Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Lenny Bruce Again by Edward Azlant

EDITORS' NOTE: Edward Azlant is a film academic and screenwriter who spent time in the recording industry, where he edited a few Lenny Bruce albums, including the "Curran Theater Concert" and "Thank You Masked Man."

He has written an article titled "Lenny Bruce Again: Gestapo? You Asshole, I'm the Mailman," what the author describes as "a reappraisal of Bruce's work," with a special emphasis on Bruce's later, neglected materials.

SHECKYmagazine is priveleged to be the first publication, online or offline, to present Azlant's essay.


The late stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce suffered every indignity, alive and dead. Alive, he was caught in a time-warp of evolving standards of public language and hounded into oblivion. Dead, he was canonized as a martyr to freedom of speech and human liberation, both sexual and psychological. His legend is retold regularly in film, television, theater, books, and song.

Bruce was always poorly served by other people working his material. In life, it was policemen, whose artless courtroom renditions or mindless transcriptions of his act became the bases for his obscenity prosecutions. These misrepresentations led to the misidentification of Bruce as pointlessly "sick" or "dirty." In death, it's been mostly actors and lawyers, often with as little art or justice as the cops. It's been observed that a corps of actors has spent more time as Lenny Bruce than Lenny did. In death Lenny has become an actors' dream role of hip cultural rebellion and a lawyers' perfect martyr for free speech.

But Bruce's life and art were certainly more complex than that. In a moving obituary written at the time of Bruce's death in 1966, Jonathan Miller observed the difficulty of Bruce's circumstance, in which he was caught between two walls of vested interests, villains and sponsors, for whom Bruce had become target or mascot. Miller observed that Bruce had been unwittingly tossed into the front rank of the war of "evangelical sexual shock therapy" and had sadly become "a stalking horse for middle class liberal dares." The pathos, for Miller, was that while he clearly regarded Bruce as a stage artist of great virtuosity, he also regarded him as an unlettered naif, "intellectually underprivileged," whose talent derived from "a sort of daft, alienated infantilism," a puckish innocence (Miller).

It seems from here that Miller, while a perceptive and dedicated Bruce fan, got it only partly right, the part about Bruce serving both sides as target and martyr in a cultural war. The part he missed was the depth, resonance, and complexity of Bruce's art, and in this Miller was not alone.


The compelling appeal of that art was rooted in Bruce's instrument, his voice. Bruce had the axe, the sound, the chops of a brilliant player, and he had these gifts early on. You can listen to the 1948 performance on the Godfrey Show, when Bruce was twenty-three years old (Let The Buyer). Even doing simple impersonations and dialect, you can hear it, the thrilling, evocative fidelity of the natural mimic. Bruce's devoted and influential fan, Ralph J. Gleason (my boss at Fantasy Records, where I edited a few Bruce albums) told of his first memory of Bruce, on stage in 1958 at Anne's 440 Club in San Francisco, turning his body and actually becoming James Dean, the object of the impression (Gleason 1). The cast of impersonated characters, from life or popular culture or just type, populated Bruce's work, always deliciously rendered, and swept the listener through any routine.

Further, Bruce's sense of timing was exquisite, undoubtedly refined by much work near jazz musicians. On a nightclub stage Bruce evoked the great tradition of the soloist since Louis Armstrong, a dominant, improvisational voice controlling a varied rhythmic gait, from upbeat bebop syncopation to backbeat swing to thrilling pauses, in complete control of time while spontaneous in the moment, even through long shows or concerts.

The voice also held the authentic presence of a distinct comic persona. If the persona was originally much New York wisenheimer and Catskill "tumler," it evolved great wit, dazzling style, and authentic intimacy, what Bob Dylan would call "the brother you never had" (Dylan). For the latter part of his career, the audience arrived and returned devotedly to receive this intimate, cherished letter from Lenny's life.

Formally, most of Bruce's early work operated through the juxtaposition or collision of differing idioms or frames of reference. These frames included New York, Yiddish, show business, and hipster music and drug subcultures. There was also the library of low popular culture from Bruce's youth, including B-movies, radio shows, and comic books, and Bruce was early and unselfconscious in legitimizing these. There was another important juxtaposition or tension that wove through all this, one of psychic frames, the rub between public and private realities, between history and the kitchen or bedroom. In time Bruce would add intellectual and legal idioms and frames to this delirious mix.

We can see such counterpoint at work even in the earliest and simplest of Bruce's routines or bits, such as "Djinni in the Candy Store" (Interviews), which evolves from the setting of a lower-east side candy store, into which Bruce conjures a B-movie like The Thief of Baghdad. Just when we think we're over the first bump, resulting in the owner getting his wish of income property in Florida, we get another bump when a customer too modestly wishes, in the local idiom, "Make me a malted," to which the literal-minded Sabu-like genie responds, "You're a malted."

Other early, simple juxtapositions propel "The Comics" (Thank You), in which Dick Tracey's coat and hat mark him either as the iconic pop culture detective or conversely as an Orthodox Jew. In "Tarzan" (Thank You), in which Bruce launches from Weismuller's Tarzan, the half-naked, publicly unacknowledged soft-core eroticism of the movies is revealed by Boy to an unaware Tarzan by to mask some private monkeyshines by Jane and Cheetah, and the wounded but hardly innocent Tarzan cries out in disgust over that "hooker" and "freak monkey." In "Enchanting Transylvania" (Interviews) Bruce summons up Boris Karlof as narrator and Bela Lugosi from Dracula as a beleaguered showman and domestic failure on the road with his yiddishe family in boxes and his harridan wife denigrating the dapper Count as a "pimp" whose slicked hair dirties the pillowcases. This incongruous mix results in the perfect concatenation of Lugosi impression, show biz argot, and Jewish family life, "I'm tr-rying to br-ring home a little br-read."

These juxtapositions could simply play out as incongruities or absurd situations, such as "Non Skeddo Flies Again" (Sick), "Airplane Glue," and "The Lost Boy" (American), and many early bits were thus "situational" sketches, widely popular in that time in the works of Nichols and May, Shelley Berman, and Bob Newhart. Perhaps through parody of radio and film, or maybe through the interest in cabaret theater noted by his biographer Albert Goldman, Bruce began to develop them into dramas, with the dissonant frames elaborating the characters and fueling the conflict (Goldman 309). In this way, the bits became aural sketches or vignettes, brilliant radio plays of some dramatic shape, with Lenny playing all the characters, adroitly doing sound effects and dropping in narration.

