Lenny Bruce Was Bad

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Almost 40 years after being conviced of obscenity in New York, comedian Lenny Bruce, who has inspired countless imitators and at least two of the very worst rock songs in recorded history (by the execrable Phil Ochs and the maestro Bob Dylan), has been pardoned by Gov. George Pataki. From the Newark Star-Ledger's account:

"Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve," Pataki said in a statement.

It goes without saying that Bruce never should have been arrested for anything, much less convicted of anything. All of us who benefit from free expression are forever in the debt of the man dubbed "America's #1 Vomic" by the idiotic Walter Winchell.

That's not to say that Bruce's shtick is–or was–particularly funny. Like many crying-on-the-inside-clowns, he quickly degenerated into that most vile of humorists–the moralistic, self-aggrandizing "satirist." As I wrote a year ago in a review of Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover's fascinating The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,

Bruce?s targets—organized religion, politicians, sexual hypocrisy, racism—long ago lost whatever widespread, uncritical support they once might have enjoyed. (To be sure, Bruce himself contributed to this.)…Bruce?s insistence on his didactic function—"I?m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values," he used to say—transformed him into an adults-only version of the tedious magazine Highlights for Children, whose subtitle threatens to deliver "Fun With a Purpose."

Collins and Skover argue persuasively that Bruce helped pave the way for the rejection of 1996's Communications Decency Act. Here's hoping his ghost hovers over this new attempt to regulate "obscenity."

NEXT: Paging Sheikh McBragg

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  1. I think perhaps Bruce’s humor is less funny in retrospect because it was so influential that it just became cliche.

    These days every two bit comic can get on stage and talk about sex, drugs, religion and perversion. The subject matter itself isn’t enough to incite guilty laughter anymore. So try to put it in context. In 40 years, the only people that are going to think that *anything* you ever said was funny are going to be in nursing homes.

    Lenny died for your sins, and I think he deserves a little more respect. Especially given the fact that he spared us his antedeluvian-ranting stage by gracefully overdosing.

  2. Two points, if I may:

    1) Lenny’s best material was not the dirty stuff, but stories like “The Palladium,” (a true masterpiece of storytelling; it would make a great movie), and the saga of the drunken white liberal patronizing a black man at a cocktail party. Lenny Bruce was a gifted, groundbreaking entertainer, but his best material is not what grabs the headlines.

    2) Lenny Bruce gets the press, but what of his spiritual mentor, Lord Buckley? Buckley was truly the Rosetta Stone of stand-up comedy in that he influenced everybody, but for whatever reason, he gets little attention today. (It’s kinda like asking why Eric Clapton instead of Son House.) If you’re a Lenny Bruce fan, check out Buckley; you’ll be glad you did!

  3. Phil Ochs is rock?

  4. I second what Jim Walsh says. Lenny was at his best doing those little ‘movies’, like the one where the hardcore jazz musician gets hired by Lawrence Welk. “That was Myron Cohen a-balling the Lennon Sisters…” Whether or not it’s all old-hat by now, he did show a lot more imagination in his routines than do most comedians, past or present.

    Having to spend time with cops and judges can take the fun out of anyone.

  5. Before judging whether Bruce was funny or not, remember that humor is a fragile thing, and often dates badly: new jokes become old, fresh shticks grow stale, references become obscure. I’d expect Bruce’s topical comedy to date poorly, while his often ground-breaking approach now seems merely standard for many comedians.

  6. Phil Ochs is execrable?

  7. America’s greatest living comedian weighed in yesterday on the pardon:

    Catholic League president William Donohue reacted today to news that New York State Governor George Pataki has posthumously pardoned New York comedian Lenny Bruce:

    “Lenny Bruce was a talented comedian who knew how to push the envelope. His opposition to racism was commendable, and he certainly knew how to make good copy satirizing white racists. But he was also a notorious anti-Catholic bigot. When HBO released ‘Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth’ in 1999, his friend Paul Krassner correctly observed that ‘Bruce’s offense was blasphemy, not obscenity.’ Too bad no one told this to Governor Pataki.

    “Pataki’s comment that his posthumous pardon represents ‘a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment,’ not only smacks of self-righteous grandstanding, it is insulting to Catholics who had to endure Bruce’s unrelieved hostility to their religion. ‘Amos and Andy’ were funny, too, but CBS won’t even air their reruns for fear of appearing insensitive to African Americans. In short, Pataki didn’t endear himself to Catholics with his silly pardon. That Pataki is himself Catholic is doubly embarrassing.”

