Thursday, February 02, 2006


"Liberals can understand everything but the people who don't understand them."
-Lenny Bruce (nicked here; quasi-authoritatively verified here)

Part four of Lenny Bruce's "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People" appeared in the January 1964 issue of Playboy Magazine. He was in good company, alonside Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, James Baldwin and others (part two had previously appeared alongside Jimmy Hoffa and Aldous Huxley). I would like nothing more than to point to the foreword to the 1967 softcover edition of the book, written by Kenneth Tynan. It is, I think, a fitting companion to the newly-released dvd edition of one of Lenny's latest gigs (the cartoon included therein is alone more than worth the effort). I like Dustin Hoffman, of course, but heartily agree the fictional version was rather crucially disappointing. Alas, neither the Tynan foreward (nor the excellent Dick Schaap aferword) seem to be online. Will have to settle, then, for a few choice excerpts:
Constant, abrasive irritation produces the pearl: it is a disease of the oyster. Similarly––according to Gustave Flaubert––the artist is a disease of society. By the same token, Lenny Bruce is a disease of America. The very existence of comedy like his is evidence of unease in the body politic...This may be the time to point out the primary fact about Bruce, which is that he is extremely funny It is easy to leave that out when writing about him...but he is seldom funny without an ulterior motive. You squirm as you smile. With Bruce a smile is not an end in itself, it is invariably a means. What begins as pure hilarity may end in self-accusation...He breaks through the barrier of laughter to the horizon beyond, where the truth has its sanctuary. People say he is shocking and they are quite correct. Part of his purpose is to force us to redefine what we mean by "being shocked." We all feel impersonally outraged by racialism; but when Bruce mimics a white liberal who meets a Negro at a party and instantly assumes that he must know a lot of people in show business, we feel a twinge of recognition and personal implication. Poverty and starvation, which afflict more than half the human race, enrage us––if at all––only in a distant, generalized way; yet we are roused to a state of vengeful fury when Bruce makes public use of harmless, fruitful syllables like "come" and "fuck." Where riteous indignation is concerned, we have clearly got our priorities mixed up. The point about Bruce is that he wants us to be shocked, but by the right things; not by four-letter words, which violate only convention, but by want and deprivation, which violate human dignity. This is not to deny that he has a disenchanted view of mankind as a whole...[b]ut the cynicism is just a facade...

I saw him at the Duane four times, with four separate groups of friends. Some found him offensive––a reaction they smartly concealed by calling him boring. Others thought him self-indulgent, because he felt his way into the audience's confidence by means of exploratory improvisation, instead of plunging straight into rehearsed routines. Among my guests, he was not universally liked. "Where's Lenny Bruce?" "Down the Duane," so ran a popular riposte. During the Duane engagement I met him for the first time––an archetypal night person, hypersensitive, laconic and withdrawn. Terry Southern once said that a hipster was someone who had deliberately decided to kill a part of himself in order to make life bearable. He knows that by doing this he is cutting himself off from many positive emotions, as well as negative, destructive ones he seeks to avoid; but on balance he feels that the sacrifice is worthwhile. By this definition Bruce was (and is) authentically, indelibly hip.

In the years that followed, it was not Bruce but my friends who improved. One by one they began to discover that they had always admired him. I recalled a saying of Gertrude Stein's: "A creator is not in advance of his generation but he is the first of his contemporaries to be conscious of what is happening to his generation." Bruce was fully, quiveringly conscious, and audiences in Chicago and San Francisco started to respond to his manner and his message. To did the police...

I made notes of the ideas he toyed with on opening night, and herewith reproduce them:

"The smoking of marijuana should be encouraged because it does not induce lung cancer. Children ought to watch pornographic movies: it's healthier than learning about sex from Hollywood. Venereal disease is news only when poor people catch it. Publicity is stronger than sanity: given the right PR, armpit hair on female singers could become a national fetish. Fascism in America is kept solvent by the left-wing hunger for persecution: 'Liberals will buy anything any bigot writes.' If Norman Thomas, the senior American Socialist, were to be elected President, he would have to find a minority to hate. It might conceivably be midgets––in which case his campaign slogan would run: 'Smack a midget for Norm.'"

He went on to talk about the nuances of race relations, with special emphasis on whites who cherish the Negro cause but somehow never have Negroes to dinner...

We were dealing with something formerly unknown in Britain: an impromptu prose poet who trusted his audience so completely that he could talk in public no less outspokenly than we would talk in private. His trust was misplaced. Scarcely a night passed during his brief sojourn at The Establishment without vocal protests from offended costomers, sometimes backed up by clenched fists; and this, at a members-only club, is rare in London. The actress Siobhan McKenna came with a party and noisily rose to leave in the middle of Bruce's act; it seems she was outraged by his attitude toward the Roman Church. On her way out Peter Cook sought to remonstrate with her, whereupon she seized his tie while one of her escorts belted him squarely on the nose. "These are Irish hands," cried Miss McKenna dramatically, "and they're clean!" "This is an English face," replied Mr. Cook crisply, "and it's bleeding."...

Lenny Bruce is too wild an import for British officialdom to stomach...But even if he died tomorrow, he would deserve more than a footnote in any history of modern Western culture. I have heard him described, somewhat portentously, as "the man on America's conscience." Hyperbole like that would not appeal to Lenny Bruce. "No," I can hear him dissenting, "let's say the man who went down on America's conscience..."(Kenneth Tynan, 1963(?))

And for the historians out there, if you haven't yet listened to the Carnegie Hall performance, and carefully, perhaps you really ought to. For now, let's give the final words back to "Bruce," who like Jack Kerouac never really cared--to put it exceptionally mildly--for hippies.
Now there are no more dirty Japs; there are dirty Commies! And when we run out of them there'll just be dirty dirt. And dirty mud. Then we'll eat the mud and Pearl Buck will write a book about it. By that time, the few hippies who discovered that it's the earth which is dirty will have made it to the moon for the Miss Missile contest. (page 23)


Geist said...

Great post.
Bruce (and Kaufman) as champions of antagonising.

Matt said...

Thank you Geist, belatedly. So, have you ever considered starting a group blog with someone named Zeit?