In "Father Flotski's Triumph" (Interviews), Bruce invokes the Thirties prison film through a stew of B classics like San Quentin, Mutiny in the Big House, and Prison Break allowing Bruce to cut loose on impressions of Hume Cronyn, H. B. Warner, Pat O'Brien, and Barton MacLane, but also allowing him a delirious revision of the genre, especially the characteristic late Thirties grim realism masking a deep New Deal sociological optimism, now played against a Fifties New York hipster's sense of surreal skepticism, particularly about race, romance, and redemption in prison. (Bruce was a pioneer in such revisionist genre parody, later brought to film in the works of Mel Brooks; elements of "Hitler and the MCA" echo in The Producers, "Enchanting Transylvania" in Young Frankenstein, and "Thank You Masked Man" in Blazing Saddles.)

"The Sound" (Thank You) represents just such an expansive genre revision, taking off from a music biopic like Young Man with a Horn, with the young Beiderbecke figure hanging out in a musicians' union men's room to meet his Armstrong-like trumpet idol. Inspired, the young trumpeter then embarks on a disastrous career as a noisy bebopper in swing bands, only to end up a junkie applying for a job with Lawrence Welk, allowing another Olympian Bruce impression. Here we get not only the deflation of the genre's myth of artistic fulfillment, we get collisions between evolving musical styles as well as between straight and hip cultures, once again coming to a perfect note when the junkie musician asks for some "bread up front" and Welk responds, "You hungry? You vant a sandvich?"

Bruce regarded "Religions, Inc." (Sick) as his breakout routine, originating in an actual event, his being rebuffed by a priest, leading to the joke, "I tried to talk to a priest...and he sold me a chance on a Plymouth." This "joke" evolved into "The Dodge-Plymouth dealers had a convention, and they raffled off a 1958 Catholic Church" (How 122). Whatever its genesis, the bit works on the juxtaposition of the conventions of the melodrama of business success and media evangelism, both of which flowered in the Fifties, as well as the juxtaposition of public versus private truth afforded by the event of the professional meeting. That these were media evangelists gave Bruce occasion for impressions of Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and Stephen Wise. Much of the power of the routine derives not only from the perfect tonality of the imitations, especially the musical cadences of Roberts, but of the idiom of the meeting. Although nominally on Madison Avenue, Bruce couches this meeting not in some remote language of uptown finance, but rather in the vulgar street argot of the shingle and siding hustler/comics that Bruce hung out with at Hanson's Drugstore in New York. Billy warns the assembly against "individual hustling" in the lobby and Oral confides "Yes, I'm dumb, I got two Lincoln Continentals, that's how goddamn dumb I am." We get not only the fidelity of the imitations but the authentic character of the street hustler. Bruce himself had been busted in Miami Beach as Brother Mathias, collecting some money for lepers in British Guiana but most for himself. This authenticity of character informed Bruce's best work, building these preachers not only on dialects but also on layers of pretense and larceny, and we need only listen to "Fat Boy" to hear another emotionally true variation on the hustler character.

It's in "Religions, Inc." we see the arrival of perhaps the most widely celebrated aspect of Bruce's work, as fully developed satire. Here the juxtapositions or counterpoints of frames or idioms are not just for novel or incongruous effect, but rather serve to expose or uncover some underlying and widespread folly or vice. Billy, the head of these hucksters, calls the main office in Rome and complains, regarding public pressure for school integration, "They want us to say, 'Let them go to school with them,'" and regarding the ban-the-bomb movement, "They keep saying, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' means that, not Amend Section A." The juxtaposition of religious figures at a hucksters' convention illuminates the moral follies of segregation and war and the overall vice of the hypocrisy of religions that hide or condone these. Here Bruce hits his stride as a satirist, a great source of his critical acclaim.

Besides these constructs in counterpoint, there was another mode that was important in Bruce's evolution, that of a long, linear narrative bit, "The Palladium" (I Am Not), another early yet fully developed routine, with first person or confessional reverberations. In this routine a low-end Las Vegas lounge comic Frankie Dell, unhappy playing the "toilets," overreaches by talking his agent into booking him into a "class room," London's Palladium. The vanity of entertainers had already been grist for Bruce, in "The Tribunal," an early bit in which performers are called to heavenly account for their meager talents and bloated earnings, allowing Bruce to make his self-effacing point while doing his impressions. Here, the extended symphonic line of "The Palladium," rather than his usual driving syncopation through counterpoint, allows Bruce to develop a much more deeply layered drama. In it Bruce depicts in rich detail the world of the American lounge comedian as well as that of the great British music hall tradition he foolishly barges into. The agony of this arrogant failure before a hostile audience is exquisitely modulated, perhaps as a performer's self-exposure ranking alongside Osborne/Olivier's The Entertainer. That Frankie Dell was an actual minor league comic does not diminish the routine's first person power, as the very act by which Frankie Dell bombs is full of echoes of Bruce's own stance, it's "squaresville out there," and material, "fag at the ballgame,""hep smoke the reefer," and "show business heaven." Not only personally confessional, but also artistically self-aware, the routine travels backward with amazing historical density, from LA and Vegas to British vaudeville, tracking with loving accuracy the lineage of that vulgar entertainment which became night club comedy, while painting the purest picture of that kill-or-be-killed struggle between comic and audience that is stand-up.

This first person mode was less formally mediated than the counterpoint style, and critic Kenneth Tynan recognized "The Palladium" as Bruce's "least Swiftian bit" (Tynan VIII). But it was also vital in Bruce's subsequent development. Perhaps influenced by Beat poetry's great pull toward the personal voice, quite strong in its time, Bruce would increasingly work without the nets of juxtaposition and third person narrative conventions, in commentary forms he termed "recitative" and eventually that "talking to oneself " he identified as "stream of conscious" and "free-form" (How 57). This mode would be especially important in his later work.

