Lenny Bruce Everywhere
Acknowledging the comic’s gift to Zappa, Mailer, Roth, and the other macho titans of eccentric 1960s pop
Goldman, the biographer who did all he could to keep Lenny alive, was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia who wrote about academic subjects until he started taking up Pop Culture, stern and contrarian—the lone adult in a room full of kids. In 1962, he began a series of articles, each less academic than the last, about the figure (“beat, raffish, satanic”) he was clearly entranced by: “A spivily handsome, bewitchingly sinister figure,” Goldman wrote in 1971, “he looked like a sexy cat burgler, with beautiful dark eyes,” a “fascinating face,” “long, exquisitely shaped hands, suitable for Toscanini’s baton or Horowitz’s keyboard, constantly in motion, nervously semaphoring his thoughts.” The opening of his biography has Lenny greeting a visitor in his cheap hotel room. “Not like he’s trying to seduce you or cop your joint, but there’s this funny aura of soft white flesh and things falling out that aren’t supposed to fall out and giggles and—Christ! The whole fuckin’ thing is a tease, man! He married a stripper and he’s the tease!” A similar scene in a 1968 profile in New York suggests it was Goldman entering the room, and Lenny was seducing the biggest homophobe of the day, the seduction turning into biography.
I asked Richard Shackleton, one of the young men Lenny kept near him, about Lenny’s sexuality. “That, I—used to wonder about,” he replied. “He had a saying, he said it a lot, ‘I’m so frustrated I think I’ll go suck off an old man.’ But if he was homosexual, or bisexual, I don’t think he would say that. I drew the conclusion that he was not homosexual. He wasn’t bisexual. He wasn’t heterosexual. He was totally asexual. That’s not uncommon for talented people. Their talent comes from the overwhelming fact of their trying to deal with conflict, which I think was with him from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed.”
Lenny was the alien among us, and in us, just as he was the messiah, a claim endlessly made. “The crucifixion of a true believer,” headlines a retrospective by Nat Hentoff, Lenny’s longtime fan and popularizer of the thesis that the comedian was out to save the world. Variations of “Lenny died for our sins” circulated after his death, as the new religion of Pop tried to find in him a savior, and his life a passion. For a time, he might’ve believed it, as long as it kept paying the bills. “The children were lined up to be fed,” Joan Rivers, another disciple, recalled. “I was seeing Jesus.”
A better reference was somewhat more recent. “He fell back, deeply back, into a Jewish past that neither he nor his audience could know much about,” wrote Irving Howe, “a reborn Sabbatai as a stand-up comic.” The culture, at least, longed to see a Jewish truth-teller besieged by evil authorities. All that got in the way were the facts. The first biopic, a B-flick called Dirtymouth, appeared in 1970. As a minor director, Tom O’Horgan, known for his campy, flamboyant style, fresh from the triumph of HAIR, the hippie musical, worked on a script for a movie of Lenny’s routines. Neil Diamond auditioned for the lead. “It was almost an intellectual form of vomiting,” he’d say. “He was saying all these things I had been holding in, that anybody holds in, ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and ‘death’ and ‘kill’ and all those things that he was getting out. I found they were coming out of me.” He fled, into therapy, and wrote a song about it, “I Am … I Said,” leaving his syrupy “Sweet Caroline” phase and turning his back on the horror of immaturity that Lenny embodied.
The construction of false messiahs is the essence of Pop, its central concern, and Lenny, even more than Elvis, was its foundation. O’Horgan’s film turned into a 1971 Broadway show, Lenny, presented with puppets. Lenny was played by Cliff Gorman, who’d played an effeminate homosexual in The Boys in the Band, now a messianic victim, trying to save us, even as he’s overthrown. (O’Horgan next directed Jesus Christ Superstar.) A documentary, Lenny Bruce Without Tears, appeared in 1972, solving the problem of the lack of video by playing stock footage against a voice intoning about his revolutionary force, as various people praise him. His problems with authority could be traced to “bad early toilet training,” Kenneth Tynan said.
The halo was shoved back on in 1974’s Lenny, O’Horgan’s script taken over by Bob Fosse and made into movie of a man who, despite foibles like torturing his wife, was intent on waking his audience to their prejudices. “This movie swallows the lie that his motivating force was to make the audience well,” Pauline Kael wrote in a dismissive review. “[Dustin] Hoffman missed Bruce’s darker, seething, self-destructive charisma—which made him so attractive to women,” said Camille Paglia, who noted Lenny’s influence on her. In 1979, Cliff Gorman reprised his act in the Lenny-like character of Fosse’s All That Jazz, as he became a decoration to the entertainment machine. “He had a great face, really quite handsome in a dark exotic way,” wrote Faye Dunaway in her memoir. “There he was standing on the stage, wearing a raincoat like some panhandler who had just drifted in off the street, delivering a stinging indictment of life as we knew it. I’ll bet money that Lenny was the inspiration for Peter Falk’s wrinkled trench coat that became his signature as Columbo years later.” On the set of Bonnie & Clyde, Dunaway would do Lenny’s skits, especially “White Collar Drunks,” about a gay man who goes into a bar saying he has “the most vicious dog in the world” who’ll kill them all, and when his dog shows up and does so, the guy is amazed. “Jesus Christ, he is tough.” The film ushered in a new wave of cultural violence, orgasmic in its intensity—a violence that was within Lenny Bruce, and was now unleashed.
Gale’s film begins with a quote:
Every day people are straying from the church and going back to God.
Then one prominent comedian after another eulogizes the great man. Richard Lewis says:
This guy was not just a genius but he was saying things that no one before him said, said things then about certain things that were going on then that he would say now that no one would say.
The Yale historian explains his masterwork and its transnational narrative of the Holocaust