Lenny (1974) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
George Carlin on Lenny Bruce:
Ralph J. Gleason on Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce on Lenny Bruce:
I'm sorry if I'm not very funny tonight, but I'm not a comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce.
Paul Krassner (Lenny's friend and editor) on Lenny Bruce:
He was still funny, but he didn't get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds. He was funny sardonic....
Can you read what those comments are really saying?
Between my sophomore and junior years of high school, Newsweek magazine published an article about the obscenity arrests of hipster comedian Lenny Bruce, and this more or less certified his status as an Underground Cultural Demi-God. Dissent was not popular in those days, children were supposed to be seen and not heard, and even comedians - guys who were supposed to make fun of people - told innocuous mother-in-law jokes or kidded about their golf scores or their tightwad friends.
And then Lenny came along, and changed all that. He had been an inept schtick comedian, but he became the darling of the underculture when he started to take on society's sacred cows. He was completely fearless on stage. He'd come out in favor of minority rights, he'd talk honestly about how men really think about women, he'd discuss the dangers of Kennedy's reckless brinksmanship in a nuclear world, and he'd say absolutely anything to shock. He'd joke about how Jews killed Christ, or how LBJ probably killed Kennedy. He touched whatever raw nerve he could touch.
Ironically, in terms of today's standards, he was 100% politically correct. He was a social liberal who used naughty words and sex jokes to draw attention to his political agenda. As Lenny himself put it, he gave us an education in "how to talk dirty and influence people". He was pushing the liberal, anti-establishment social agenda. If Lenny and Hillary Clinton could have met and compared notes, they would have been in 100% agreement on the issues, although Lenny would have stated his opinions a bit more colorfully. And of course, Lenny wouldn't have thrown any ashtrays. Ashtrays were sacred to him, and breaking one would have been a sacrilege.
Being interested in anything spicier than the mainstream of postwar American culture, I determined to find out everything I could about Lenny after I read that article. I did learn something about him, and about America, but most of what I learned had to do with the nature of humor.
You see, Lenny wasn't funny. His material wasn't inherently funny, and his delivery was worse. He talked so fast you couldn't understand what he was saying half of the time. When I read his words written out, I realized that he was intelligent, he was incisive, he was daring, he was hip, and I agreed with every word he said. And hindsight has certainly shown that he never should have been prosecuted. Hell, every comic seems to do a variation of his act today. Lenny was arrested for saying "cocksucker", but even Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange said "cocksucker" in famous Oscar-winning performances some years later. Yes, Lenny died for our sins. But the motherfucker wasn't funny.
He struggled along as a bad mainstream comedian for years, until he realized that he could provoke audiences with shock elements, as I just did above. Language was part of it, but only part. He talked about all the stuff your parents wouldn't ever tell you. Only from Lenny could you hear what it's like when you go down on someone and they fart in your face. But he wasn't any funnier after he became successful. He was the same old bad comedian, but he was more daring, and he said the things the counter-cultural people wanted to hear. There were plenty of people in America who called Lyndon Johnson a cocksucker in their mental monologues, but Lenny said it out loud.
Back then, when I was 15, I first began to realize that "humor" is often mistaken for "things people want to hear". Let's face it, when the Nazis got together, ol' Goering would say something like "we're really teaching those fucking Jews a lesson, I wanna tell you", and the table would roar with laughter. Bob Hope would make a reference to long-hairs looking like girls, and the GI audiences would roar with laughter.
Hey, wipe that smug look from your face, young man, because we all do the same thing, to some degree. Including me. Any mention of David Hasselhoff or the Harmonicats tends to get a laugh out of me, even if it isn't clever or witty. I have just internalized that ridiculing David Hasselhoff merits the laughter of agreement. When those 60's hipsters laughed at Lenny, they were laughing the laughter of agreement, and the laughter of appreciation, and more than a little nervous laughter of discomfort. Lenny wasn't really a comedian. He was a jazz poet and a social reformer who used shock to entertain and educate.
|He did have one line that always cracked me up. "Ok, I admit it, we Jews did kill Christ. And you're lucky he didn't come along in the 20th century, or all those parochial school kids would be wearing a little electric chair around their necks"||
|One other thing you may not know about Lenny if you buy into the conventional wisdom: we wasn't destroyed by his prosecutions. In fact, that's what made him a star! He was destroyed by his incoherent and unfunny post-trial performances. A great comedian - a George Carlin or an Eddie Murphy, a Jerry Seinfeld or a Steve Martin - could have turned those trials into comedy gold and become a national institution. Bruce only turned them into tiresome, obsessive kvetching. Was he a martyr for free speech? To a great degree. A trail blazer? Certainly. A genius? Maybe. A great comedian. Not hardly.|
The film was made in 1974, and was told in such a way
as to approach documentary style, framed by contemporary interviews
with his wife and agent. If you did not recognize the actors, you
could easily have assumed that it was made with real B&W documentary
footage. I think it is done beautifully. Because Lenny was essentially
a jazz poet and not a comedian, Bob Fosse was the perfect choice to
direct. Since Lenny was not very funny, Dustin Hoffman was a perfect
casting choice, although many people have criticized the casting of
the humorless Hoffman in the movie, versus the hilarious Eddie Izzard in the
London version of the play.
Well, of course Dustin Hoffman wasn't funny. He is a perfectionist, and he was playing Lenny Bruce. He was doing his job. Brilliantly, I might add.
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