Alongside the evolving first person mode, Bruce worked on a further extension of his counterpoint style, but amped to the limits. "Thank You Masked Man" (Thank You) was Bruce's last great bit, developed over the latter part of his career even as his other material was becoming more intimate and confessional. It is structured on juxtaposition, like the earlier bits, in this case between the mythic radio version of the Lone Ranger and the personal realities exposed when the townspeople manage to stop him from riding off as usual without a "thank you."

What makes "Thank You Masked Man" so distinct, beyond the other genre parodies, are the bit's speed and complexity. Bruce conjures about seven characters plus a narrator, with the Lone Ranger himself appearing in an additional three voices or personas, more if you count the first appearance through the memory of a townsman. Among this crowd Bruce switches abruptly back and forth through three tenses of time, at breakneck speed, without transitions, cutting between characters and slipping psychological levels of character and tenses, all at bebop time, the myth now fractured and rendered into multiple planes, an experience of supersonic discontinuity. The speed and fracture led that other devoted and influential Bruce fan Nat Hentoff to characterize Bruce's mature style as kaleidoscopic (Hentoff). It's been claimed that Bruce went so fast in this bit he lost track of the voices, but through many performances Bruce kept these many elements pretty much in place.

We have in "Thank You Masked Man" a kind of formal milestone. Repeatedly in his mid-career Bruce's most astute critics compared him to the likes of James Joyce and Charlie Parker, views Bruce allowed. The comparisons suggest Bruce as a modernist, and while his aesthetics were somehow organic rather than conceptually imposed on his work, it's worth examining. Modernism has been arguably the grand artistic impulse of the last era, the search for the new, the experiment with such techniques as fragmentation, dissonance, self reference, ellipsis, difficulty, and alienation, mostly in a push to the front rank of an avant-garde. Bruce played with all these techniques, and "Thank You Masked Man" is clearly an exercise in the fragmentation and dissonant construction of his counterpoint genre parody. "The Palladium" is a bold exercise in the self-referential, in terms of the very comedian working the bit before you, the internal nature of the bit, and the entire history of low comedy. That Bruce favored ellipsis, especially leaving out exposition and endings, is evident through much of the mature work. That Bruce became increasingly difficult, meaning increasingly demanding that his audience accept and work in his own terms, which is also to say elitist, is likewise clear. That Bruce's entire body of work contains a series of experiments in techniques of alienation deserves more notice, from the initial "shocks" of the four letter words to the moment when he would bark into an uncomfortably integrated room of Fifties hipsters, "Any niggers here tonight?" and every atom in the room would stop motion, a perfect effect beyond Brechtian dreams. It was this marvelous kit of techniques that led Jonathan Miller to call the mature Bruce a "mad projectionist," a most valuable insight which aptly places Bruce alongside folks like Godard in fomenting modernism in popular culture (Miller).

But "Thank You Masked Man" is not just a formal milestone, it's an exploration of the true identity of a "good man, better than Christ and Moses," a measure of the intellectual and moral complexity of Bruce's later work. We start at the outside of the myth, with the Lone Ranger riding away from some townspeople, Dominic and a half dozen others, most of them seemingly frontier New Yorkers. Dominic is immediately irate over the missed chance for normal gratitude, handshakes, mama's cake, and the mayor's plaque. The Second Guy excuses the Lone Ranger by his representation in psychoanalytic terms, "He's going to analysis, he can't accept love," and by his recollection as just a fellow neurotic New Yorker, " 'You should be an outlaw like I'm an outlaw,' " and we are inside the living myth. Dominic wonders about the silver bullets, and a Third Guy, with a British accent, the voice of knowledge, joins in to infer a damning symbolism for the bullet, a charge of the universal corruption of syphilis. Incensed, Dominic then captures the Lone Ranger, who finally speaks, in the voice Bruce used for Tarzan and Broadway musicals, the sound of straight-life goyish mainstream heroes, but quickly slips into a yiddishe "I sent the boys to college," revealing, "the Masked Man's a Jew," then slips back out, though this secret Jew will chime in again later. The Masked Man explains that he has abstained from gratitude and reward in full awareness, even unto dramatizing an imagined present and old age, of their vanities and deadly addictions.

But Dominic, an endless source of abrasive main street pressure, is unrelenting, so the Masked Man accepts his reward, but now completely on his own terms, in the forms of Tonto ("whatever the spic halfbreed's name is") and Silver ("the horse"), for unnatural acts. The Masked Man has devolved from a remote god to a conventional hero, secretly Jewish, to a cruel, unbound degenerate. Likewise Dominic has slipped from a grateful if hostile small-town hillbilly son and parent to an aggressive city-employed boor to finally a blue-nosed citizen nauseated by the disgusting "fag man" he has unmasked.

"Thank You Masked Man" is a funhouse ride, in which the exposure of character and motive results in some valuable knowledge, who the god-like Masked Man really is, even secretly, along with some speculations and rationalizations on why he acts the way he does, some imaginings of indulgent possibilities, and finally the payoff, what he truly thinks and desires. But in this exposure something seemingly gets changed, as The Masked Man becomes unbound, and something destroyed, whatever viability the original mythic situation had for both the Masked Man and Dominic.

In his imagined old age the Lone Ranger, at the end of a long trail of thank you's, unveils the ethical formulation at the heart of this bit:
"Men like Jonas Salk, Lenny Bruce, and J. Edgar Hoover, these men thrive upon the continuance of segregation, violence, and disease. The purity they dost protest a need for they dost feed upon."
In his search for the good man, Bruce finds that a healer, a seer, and a lawman are simply dialectical partners of the evils they fight. Nat Hentoff astutely observed that Bruce, icon of a culture of rebellion, was in fact a complex moral relativist (Hentoff). It is this complex, multifaceted sensibility that expands in Bruce's later works.


The development of the counterpoint structures into full-blown satire marked Bruce's breakout in "Religions, Inc.," and in this light he would eventually be compared to no less than Swift, Rabelais, and Twain. The targets of Bruce's satire were the follies of mid-century American attitudes towards religion, race, sex, and politics, and the language by which these topics were broached in public.

