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Divine Comedy

Fifty years after his famous midnight concert in Carnegie Hall, Lenny Bruce is as famous as ever. But he’s still much more a prophet than a comedian.

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Lenny Bruce performing in the late 1950s.(Julian Wasser/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Like so many celebrated moments in show business, Lenny Bruce’s midnight concert at Carnegie Hall—held 50 years ago this weekend, it was an uninterrupted two-hour monologue on everything from the newly inaugurated president Kennedy to female anatomy—nearly didn’t happen. With New York blanketed under nearly three feet of snow, the comedian, young and relatively new to the scene, didn’t expect to find many people in the audience. But the house was packed, a testament to Bruce’s reputation as a sharp and controversial entertainer. And he left the stage a legend. But where does Bruce, with his long and associative ruminations, fit in America’s comedy cannon? And why doesn’t he have any disciples today? Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz says it’s because Bruce was always a prophet, not an entertainer. [Running time: 8:45.] 

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michael says:

Lenny Bruce has been unfairly pigeon-holed into a “dirty word” comic category. Lenny’s insight into the Jewish/Gentile divide was perceptive, funny, ahead of its time.
Forget the “dirty words”.
Listen to the Yiddish he often used. Listen to his stories about his aunt. Listen to his bit on Moses and Jesus coming back to earth.

yankel says:

Way too much about Liel’s childhood voyage of discovery — who cares? (there were about 90 “I”‘s in the first two minutes; get over yourself, man — and way too little about Lenny Bruce’s many comedic disciples about whom Liel is apparently clueless.

Ever heard of George Carlin, for starters ? And his dozens of disciples, all following in the Bruce tradition.

This was really poor.

steve ben israel says:

hi i knew lenny and hung out with him 1n 1964..wavy gravy asked me to help him help
lenny.. i was there the night he was busted at the cafe au go go and helped organize
a demonstration in the courtroom the next morning…we all still love lenny
he helped us get through the 1950′s

Rob Ross says:

I loved Lenny too and discovered him as a 12 yr old in 1963 (in a “forbidden” excerpt of “How to talk Dirty..” in Playboy)….but Liel you’re quite wrong about no disciples..there have been SO many, including those that you dismiss (Chris Rock, Sara Silverman, etc)…and even newer, younger comics…its important not too get lost in nostalgia and over idealize the cultural icons of our own past…and as Lenny would have said, “that’s emmis baby”…

I think that when Steve ben Israel tells us what is, he is like Lenny’s soul son…yes, and George Carlin was a disciple. Too many disciples to name.

Thank you all who commented, but I must strongly disagree about George Carlin. Like Lenny Bruce, he is, of course, attentive to language, and like Bruce, he takes on the largest questions of the time. But, unlike Bruce, Carlin did bits, carefully composed routines with perfect structure and clear, coherent point. There’s nothing of Lenny Bruce’s free-roaming, improvisational daring in Carlin’s act. Carlin was also far more fond of the dirty words as such, which explains his status as cult figure for the likes of Kevin Smith: whereas Bruce aspired to get past the burdens of bad language, Carlin reveled in it. He was, to be sure, a great comedian, but he was no Lenny Bruce.

Les Miller says:

Frank Zappa, an original Lenny disciple (his label was Lenny’s last professional home), spent the ’60s complaing, laughingly, about art with “no commercial potential (NCP)”. The fact that Lenny Bruce, especially in the last years of his tragic and crazy life, savored the idea his work had “no commercial potential” clearly affirmed Bruce as an outsider. In this respect he has no progeny. Who among all the comedians who came after Bruce was/is willing to abandon the quest for money and laughs in order to make salient commentary about society. Bruce was funny, but he was also painful. He was also a man of his moment. His struggles with authority are a critique of America in mid 20th century. One of the most obvious reasons he has no true disciples is that his life and work are as immediate as yesterday’s newspapers. I still love him, though.

Thanks, Liel. I enjoyed this essay. I’m a huge Lenny fan and have been since I was a teenager. In fact, the only photo on my desk is a photo of Lenny. At midnight this past New Year’s Eve I listened to the Carnegie show again for the nth time, and now hearing your essay reminds me that I should listen to it at midnight tonight, too.

Jason

Perhaps Liel has a point, but he misses what cost Lenny Bruce his audience. It wasn’t the dirty words, or even the political rants; it was when he forgot to be FUNNY. He did long bits in his later career about his drug busts and his jail time, but they were humorless diatribes, not the stuff of comedy. He seemed to have taken himself too seriously, which is poison for a comic. There is no doubt as to his political courage, esp. at the time. And he was, tragically, of his time, which may be why much of his stuff doesn’t linger in the public consciousness. And I disagree with Liel as to his “disciples”, and lack thereof. He has used the wrong word. He should have said “descendants.” Because there are many of them who have sprung from the comedic tree whose seeds he planted, and bred with others, evolved into what we love today. He and Mort Sahl (politics) led to Dick Gregory led to Robert Klein led to Chris Rock. He and Dick Shawn (improvisation) gave birth to Steve Martin, who, in turn, spawned Conan O’Brien. He and Jonathan Winters (conceptual) became Don Novello became Gilbert Gottfried became Larry David. The forbidden apple he first plucked (and suffered the consequences for) led the way out of the comedic “Eden” into the darker and, arguably, more abundant garden we know today.

I grant to Liel Leibovitz all the expertise on Lenny Bruce ,and many more American performers, but please, please Liel Leibovitz leave the Portion of the Week alone. It will do both of us good.

Adam Kinsey says:

I always like to be reminded to think of Lenny. I would call him an early hero for me as well, even if the first stuff I heard was his “skits,” a clear red vinyl album my dad had, with LB doing the discovery of airplane glue as a way to get high, then reading “How to Talk Dirty & Influence People,” as non-affiliated California half-Jew, perhaps my first sense of connection to my judaism.

Just to say, I have often sat listening to Jon Stewart, thinking he was in Lenny’s lineage.

I’ve said that least 1399319 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Compared with a price quite a lot of saving money.

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Divine Comedy

Fifty years after his famous midnight concert in Carnegie Hall, Lenny Bruce is as famous as ever. But he’s still much more a prophet than a comedian.

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