Lenny Bruce Everywhere
Acknowledging the comic’s gift to Zappa, Mailer, Roth, and the other macho titans of eccentric 1960s pop
Looking For Lenny, a new documentary by Elan Gale that is making the festival circuit this summer, takes as its subject the comedian Lenny Bruce, who died 46 years ago today. The film’s title could be the name of the history of everything for the last 50 years, or 2,000 years. “I thought from there I could get a thread to the secrets of the culture,” wrote Keith Richards in his recent memoir, of listening to Lenny Bruce LPs as a teen. “He was my entreé into American satire.”
Lenny is everywhere, like a trail dropped out of a fertilizer truck. Jim Morrison, too, was a fan. A recent biography notes that Morrison bought Lenny LPs as a kid; his later antics, like screaming obscenities or dropping his pants in public, were clear homages. Lenny’s death “bothered Jim.” That night, playing the Whiskey bombed on acid, Morrison stopped and hurled himself into the crowd, lunging at David Crosby, slapping him and screaming, “WAKE UP!” It was a war, in a sense, between two schools of Lenny worship: the dark burrower into the unconscious, aligned with death (i.e., Morrison), and the public prophet with a political and sexual message in Crosby. The Byrds, Crosby’s band, were first booked by Lenny’s mother, and Bruce even came to see them, his shadows, in their flickering forms, as they created the 1960s in his image.
Ever since Aug. 3, 1966, when he sat on the toilet, his favorite place in the world, about to be sent to four months of jail with hard labor, the foreclosure notice on his house having just arrived, and he shot up for the last time, the culture has been trying to figure out Lenny Bruce. Even at his funeral was a sense of uncertainty. “We were on our way to celebrate the short life of a guy we didn’t know much about except for the indisputable fact that he’d been very, very HIP,” writes Pamela des Barres in her groupie memoir I’m With the Band. She saw Frank Zappa, mourning in his flowered bell-bottoms and sneakers. “Lenny was a saint,” he said. Soon Zappa moved back to California to work on his next project, which he described then as “a musical science fiction horror story based on the Lenny Bruce trials” but which turned into albums like We’re Only in It for the Money, a satirical broadside at the Beatles and all youth culture. It begins with a strange voice whispering it’s going to “erase every tape in the world,” starting with Zappa’s own. “That’s what they are now. Blank, empty space,” the voice continues. “I know he’s sitting in there, in the control room now, listening to everything I say, but I really don’t care.” That’s Lenny.
Movies have been looking for Lenny since the early 1960s. Stanley Kubrick tried to enlist him to work on what became Dr. Strangelove; and Ingmar Bergman, a big fan (“he dared to tell people the truth”), in 1968 directed a stage production inspired by Lenny called Show, about an aging clown betrayed by the comedians he travels with. Bergman evidently had some interest in turning Show into a movie, but he never did. Steven Spielberg was a fan, perhaps sensing, as Zappa had, Lenny’s odd proximity to sci-fi. Lenny’s wife, Honey, in her autobiography, says Bruce rewrote a script called The Kid From Outer Space, as he wrote and acted in two movies, Dance Hall Racket in 1953 and Dream Follies, only the first of which I’ve seen, and it’s full of alien imagery. In it, Lenny reads the newspaper, exclaiming, “This is the most crazy story! It’s about a space guy coming down on a beam!” In a TV pilot he did around the same time, he sits on a stool in darkness, planets floating behind him.
Lenny became mass media. Director Elan Gale got his start with shows like The Bachelor—which makes a kind of sense, since Lenny also basically invented reality TV. In the early ’60s, Lenny would talk of getting a group of people in a house wired like a film studio, thinking that all kinds of weird psychodramas would happen. Though he passed on the idea of manipulating people, experimenting on them, pressing them into social and sexual contortions, he left little in the way of tapes documenting the power of his live performances. There’s early talk-show spots where a brightly lit Jewish funnyboy does a bit about sniffing airplane glue, and a shadowy film he did shortly before his death, in which he comes off, as one reviewer noted, “like an incompetent, foul-mouthed loudmouth.” A 1998 documentary, Swear to Tell the Truth—which like most Lenny products was praised (nominated for an Academy Award) and then forgotten—had clips from a shelved spot on The Steve Allen Show and Playboy’s Playhouse. In each he did the same bit. “Hear this about snot,” he says, launching into a bizarre commentary on nasal emissions. It had a power live, evidently, with snot turning from a joke into a corrosive force, an acid applied to the world. A biography of Norman Mailer recalls the writer hearing the routine at a club: “Bruce traversed political and sexual ground and then moved onto the subject of snot, which left the audience shaken and silent.” Mailer went on to try out his own stand-up act, which flopped, and then sat down and developed his so-called New Journalism mode, becoming a Lenny-like observer, boring into the truth.
That brought Mailer onto a collision course with feminism, which Lenny also invented. Lenny’s pose, which became Mailer’s literary persona, was the libertine lover of women’s bodies. (“Beautiful, sweet, tender, womanly breasts that I love to kiss; pink nipples that I love to feel against my clean-shaven face. They’re clean!”) It really got on Germaine Greer’s nerves. “Apparently, men are easy to satisfy,” she sniped in Esquire in 1973, when the war with Mailer was ongoing. “All they demand is, in Lenny Bruce’s phrase, tits’n’ass, ass’n’tits, tits’n’ass.” With The Taming of the Shrew as her touchstone, she wrote an infamous article in praise of the groupie and then sat down to write The Female Eunuch, the angry female voice goading men into loving her back.
Next up, in 1969: A relatively tame novelist named Philip Roth unleashed Portnoy’s Complaint, a wild monologue by a young Jewish man in search of sexual satisfaction. Asked by the New York Times Book Review about the similarity to Lenny, Roth laughed it off. They’d met, he said. He’d heard the records, read his skits, seen the movie, but his book was inspired by “a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka.” He made no mention of what Albert Goldman recorded in his 1974 biography: Roth was covering Lenny’s 1964 obscenity trial for the New York Review of Books, and at lunch “struggled to outdo Lenny Bruce in humor and verbal brilliance,” “hotly competitive” with the man he’d dismiss in the next breath.
The Yale historian explains his masterwork and its transnational narrative of the Holocaust