Of all these, it was the satire of religion which gained Bruce the most fame, and, some think, the most heat, especially in Chicago. If "Religions, Inc." was the breakout, "Christ and Moses" is the grand satire of religion of the mature period (Carnegie). In this routine, the Good Book is bombing, so for a rewrite Christ and Moses come down to earth, first on Saturday looking for Jewish shuls on Rivington Street or Second Avenue on New York's Lower East Side, in storefronts taken over by the gypsies, then to the West Coast A-frame or Frank Lloyd Wright shuls, where the rabbis, so reform they're ashamed they're Jewish, sound like Luther Adler performing Shakespeare on the pulpit, though privately they still sound as yiddishe as Mister Kitzel. This Shakespearean reform rabbi can sermonize:
"There's been a lot of talk about 'Is there a God?" We don't know, that's not what we're here for. We're here to build the new Jewish Community Center."
The current state of Judaism revealed, Christ and Moses then fly back to New York, to St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday, where the bit's grand homily is dispensed right up front, as Christ wonders to Moses what forty Puerto Ricans in Harlem are doing living in one room when this priest has a ring on worth eight grand, and also wonders at the grandeur of the room, why aren't the Puerto Ricans living here? We then switch for the rest of the routine to the altar, where Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheehan preside. Here, whispering "Oh Mister Gallagher, Oh Mister Shean," Bruce flashes his brilliant conceit. Spellman and Sheehan are performers like the solo Shakespearean rabbi, but they are a double bill, a vaudeville comedy team like Gallagher & Shean or Smith & Dale. In this act Bishop Sheehan, the second banana (sometimes "played" by Hugh Hubert), runs up to Spellman (sometimes Ed Begley) at the lectern:
"Psst, I wanna talk to you."

"Will you go back to the blackboard and stop bugging me."

"I wanna talk to you... I've got a customer in the back."

"All right put the choir on for ten minutes. What is it?"

"What is it? You'll never guess who's here."

"Who's here?"

"You're not gonna believe me... you're gonna think I've been drinking."
At the altar at St. Pat's, we have these two slapstick clowns doing patter, like Smith & Dale doing "Doctor Kronkheit." This setup fires an anticlerical satire with even more reach and power than the den of shingle and siding hustlers of "Religions, Inc." We effortlessly glide past priestly issues like hierarchy and alcohol, right to theology itself:
"All right, who's here?"

""Christ and Moses."

"Are you putting me on? Are you sure it's them?"

'Well, I've just seen them in pictures. Moses is a ringer for Charlton Heston."

"Where are they?"

"Standing way in the back."

"Don't look now you idiot, they can see us."

"They're way in the back."

"Did Christ bring the family? What's his mother's name? That's weird, I read the book today."

"I'm so nervous, Mary... "

"Mary what?"

"Mary Hale, no Hail Mary, Hairy Mary, Hail Mary Full of Grace Thompson, they're very thick with the Duponts at Montauk Point.
In an instant belief and spiritual vision are replaced by media images of lesser gods who can see only in sightlines, served by a bumbling priesthood more familiar with the social register than scripture. What was implicit in "Religions, Inc." is here explicit. These buffoon priests don't know and don't believe, and we are launched somewhere between Moliere and Beckett. Having reached these heights of anti-clericalism, Bruce then broadens his aim:
"They're back there?"


"All right. If this ever gets around... it has. Oh Christ, don't look at the front door, the lepers are coming. Sir, would you take the bell off? Thank you very much. Mister, would you pick up your leg, madam, your nose, you dropped? Thank you there. They got Sophie Tucker with Moses, posing. Take that Hebrew National banner down! Mister Jessel, will you get off the Madonna, that's not a statue! All right, give me a direct line to Rome, quickly. Rome? Hello John, Fran in New York. Listen, a couple of the kids dropped in. Yeah, you know them. I can't really talk right now."
Just like in "Religions, Inc.," the harried Spellman calls the boss. Meanwhile Newsweek shows up and wants to know if Christ and Moses have State Department clearance, then a kid appears and, standing on Spellman's hems, wants to know if they can fly and if so is Mary Martin God's mother.

Unlike "Religions, Inc.", where the institution of religion is the target, the satire is broadened here to include a humanity of leprous living dead, pushy Hebes, deranged press, and bratty kid heretics. The result of this apocalyptic visit is that St. Pat's turns into Bedlam, the messianic moment arrives as farce, nice since Al Shean was the uncle of the Marx Brothers. Spellman calls Pope John XXIII for help:
"Hello, you know them, one kid is, well, (sings) with the cross of bap-bap. No, not Zorro. Them. That's right. He brought a very attractive Jewish boy with him. We gotta do something... I don't Know, I can't... put 'em up at your place. No, I didn't paint or anything, I got a lot of kids staying over here."
Media images also predominate in Rome, and like hierarchy and alcohol we slip lightly past the hint of homosexuality. Suddenly Bruce breaks the easy comic mood, violently changing the tone: "What are we paying protection for?" It's a shocking effect, suggesting a power relationship somewhere between franchise and gangland, carrying us back to the stark tone of the initial homily on wealth amidst poverty. Then Bruce instantly slips back to the comic mood.
"That's right just get 'em over here, that's all. I don't want to hear about that. All I know is that we're up to our ass in crutches and wheelchairs. Is that good enough for you? The place is ridiculous. Yeah they're in the back, way in the back."
Suddenly Bruce flips the mood again:
"Of course they're white. Yeah, this is New York, Puerto Ricans stand in the back. Which ones are they Sheehan?"

"The ones that are glowing."
Having given the hapless Sheehan the gag line, Bruce often broke off the bit here. As satire, the routine has a greater reach than Religions, Inc., able to touch more issues. Formally, it is clearly a later work, fragmented, dissonant in it's mix of tonalities, self-referential in its foregrounding of a great low comedy form, and elliptical in its rearrangement of what we might call the vaudeville build and in its open ending. Most important, as a later work it evokes a greater philosophical complexity, broadening out the satire to the scale of farce, an indictment at once more sweeping yet more forgiving, in that folly and vice are now universal.

The satire of race in America was also a source of notoriety for Bruce. Among his earlier works, "How to Relax Your Colored Friends," usually done with guitarist and friend Eric Miller, in which a typical lowbrow white guy chats with a black musician working a party, charging blindly past the most telling racist clichÃ?ˆs, from "that Joe Louis was a helluva fighter," to "here's to Bojangles" and "Aunt Jemima" and "Steppin Fetchit" and "Paul Robeson" to "keep in his place" to "fried chicken and watermelons" to "don't do it to my sister" (American). The routine works from Bruce's deadly impression, but perhaps even beyond, again from a depth of character, as Bruce connects with the guiltless energy of this dumb guy's unselfconscious racism. There is also the shock of the public airing of private thoughts, especially for Bruce's "hip" audience, and "Paul Robeson" is a curve thrown at them.

