Lenny Bruce Everywhere
Acknowledging the comic’s gift to Zappa, Mailer, Roth, and the other macho titans of eccentric 1960s pop
Sandra Bernhard says nothing of Lenny, although in a clip Gale posts to YouTube, she offers her reading of his life:
I think he knew he was pushing buttons on racism and sexism and homophobia and all the hot-button topics that have gone from pre-his era into our era. I mean, people are still shocked by the notion that they may have to examine their own fears or limitations towards other people. So I think Lenny was a groundbreaker in that arena. So I think that really angered the patriarchy.
I don’t think any of that is true. Lenny was an atheist, he’d say, though he wavers. “I tell you,” he sighs, “when Jehovah does return, you know, they’re going to look back at this whole generation and say, ‘It’s just fiends, beasts!’ That’s what we are.” He’d tell a lot of Jesus jokes, like saying it’s true the Jews killed him. “I found a note in my basement,” he says. “We killed him—signed, Morty.” The mob speaks again. “Not only did we kill him,” they say, “but we’re gonna kill him again when he comes back.” (The joke reappears in Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic. “I hope the Jews did kill Christ,” she says. “I’d fuckin’ do it again in a second.”) But Lenny got serious about it: talking of making a Jesus movie, with his messiah up on the cross. “I’m getting off here now,” he says, “because I can see that dying for you does no good. You don’t appreciate I’m dying for you.”
Even when he was attacking his audience, there was a religiosity to his performance. “Satire derives from a heightened awareness of the fall of man, and is a kind of earthly mysticism,” observed British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who caught Lenny’s act and wrote about it in Esquire. Lenny’s skits are full of horrors, jokes he’d like to light the audience on fire, skits involving the rape of women and boys, murders galore, and in his greatest, “The Palladium,” the theater itself is destroyed. “Every time he used an obscene word or expression,” Muggeridge recalled, “you could feel the audience shiver with delight. It was what they were waiting for, what they had paid for, what they wanted of him. He met their requirements generously and contemptuously, spitting out the filth, as though to say: ‘Take that, you vile bourgeois scum!’ ”
In Gale’s only slightly newsworthy moment, he interviews former New York governor George Pataki, who granted a posthumous pardon for Lenny’s 1964 conviction on obscenity charges. Pataki appears to think he was righting an old political wrong, seeing “the right coming down on someone who is a spokesperson more for the left.” It was not as apparent to Lionel Trilling, who wrote after Lenny’s death “the point of his performances, and their power, lay in their being thought exactly obscene and offensive, in their violation of all (including the liberal) pieties.” His nihilism was attested by his most ardent fans. “The fact is that Lenny Bruce was a son of a bitch, a nihilist basically, and his brilliance was inextricably meshed with his nihilism,” wrote Lester Bangs. Goldman noted “the slightly hysterical quality of the laughter that his performances usually elicit. It is helplessness in the face of a truly nihilistic fury that makes the parody currently fashionable in the nightclubs and the off-Broadway theaters seem safe and cautious.”
But there was nothing redeemable. He was out to tear you down, and the thrill was in the descent. The skits that were supposedly “socially conscious” were rabbit holes. From the stage he’d call out asking if there were “any niggers here tonight?” As the audience wallowed in the thrill of the naughty, he pressed on. “I never heard any hostility from the American Negroes,” he said. “I did hear that from Jews and Christians, but never from American Negroes.” The tables turned, the righteous exposed as sinners. I called Shackleton, who’d worked on Lenny’s book. Was Lenny trying to save the world? “I would say that Lenny Bruce did not have an altruistic bone in his body,” he replied. “I would say that everything he did was for some agenda that we’ll never know.”
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