Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce."

I don't know why, but sometimes I get to thinking about Lenny Bruce, the comedian/philosopher of the 50's and 60's.  As children back then, any time we asked an adult, "Who is Lenny Bruce?" the answer was always, "He's a dirty comedian, he tells dirty jokes, now sit down and watch 'Leave It To Beaver'!"

Lenny, born Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925 - 1966) was many things, but calling him a dirty comedian would be like calling Babe Ruth a right fielder.  He served in the Navy in World War II and then scrabbled around New York City, becoming a nightclub comic ("I won't say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner") with the mother-in-law jokes and Edward G. Robinson impersonations that were the standard of the time.  In Baltimore, he performed at the long-gone Club Charles and met a stripper named Honey Harlow, who became his wife and mother of his only child, Kitty.

But as the Eisenhower era ended, people woke up from the long postwar sleep and began taking a long look around at things such as racial discrimination, wars undertaken for the sake of war, sexual repression, and hypocrisy.  And, friends, if you went out hunting for those topics in those days, you had more targets than you had arrows, believe me.  Lenny saw his niche and went for it - humor with a point!

So Lenny prospered among the hip and was condemned by the staid and sobersided.  He was, by the time of the early 60's, a radically relevant social satirist, and he used the real language and spoke the real truth, which made some people really uncomfortable.

"The 'what should be' never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no 'what should be,' there is only what is."
So he used the vernacular of people everywhere to talk about the things that people everywhere talked about!  Big deal, in those days, and now, when mainstream comedians such as Mindy Kaling turn an alternative bedroom practice into a half-hour sitcom, you wonder if they know that Lenny paved the road for them away from the "I'm not saying he's old, but his Social Security number is 14" routines of Bob Hope types.  Over and over, he reminded us that four-letter words were only words...

I've watched with amusement as one of his remarks came true a thousand times for friends of mine: "One generation works and saves to buy their kids rubber boots, and the next generation digs running barefoot in the rain."  George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and every other "hip" comic owed huge debts to Lenny, and so does anyone else, no matter what they did for a living, who woke up one day and realized that the horrors of the day were greed, repression, and hypocrisy, not four-letter words and sexual references.  Sad to say, people couldn't see past the four-letter words their ears heard.

He even presaged his own early demise: "There's nothing sadder than an aging hipster. I'm 33, and already, I can't relate to Fabian."

Hounded by the police who were called to nightclubs to arrest him for saying "dirty words," Lenny grew despondent and fell deeply into a morass of narcotics abuse, which claimed his life in August, 1966.   That was a year after he published his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, and only a couple of years before people began to realize that hiding the truth doesn't do away with the truth, it just moves it around a little.  In the last line of the book, Lenny replies to those who ask him what inspired him, and he says, “I am influenced by every second of my waking hour. ”

Dick Schaap wrote a eulogy which concluded:

One last four-letter word for Lenny.
At 40.
That’s obscene.

But don't forget this...if not for Lenny, Mindy Kaling would be doing jokes about the roast burning or the dishwasher breaking, there would be no "Family Guy," and we might not think twice before damning someone for their race, creed, or origin.

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