The later satire on race was "Any Niggers Here Tonight?", a mature, non-narrative, stream of consciousness "recitative," so compressed, metrically controlled and alliterative it begs to be treated as verse.
By the way, are there any niggers here tonight?

"What did he say? Are there any niggers here tonight?

Jesus Christ is that cruel. Does he have to get that low for laughs? Wow!"

Have I ever talked about the schvartzes when the schvartzes had gone home,

Or spoken about the moulanyans when they'd left,

Or placated some southerner by absence of voice

When he ranted or raved about nigger-nigger-nigger?

Are there any niggers here tonight?

I know that one nigger who works here, I see him back there.

Oh, there's two niggers, customers, and, aha!

Between those two niggers sits one kike, thank God for the kike.

Uh, two kikes, that's two kikes, and three niggers and one spic.

One spic, two, three spics. One mik.

One mic, one spic, one hick thick funky spunky boogie.

And there's another kike, three kikes.

Three kikes, one guinea, one greaseball.

Three greaseballs, two guineas.

Two guineas, one hunky funky lace-curtain Irish mick.

That mick, spic, hunky funky boogey.

Two guineas plus three greaseballs and four boogies makes usually three spics,

Minus two yid spic polack funky spunky polacks.

Five more niggers! Five more niggers!

I pass with six niggers and eight miks and four spics.

The point? That the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness,

If President Kennedy got on television and said,

"Tonight I'd like to introduce all the niggers in my cabinet,"

And he yelled, "nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger" at every nigger he saw, "boogey-boogey-boogey-boogey-boogey, nigger-nigger-nigger-nigger,"

'till nigger didn't mean anything any more, 'till nigger lost its meaning,

You'd never make any four-year old nigger cry when he came home from school (Essential 15)
As noted, the first line, "By the way, are there any niggers here tonight?" was on first hearing in an integrated audience among the most electrifying theatrical moments of a lifetime, a formal device Bruce immediately acknowledges and trumps by addressing the audience in its own voice, legitimizing the obvious reaction to this assault. Then, in an ambiguous voice, perhaps still the audience's, he raises the charge of genteel, private racism. Then back to Bruce's voice, again on the assault, perhaps more immediate, the ante upped, "one nigger who works here" and "two niggers, customers" being relentlessly savage, resuming the audience's jeopardy. Then the relief, the notice of kikes, spics, miks, guineas, etc., diffusing the cruelty. Finally the moral, the call to resolution, the fable about the public use of taboo epithets in order to destroy their wounding power, and we see this routine is as much about the conventional moral code of forbidden public language, the "zug-gornisht" or say nothing, as it is about racism, even as it uses that power of taboo to shock and manipulate the audience. There is also the pattern of the language, the task of disarming these verbal weapons through repetition, although in the second stanza a scheme emerges, seemingly an auction, becoming more like bidding a bridge hand, these angry ethnic labels becoming like card suits, both apt metaphors in a routine about race in America.

It's also the formal achievement of this routine that is so arresting. You can't hear it without recognizing something like blank verse, with a diction of alliteration and internal rhyme to both shocking and comic effects. Structurally, it clusters in stanzas, something like a modern sonnet, but perhaps closer to a jazz number, somewhere between a twelve bar blues and a thirty-two bar song, not iambic but rather a strong trochee, just right for a staccato bebop solo, Bruce's "Ko Ko". Here Bruce reaches the top of his game, as a satirist of racism and forbidden language and as a modernist altering an art form.

Sexuality was another large target for Bruce's satire. If the satires on religion worked to expose the moral hypocrisies of institutional religion, the satires on sex served to expose the follies of the repressive conventional, puritanical, even Victorian sexual values then prevailing in American culture. In an early studio bit, "Psychopathia Sexualis," a spoof on Beat "poetry and jazz" numbers in which the poet recounts the problems of a bestial romance with a horse, Bruce displays a familiarity with basic Freudian concepts, the therapeutic process, and the Krafft-Ebbing work on deviancy (Sick). His bit on the "Dirty Toilet" was clearly Freudian, observing we are hung up on dirty toilet jokes, though the toilet is a neutral object, because of bad early toilet training, "All right, he made a ka-ka, call the policeman" (Curran). Similarly, such repressive training produces taboo "dirty" words and the "corrupt fa�ade" of acceptable public speech, "Where's the little boy's room?" and the need for double entendre jokes, which Bruce hated. Early on Bruce asserted a highly "progressive", romantic, even hedonist view, "If my body is dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer." Bruce links this repression to Christianity, in which St. Paul proves he's the best man in the tribe by giving up the most, "F-u-c-k no more Paul." Repression of sexuality, that "doing it is dirty, filthy," results in "tramps", who "have babies in their bellies and no rings on their fingers and they get their just deserts by bleeding to death in the back of taxicabs." The attendant suppression of sexual language results in "the clap" being a taboo term, so when your son gets it, he can't go to his father or his doctor, and "he's lucky if he can go to some schmuck who sweeps up a drugstore."

Among satires on repressed sexuality and related language taboos, "Tits and Ass," was perhaps the most acclaimed, and the title, in full or as T&A, has passed into our vernacular (Carnegie). A mature work with the slightest narrative structure, a dialogue between a voice close to Bruce's other first person commentaries and a regular citizen sounding like Dominic in "Thank You Masked Man," this bit uses the marquees on the Las Vegas Strip to illuminate Bruce's two great enemies, the repressed culture and its absurd language taboos. In this "entertainment capital of the world," what is the main attraction? Not the Passion Play or Monet or symphony or ballet, but "tits and ass." When the good citizen objects, "Just tits and ass?" the reply is "Oh no, an Apache team and tits and ass." The good citizen observes, "that's about all I actually go to see, the Apache team." Similarly erotic content is featured in Life, Look, Nugget, and even National Geographic, always rationalized for the reader by various pretenses, clearly the operation of repression and denial. The citizen admits, "That may be the truth, but you can't just put 'Tits and Ass Nightly' up on the marquee" because "it's dirty and vulgar." The marquee becomes the emblem the mainstream culture's neurotically repressed attitude toward erotic entertainment, a hypocrisy Bruce knew well, having developed in the lower, less conflicted cultural realms as a burlesque emcee. It was also a perfect emblem of the paradox of denotative language being nonetheless taboo, which the routine tries to resolve by translation to Yiddish, Latin, French, and finally images, "American tits and ass, Grandma Moses' tits and Norman Rockwell's ass." It is a savage satiric image of these two old mainstays of folk art and Americana, and Bruce then tops the anger with comic absurdity, "Harpo Marx playing one big nipple." Despite the ending, this bit smokes with Bruce's anger toward repression, taboo, and Las Vegas as the capital of this cultural neurosis.

