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BRIAN MCKIM has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance to a living person is purely coincidental.


Brian McKim
Editor In Chief

"Lenny Bruce"

Christopher Hitchens, (the rumpled, British journalist who frequently appears on TV talk shows and says the most deliciously vicious things about our president), recently did a fascinating hour of television about England's reaction, or over-reaction, to the death of Princess Diana. Fascinating as it was, I was only half-watching it when it was on, occupying myself with a balky printer. What piqued my interest, however, was the segment in which Hitchens interviewed a British standup comic for his perspective.

At the time of Di's death, this particular comic was gigging at a club that was part of a chain (Jongleur's, I believe). He was peeved because the club manager asked (or demanded) that he refrain from making any references to the royal death. He was more than peeved, really--he was indignant. He started throwing around the C-word ("censorship"), and he even went so far as to roll out allusions to Hitler, jackboots and Nazism. (Actually, for a liberal British comedian, the ol' Hitler/jackboots/Nazism triumvarate are always nearby, behind the thinnest pane of glass, with a sign that says "Break glass in even the slightest case of emergency!") His credibility shot, our British comic friend struggled mightily to convince one and all how horrifying it was for a subcontracted comedian, who was taking money in return for entertaining a roomful of paying customers, to be warned away from a certain area of subject matter lest he offend those paying customers. The C-word here is "commerce," not "censorship." I must ask, if he felt so utterly muzzled by this turn of events, was there not plenty of sidewalk on the streets of London where he could exercise his freedom of speech to exhaustion? Of course, he didn't see it that way. He saw it as his birthright to spew in the comfort of a British pub with proper lighting, comfortable seating and a two-drink minimum. I started thinking about comedians and their relation to free speech and freedom in general.

That started me thinking about Lenny Bruce. I was born and raised across the river from the city that hastened Lenny Bruce's inexorable march toward a miserable death (Philadelphia). I've read transcripts of his material, read books about him, viewed video of his later performances. And I recently saw the stunning HBO documentary about him which was packed with tons of footage and info that was news to me. After watching the documentary, however, I was struck by Lenny's seeming lack of perspective.

I remember being on stage in Cuyahoga Falls, OH, at Hilarities, after just having rented and watched Lenny. Somewhere in the middle of my act, I paused briefly and a voice from the darkness from the left side of the room yelled out "Hey, nice shirt!" I paused briefly and said, calmly, "Fuck you." Fresh from the experience of Lenny, I immediately reasoned that, were it not for Lenny Bruce, I would not have had the freedom to say such a thing in a public place--at least not without fear of being hauled off and jailed. I silently thanked Mr. Bruce for sacrificing his life for my freedom of speech.

I have since concluded that Lenny's response to my silent prayer would have been, "Fuck you." In the three decades and change since his death, some folks have tried to make Lenny appear to be something he isn't. The recent HBO documentary continues to do so. Phil Spector said, in a gross oversimplification, that Lenny died from "an overdose of police." I maintain that he died from an overdose of cynicism and impatience. The same two qualities that made him one of the great comics of his or any other era contributed greatly to his downfall. His impatience with modern mores and conventions and his cynicism with regard to America's contradictions gave him an edge, a hipness, a head start on his audience that made him appear brilliant, prescient. He often professed a respect for the law and a lack of real animosity toward the police and he frequently demonstrated a thorough understanding of the Constitution. These qualities are frequently left out of any discussion of Lenny or any dramatization of his life. It makes for a better story if Lenny is seen as bitter and cynical offstage as well as on. Somewhere along the way (probably very near the end), he wavered in his faith in the way America works. That lapse of faith (and a truckload of licit and illicit drugs) is what killed him. Toward the very end, he may actually have been as bitter offstage as he was onstage. However, only nine months before his death, in an interview in a college newspaper, Bruce was said to be "pleased to find a healthy climate dispersing throughout the country--a climate where people no longer allow a distinguished congressman to be their only voice."

One of the tragedies of his demise is the timing. (How ironic is that?) After a lengthy period of harassment, incarcerations, court dates, bannings and forced inactivity, Lenny died. Had he held out a little while longer, he would have had some measure of relief in the form of a New York State Supreme Court ruling that basically told everybody to lay off. Ralph Gleason said that Lenny "couldn't work with lawyers: lawyers want to make accomodations, and Lenny Bruce wanted vindication." Again, impatience killed Lenny Bruce. If Lenny had stepped back and viewed his situation in even broader terms, he might have seen a light at the end of the tunnel. Lenny got that vindication, but it was too late. HOME Back to the Top