubs were not discos. Men wore suits and ties, women wore dresses. The ever-present swirl of cigarette smoke gave everything a mystique that Mad Men captures very well, but you had to be there to really understand. Going out then had a specialness to it that seems to be missing in today’s miasmic culture.

The comedians of the time were considered by Time Magazine in an article titled, “COMEDIANS: The Third Campaign”, to be intelligent, insightful and funny. That may seem shocking today, but that’s because it’s been a whole half century of comedy between now and then. And it was those comedians who first inspired and created a more cerebral approach to comedy that led to Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and  others.

I have three Mort Sahl albums with another on the way. And I’m seeing, thirty years after falling in love with Lenny Bruce, that I never gave Mort Sahl the credit or exploration he was due. A comparison of Lenny and Mort can be made which would easily complement both. Both were intelligent, instinctual, philosophical, Jewish and quick, but Lenny was more conceptual while Mort was more of a straight commentator and analyst. Lenny did voices and characters. Mort did not. Lenny did heroin. Mort did not.

The world is different today. But it hasn’t changed that much in fifty years. And there are enough problems of today that comedy today would have enough material to talk about with meaning and laughs. I would love to see a renaissance of a type of comedy that was intelligent and philosophical and funny. But comedy today is ruled by forces I don’t understand. It’s too controlled and sanitized in this 21st century way. Comedy in the Fifties was sanitized too. My point is maybe that renaissance of intelligent, topical, philosophical comedy may be just over the horizon.

So, for all you future comedians of the renaissance, let me do my part by saying: explore Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce see how they did it. I will write a post about Sahl and Gregory in the near future, but this is about Lenny.

Lenny was impish. He had a child-like quality about him. He had fun being in front of an audience. He did funny voices and made himself laugh. But Lenny was deep. He would do bits about kids sniffing airplane glue to get high. No one did that back then. That gave Lenny an air of danger that made him—what that’s word everyone loves to use?—oh, yeah, Lenny was “controversial”.

Lenny did bits about religion, racism, sex, drugs and popular culture. And these were structured bits with a narrative. Observational humor is great, but Lenny’s “Religions Incorporated” is a classic comedy bit no matter who did it. “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” was genius because the character Lenny played in the bit said everything every white person was thinking who went to an integrated party in the late 50s, early 60s. The Carnegie Hall Concert is my favorite because Lenny is so relaxed and philosophical. And he isn’t chasing after laughs. He is preaching with humor.

Lenny became a target of the popular culture and they drove him to his death. As detailed in the HBO documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, Lenny exposed an offer of a bribe, which was a basis of the persecution he suffered. However, his ideas must have been the wood society built at his feet when they burned Lenny at the stake. That’s what they did to heretics in the old days. And they considered Lenny a heretic because Lenny was effective.

So much has been written about Lenny, there is nothing I can add of value. All I can say is Lenny feels very comfortable like an old friend. He reminds me of a time when I was young and hopeful and amazed by so much of the world.

Here are a few of what is available of Lenny on YouTube. The first is Lenny on Steve Allen.

This is the first of seven parts of the Lenny Bruce Performance Film which was performed shortly before Lenny died and is available on DVD.