The other mature routine on sexuality is "To Is A Preposition, Come Is A Verb," a late routine that shares much with "Any Niggers Here Tonight?" A "recitative" with some narrative, it likewise drifts toward blank verse and jazz solo, aided by Bruce's own accompaniment on drums. Like "Tits and Ass" it uses the examination of taboo language, in this case a simple verb with wholly different meanings in public and private, to explore sexuality.
To is a preposition, to is a preposition, come is a verb,

To is a preposition, come is a verb,

To is a preposition, come is a verb, the verb intransitive,

To come, to come.

I've heard these two words my whole adult life,

And as a kid when I thought I was sleeping,

To come, to come.

It's been like a big drum solo.

Did you come, did you come good?

Did you come good, did you come good, did you come good, did you come good, did you come good, did you come good, did you come good ?

Recitative: I come better with you sweetheart than anyone in the whole goddamn world.

I really came so good, I really came so good because I love you,

I really came so good, I come better with you sweetheart

Than anyone in the whole world

I really came so good, so good..

But don't come in me, don't come in me,

Don't comimme mimme mimme,

Don't comimme mimme mimme,

Don't comimme,

Don't comimme, mimme,

Don't comimme, mimme.

I can't come.

Cause you don't love me, that's why you can't come

I love you, I just can't come, that's my hang-up,

I can't come when I'm loaded, all right?

Cause you don't love me.

Just what the hell's the matter with you,

What has that got to do with loving you?

I just can't come, that's all

Now if anyone in this room or the world finds those two words decadent, obscene, immoral, amoral, asexual,

The words to come really make you feel uncomfortable,

If you think I'm rank for saying it to you,

The ear of the beholder gets rank from listening to it,

Then you probably can't come (Let the Buyer).
There is clearly an element of shock in the choice and manipulation of this phrase, so private it almost disappears behind the veil between language and emotion. The manipulation is, however, here playful, underlined by Bruce's use of a Maurice Chevalier voice or the melodies of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" or "I Won't Dance," allusions to "naughty" but buttoned up erotic song in popular culture. What marks the bit as a later work is that, excepting the kiss off of the final stanza, the revelation is not simply that of a hedonist exposing a repressed or neurotic culture, but rather an exploration of the universal paradoxes of human sexuality. The taboo language serves not just repression but also covers the mysteries of anxious, loving, fearful, and incomplete sex, and so fascinatingly evokes a kind of Victorian wisdom.

While Bruce featured a lot of topical material, he didn't gravitate toward purely political satire, sometimes begging off by conceding this area to comics like Mort Sahl. Early topical routines like "Ike, Sherm and Nick" and the bits on Eisenhower, Goldwater, Kennedy, or the bomb were less political than situational, juxtapositions of history with show business or domestic idioms. Perhaps politics were passed over because Bruce regarded them as corrupt follies and unalloyed vice by definition: "If all the politicians are crooked, then there is no crooked." He would, however, revive some political concerns in his later work.


Clearly Bruce's mature work, from "Thank You Masked Man" to "Christ and Moses" to "Any Niggers Here Tonight" to "To Is A Preposition, Come Is A Verb," became increasingly complex and demanding in both style and meaning. The responses of Bruce's fans were mixed. Some responded like the ringside Chicago gangsters in the Shelly Berman bit, with cognitive dissonance; they just didn't hear it. You can sense these blank moments in everything from the Carnegie Hall concert onwards. Some, like John Cohen, editor of The Essential Lenny Bruce, noticed and forgave Bruce:
Despite his philosophy of facing up to "What is" instead of swallowing the legends of "what should be," he never faced the ultimate truth of what is in America. He never faced the facts of what is with the police, the government, the courts and the judges that busted and murdered him. He was afraid to... it's hard to split completely from the Biggest Daddy of them all, the Establishment (Cohen 307).
The notion that Bruce lacked the courage to swim against the tide and pay the price is absurd to anyone familiar with the facts of the later years of his life. But even perceptive supporters like Jonathan Miller were prone to treat his late work as evidence of Bruce's limitations. One of Bruce's most successful lawyers once observed to me that Bruce was a systems analyst, not a systems builder, which I took to mean a recognition of Bruce's powers of observation but also an assertion of his ostensible lack of ideology. This sense of limitation, often attributed to his persecution, was the way some of Bruce's core audience came to regard him.

On the contrary, Bruce's views had been evolving, broadening from the narrow vantage of an alienated outsider or marginal victim of foolish or evil institutions, reaching for a picture which included the whole society or, as he increasingly termed it, the tribe. This shift from a narrow iconoclasm to his own wider speculations in Brucean anthropology had been going on for some time, maybe encouraged by his celebration by critics and fans as a prophet or primitive Christian preacher or even tribal shaman, and probably supported by his later preoccupation with the law. This broadening of perspective is clear in "Christ and Moses" and "To Is A Proposition, Come Is A Verb" and much of his later work on religion, sex, and even politics.

