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.
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.
Lenny was the alien among us, and in us, just as he was the messiah, a claim endlessly made.
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.
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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Jonathan Poletti is a writer for Roctober magazine.
Jonathan Poletti is a writer forRoctobermagazine.