  8. Loved the SUCK piece. It’s off topic, but it seems government pork is the only thing keeping that “mistake by the lake” operating.

  9. big willie donohue back in the fray. is there anything on earth he can’t tie into anti-catholic bias?

    maybe it’s understandable and all, seeing as how all those churches were shut down and bulldozed after a web of aid to known pedophiles was found operating in several major american dioceses, sometimes involving several levels of church leaders and shuffling the same molesters to different churches, where they assaulted different children repeatedly…

    oh wait…that never happened, did it?

  10. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  11. Lenny Bruce WAS funny! Before he went crazy from persecution, he focused on comedy and was, more often than not, hilarious. IMHO.

  12. Oh no; hostility towards religion. Jail him. 🙂

  13. For quite a long time all I knew of Bruce’s material was the bits reproduced in the Dustin Hoffman film biography and reprint of written items from magazines like Playboy. The fact that the material was deemed worthy of reproducing also put it in a ‘best of’ category. A few years ago I saw an opportunity to pick up a half dozen CDs of Lenny Bruce albums and was amazed by how much of it was intensely dull and uninspired. It reminded me of the era when vinyl 45s were as popular as LPs. The LPs often contained just just couple of hits and the B sides from the 45s with the rest of the space filled with utter dreck.

    For someone who grew up in the AOR period as well as being accustomed to comedy albums that were worthwhile in their entirety it was a pretty big letdown. This doesn’t diminish how good Bruce was when he was hitting the target but it was/is the nature of the business to create an album regardless of whether there is sufficient material worthy of filling it.

  14. Lenny, like Carlin, forced confrontation and change resulted.
    More freedom of speech on the airways is the result.
    Carlin has lived to say that some Rap had “taken it too far.”

    The thing about cursing, among others,
    is that it is a threshold issue.
    It is either out, or in, and there
    really is no in between.

    The only line that can be drawn,
    the only limit that can be defined,
    is all or nothing.

    Who is to say what is “too” much?
    It is much easier to say
    foul language isn’t allowed,
    or that it is,
    than it is to say
    this is, but that isn’t.

    We can only say for ourselves,
    or should I phrase that,
    ‘speak for ourselves.’

  15. Hey Nick, didn’t you write almost the same article a year or so ago? I disagreed with you about Bruce’s funniness then. Just to be fair, I went back and listened to the routine I recommended to you: “Thank You Masked Man.” Did you listen to it at that time? Guess what? Still funny, and remarkably light on the “obscenity” that got Bruce into trouble. I laughed at a few of his other routines, too, while I was crawling around in the archives. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but I suspect that you may be overstepping your authority as self-appointed cultural pundit, to declare Lenny Bruce “not particularly funny.” His recitation of court transcripts was deadly dull, I agree. But his actual comedic material still makes me laugh more often than not.

  16. I saw Lenny at the Gate of Horn in Chicago a day or two before his bust. He used a lot of yiddish in his act but my Christian girlfriend (she married a minister) laughed at all the right places.

    He was funny. And I enjoyed the Playboy center fold he used in his act as well.

    Perhaps the current Mayor Daley will make up for the sins of his father re: Bruce.

  17. Lord Buckley was tremendous. And let us not forget Flanders and Swan. Or Joan Baez doing Little Darlin’.

    Gone are the days. Which was a great movie. But quite dated with Ossie Davis, Godfrey Cambridge, and Davis’ wife Pearl.

  18. His “Thank You Masked Man” routine is maybe his best known. I’d put it in the category of “interesting,” not funny. Certainly didn’t make me laugh.

  19. Phil Ochs’ best song is “Gas Station Women.” Lenny Bruce’s best routine was “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties.” I like them both well enough, but they both could be terrible bores when they got on a high horse.

    Though I must confess a fondness for the Lenny Bruce album I used to have where he kept reading undercover police reports on his stand-up routines. Perhaps, without meaning to, he paved the way for Andy Kaufman.

  20. EMAIL: draime_2000@yahoo.com
    IP: 62.213.67.122
    URL:
    DATE: 01/25/2004 09:01:58
    A stopped car does not imply a dead driver.

  21. EMAIL: nospam@nospampreteen-sex.info
    IP: 80.205.205.84
    URL: http://preteen-sex.info
    DATE: 05/20/2004 11:58:02
    God had some serious quality-control problems.

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