As "Religions, Inc." targeted the institution of religion and "Christ and Moses" broadened the satire to farce, with a universal sense of folly and vice, so Bruce's view of religion kept on evolving:
I used to do a bit, four years ago, "Religions Inc.," so my view at that time was, here's a rich church, Catholicism, next door is poverty, so it's hypocrisy. Obvious view. So I started digging, digging, reading, reading, getting into it, then I realized, the reason for the baroque church, the grand church in the poverty neighborhood is that, what the church is is a school... . A raggedy-ass guy won't go into a raggedy-ass temple. He says, "I'm living in a shithouse, what do I gotta go in one for?" But if you can show him something nice, he can understand, you can instruct him (Berkeley).
Bruce's treatment of race, another major topic for satire, was also marked by subtle complications. Even while doing the early "How to Relax Your Colored Friends," Bruce would mention that the Eric Miller character was at this lowbrow, racist white neighborhood party as a musician, not invited as a prop, "which would be Crow Jim, which is the worst," another curve thrown at his hip audience. Even while declaring the Civil Rights struggle won by heavyweights like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bruce was fond of tossing in the cautionary note, "There's a qualitative difference between being refused the right to service and served as refuse," perhaps a Jew's reminder of the hierarchy of victimization. In the latter part of his career, Bruce became increasingly interested in developing some "simpatico for the white Southerner," "people of the earth," whose hillbilly songwriters were "shitkicker poets," a people victimized by another pernicious cultural stereotype (Curran).

Regarding sexuality, that other grand target for satire, clearly by "To Is A Preposition, Come Is A Verb" Bruce was beyond just the exposure of a neurotically repressed culture and into the exploration of the universal paradoxes of human sexuality. These paradoxes were the stuff of Bruce's later observations on courtship, marriage, and divorce. The cornerstone of Bruce's wisdom was the highly 'unenlightened' view of gender, "guys are dogs and chicks are cats," men being simply carnal beasts who will do it to mud or a chicken. This means "cheating is a lady's word." Bruce's advice to both men and women caught with another is "never cop out" (Berkeley). Presumably the institutions of romance and marriage could not survive without their lies, their zug-gornisht. Bruce's entire later curriculum on coming of age was completely at odds with any progressive, therapeutic notion of truth and adjustment; rather, it was sober fireside wisdom from some village or tribe deep in the mists of time. If there is any question about Bruce's skeptical later view of progressive or therapeutic sexuality, he nailed it in an aside about Wilhelm Reich, whom Bruce observed "had a theory about how you could come forever, which might be fun but would be hard on your balls" (Off Broadway).

Another aspect of sexuality scattered throughout Bruce's works was homosexuality. Bruce was everywhere accepting of homosexuality as a regular part of the human drama, even more so in extenuating circumstances like prison. It is telling that the demystification of that good man The Lone Ranger, pulled down from the heights of god-like self denial to the commerce of addictive pleasures, results in his becoming the "Old Fag Man Masked Man." All the same, there was also a refusal to give homosexuals any special pass. They were grist for comedy like anyone else, and some of Bruce's funniest characters, from Kiki the hospital attendant to his fop lawyer in the Judge Axelrod revenge fantasy, are "faggots." Lesbians suffered the same tough treatment, as when the small town "diesel dyke" is discovered to be getting away with murder as the local girl scout master. The constant in all this was Bruce's skeptical radar for any rationalization, as in his dismissal of "that dopey faggot thing, in every missile there's a miss" (Jazz Workshop).

It was in the realm of politics that we get a provocative window into Bruce's increasingly complex later thought. As noted, Bruce's views had been broadening from the vantage of an alienated outsider to include the whole society or tribe. In one of his late routines, Bruce imagines the tribe's evolution of the rule of law, with the people agreeing to sleep in Area A, eat in Area B, and crap in Area C (Berkeley). Such practical agreement is the birth of a consensual polity, requiring fair, secular, universal application of the law and impersonal enforcement of penalties. Bruce turns from this conceptualization to that moment in Sixties American history, in which young people seem to Bruce to confuse this contract by marching and rioting against authority itself, in the persons of cops in short sleeve shirts and nightsticks, who respond, "Gestapo? You asshole, I'm the mailman." This notion of the cop as mailman was the emblem of Bruce's hopeful sense of the rule of law in a democracy:
I love the postman so much. I really feel that's the only place where the authority and the man are one. That's THE man, they're incorruptible, I don't know anybody who knows a postman's nameÃ?…. I know that they're the true law, because with the law, the law's not concerned with your purposes, how noble it is. And the postman wouldn't let a package go three cents light for the rabbi's, priest's ass. He won't get off it, Jim (Berkeley).
Having traveled the world in his youth, Bruce had long observed that capitalism "cooked" for him, because if he got "bugged" at Macy's he could walk across the street to Gimbels, and that communism was like "one big phone company," in pre-breakup days a gargantuan monopoly that served as a metaphor for a totalitarian state. The economic issue for Bruce here was not justice but rather liberty, a view maybe not so common among his audience.

In the Curran Theatre concert Bruce does a bit in which he imagines America losing the Cold War, a fantasy perhaps not completely unwelcome in San Francisco at the time. Bruce observes that while younger people might go with the Russians, he can't, because he is too old to make that change. Then he slyly warns:
When they take over, we're still our tribe. They don't take you outta here, move you to Boston, move him to Biloxi. No, you stay in your own town. So with the young kid, eighteen, he goes with the Russians No, I can't, my tribe, my chick, my friend. "Whatya going with them for? We gotta stick together, because when we get the country back, you tuchas-licker, you're gonna get it" (Curran).
Being identified with this American tribe, Bruce gives even deeper reasons for not going with the Russians:
I don't dig their chicks. That's one. They're gross, they belch, they clap me on the back. I want ladies to be sweet ladies with skirts and perfume and cute (Curran).
Seemingly an absurdly superficial reason, and a joke at his own expense, there is yet in this evocation of Olympic shotputters as ideals of womanhood the clue, for this hustler from New York, burlesque emcee, and champion of hipster hedonism, that something is deeply, repressively, puritanically rotten in Soviet Russia. Bruce elaborates on this scenario. The Russians had everything going for them, their Olympic victories, our civil rights problems, the U-2 spy plane incident, and so we were "on the ropes."
Then, a lot of people, "The Russians are good. They have zoos with no fences between the lions and the sheep." Emiss, is that heavyweight for humanist values? They've done a thing, if you feed the animals enough, the lion doesn't chazer up the sheep. So you start to read, oh Christ, they're really good, the Russians, they're perfect. Then they blew it, by moving Stalin! (Curran).
At the height of Soviet success, Bruce evokes an elemental image of their claim on the world: "zoos with no fences." That such a place, so preposterously romantic that we must strain to imagine how or why sated wild animals would stay collected together, so insanely utopian that it runs contrary to everything we know about the natural world, could somehow be created on earth is seemingly beyond any mark's credulity, even for a veteran trickster. That Bruce finds the lion and the lamb and Christ in all this is no mistake, for beyond the utopian romance fixed in this image lies a great Christian heresy, and Bruce was always at his best on the trail of religious hustlers. The tip-off, Khrushchev's speech and the start of de-Stalinization, is, like the naming of all heresies, the beginning of the end, revealing "They're daddies with stakes, yeah."

