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Saturday, October 22, 2005

What's so special about Lenny Bruce?

That was the question I asked myself peering at the cover of Bruce's biography one summer day nearly thirty years ago. A bored 14 or 15-year-old, I was staying with my aunt, uncle and their kids and was looking through my aunt's books trying to find something to read. I saw the biography, leafed through it, found nothing of interest and put it back disgusted that I couldn't find a good, raunchy romance. I don't know whether the book belonged to my aunt or my uncle, although I suspect it was my uncle's because he is an avid reader of biographies and non-fiction. My aunt, on the other hand, was the collector of every bodice ripper out there and every issue of True Confession.

It was only last year that I saw a documentary on Lenny Bruce around the same time I happened to catch a few scenes from the dramatization portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Looking at the travesty of Bruce's life and death, all I can think is that Kafka couldn't have penned a more ludicrous and frightening tale of censorship and governmental interference.

Yes, Bruce died because of a drug overdose. But I firmly believe that the government's deliberate campaign against Bruce was the catalyst that pushed him over the edge.

Here's a quick summary of the Lenny Bruce story: Bruce was a satirist and stand-up comedian who offered his audiences something more than the boring "Take my wife...please." More likely Bruce's twist on the plea would've been "Take my wife, please...and let me watch." No, he didn't actually say this, but it was this kind of edge that got the audience roaring. There was no subject too controversial for Bruce to take a dig at. Sex, race, politics and religion were open fare. And he had the language to make himself heard. Words like cocksucker and motherfucker got him arrested time and again. Instead of meekly capitulating, Bruce chose to fight for his First Amendment rights (his court case is considered a landmark), but the legal fees eventually destroyed him financially and the legal woes branded him professionally, making him a pariah along the nightclub circuit, which was his bread and butter.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover kept a file on the recalcitrant comedian and undercover police were often planted in his audiences waiting to catch him using "obscenity." Bruce was arrested in 1964 after a performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York, during which he remarked on Eleanor Roosevelt's "nice tits" and Jackie Kennedy's "trying to save her ass" after Kennedy's assassination. The words "sodomizing" and "fucking" were also used. In a three-judge New York court, Bruce was found guilty of violating New York's obscenity laws. This followed a 1962 conviction for obscenity in Chicago, in which Bruce was tried in absentia.

An undeterred Lenny pondered his work: "All my humour is based on destruction and despair," he said. "If the whole world were tranquil, I'd be standing in the breadline, right back of J. Edgar Hoover."

On August 3, 1966, a naked Bruce was found dead of an overdose in his Hollywood Hills Home. He was broke and broken; narcotics were found near his body.

In their book, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, Ronald Collins and David Skover described Bruce's eventual downfall:

The obscenity busts took their toll. They wore him down, trial by trial, dollar by dollar, year after year. Between 1961 and 1966, he gradually became a pathetic caricature of the Time magazine man he once was. From the Nehru to raincoat to denim jacket periods, he took more drugs and more chances. Now, the law was his main routine.

So, I'll ask the question again, nearly thirty years later: What's so special about Lenny Bruce? My answer, Bruce was a man of many faults and demons, but he was also the pioneer who paved the way for others to speak out and be heard. Others like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and many more who dare to speak words like "fuck" not just to get a rise, but because the truth, when bared, is often ugly and in your face. The laughter denotes the honesty, the truths pulled from behind closed doors and curtains, bared from beneath the sheets.

So, Lenny, you really were special.

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 10/22/2005 06:45:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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