How is it Bruce came to these complex, often contrary, sometimes contradictory views on his favorite topics like religion, race, sexuality, and society? One hint was offered by Bruce himself. When asked the obligatory interview question about the nature of comedy, Bruce would answer that "humor is tragedy plus time" (Let the Buyer). On reflection, it seems a genuinely held and deeply revealing answer. Unlike much of his audience, often attracted to the idealism or romance of rebellion, Bruce, like most skeptics, regarded the sad fate of tragedy to be the baseline human condition, which helps explain his anti-romantic moral relativism: "There are no anonymous givers, except maybe the guy who knocks up your daughter" (How 235)

Was Bruce aware of the darkness at the center of his brilliant body of work? In a routine about "The Lie," in which Bruce casts himself as a criminal exposing the culture's pernicious lies, Bruce ends with:
So when I pulled the covers off, the crime I committed, I didn't have anything to replace it. There is none but now what cooks (Curran).

So Bruce was clearly aware that like most iconoclasts he was debunking social and moral conventions in seeking the truth, and like most modernists he was burning up artistic conventions in seeking the new. But in his eventually grim awareness of both the rebel's need to expose received wisdom and the tribes need 'for some kind of shelter, Bruce scribed the entire arc of the arts in his time. His work extends from the flowering of a post-war avant-garde to pre-figuring its exhaustion. Only the circus of post-modernism could follow.

Since his death the worlds of comedy and public speech have been transformed completely. Stand-up comedy exploded amidst the younger generation Bruce was so unsure of reaching, and comedy clubs sprang up everywhere, with Bruce's revision of the art of stand-up predominating. Much of what Bruce was prosecuted for became common fare, not just in the "free speech zones" of comedy clubs and college auditoriums, but also in movies, on cable and network TV, and throughout the mass media. One could even say that public speech went around the bend, and it's possible to imagine Bruce being amazed by the avalanche of traditionally taboo materials on tabloid TV, shock radio, song lyrics, and certainly the internet, most of it accessible to young children. It is also possible that Bruce might have had his reservations about this avalanche, not having been quite the First Amendment absolutist some folks celebrate. In my 'Benchley fantasy' a Supreme Court Justice some day cites Lenny on obscenity: "There's a big difference between a big piece of art with a little shit in the middle and a big piece of shit with a little art in the middle" (Let the Buyer).

On the other hand, Lenny Bruce probably could not perform "Any Niggers Here Tonight?" in any college auditorium in America today. In a bizarre twist of fate, obscenity has been joined by sensitivity and correctness as competing standards of censorship, from opposite ends of the spectrum. Free speech has been challenged not only by "traditional values" on the right but also by "progressive social censorship" and "repressive tolerance" on the left. This is a landscape that Bruce probably would not recognize.

But these are just the fallout and varied speculations that must follow any transcendent talent. What abides is the wondrous body of work of a stand-up comedian who spoke brilliantly to his time and fundamentally changed his art form.


1 The most recent cycle includes: Swear to Tell the Truth, a 1998 documentary by Robert Weide nominated for an Academy Award; a 1998 revival of Julian Barry's play Lenny, with Eddie Izzard; Lenny Bruce: For the Record, a 1999 Court TV program; The Trials of Lenny Bruce, a book by Ronald Collins and David Skover examining the legal aspects of Bruce's career, followed by Collins and Skover's petition and the resulting December, 2003, pardon by Governor Pataki of New York of Bruce for his 1964 obscenity conviction; Mr. Bruce, Do You Swear, a 2004 play by Rob Foster; Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware, a six cd box set of Bruce materials, Shoutfactory, 2004; Lenny's Back, a 2005 play by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein; and another 2005 play Lenny Bruce...In His Own Words by Joan Worth and Alan Sacks.

2 See Collins and Skover, especially regarding testimony in the Chicago trial.

Works Cited

Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. Chicago: Playboy, 1965.

---. I Am Not a Nut, Elect Me. LP Fantasy, 1960; on Lenny Bruce Originals Volume 2, Fantasy, 1991.

---. Jazz Workshop, San Francisco, 6 October 1961, unreleased.

---. Lenny Bruce American. LP Fantasy, 1961; on Lenny Bruce Originals Volume 2.

---. Lenny Bruce: Carnegie Hall. LP United Artists, 1967.

---. Lenny Bruces Interviews of Our Times. LP Fantasy, 1958; on Lenny Bruce Originals Volume 1, Fantasy, 1991.

---. Let the Buyer Beware. Shoutfactory, 2004.

---. Live at the Curran Theatre. LP Fantasy, 1971.

---. Off Broadway, San Francisco, 31 March 1963, unreleased.

---. Thank You Masked Man. LP Fantasy, 1972.

---. The Essential Lenny Bruce. Ed. John Cohen. New York: Ballantine, 1967.

---. The Berkeley Concert. LP Bizarre, 1969.

---. The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce. LP Fantasy, 1959; on Lenny Bruce Originals Volume 1.

Cohen, John. Epilogue. The Essential Lenny Bruce.

Collins, Ronald K. L., and David M. Skover. The Trials of Lenny Bruce. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2002.

Dylan, Bob. "Lenny Bruce." Shot of Love. LP. Columbia, 1981.

Gleason, Ralph J. Liner Notes. The Real Lenny Bruce. LP Fantasy, 1975.

Goldman, Albert. Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!! New York: Random House, 1974.

Hentoff, Nat. "Satire, Schmatire." Commentary 7 July 1961, p 376.

Miller, Jonathan. "On Lenny Bruce (1926-1966)." The New York Review of Books 6 October 1966, p. 10.

Tynan, Kenneth. Forward. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography.

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