Performing Arts

The Commandments of Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce made the stage his pulpit, the audience his parishioners, and stand-up the sermons for his alternative secular faith.

It is often said of Lenny Bruce that he was a pioneer for free speech, a precursor not only for succeeding generations of controversial comedians, but for a counter-culture that came of age soon after his untimely death. “Question authority”, a popular tenet of '60s youth rebels, could well have been his epitaph, and no authority came more under his comic scrutiny than the religious kind.

Less concerned with issues of personal faith than with religious restraints and hypocrisy, Bruce ushered in a new generation no longer wholly beholden to the sanctity of church doctrines. And Bruce went further, arguing with customary irony that the new skeptical generation was actually more Christian and more spiritual than prior ones because, unlike them, it refused to “support freak attractions” by mocking those afflicted or unconventional (Lenny Bruce. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. p.96).

This shift from a humor that insults the already marginalized to one that targets those in power—punching up instead of down—marked Lenny’s revolution in comedy as one of substance and style. Not only was he one of the first in his field to openly satirize religion, but he did so with a methodology then foreign to the world of stand-up. Out went the one-liners and stock jokes of the Borscht Belt comics; in came the kind of anecdotal morality tales we are familiar with today. This story-telling, caricature-driven style was suited to Bruce’s satirical purposes, as it allowed him to parody the power-brokers within the institutional frameworks of everyday life.

Politicians and show business executives were common targets, but Bruce reserved particular scorn for religious leaders, though all were interchangeable in regard to the traits he would focus upon: exploitation, greed, deceit, and hypocrisy. Whereas prior comedy had been, opines Gerald Nachman, “a trade, not a calling”, Bruce gave comedic point-of-view a conscience and ethical righteousness (Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York: Pantheon, 2003. p.22).

Like George Carlin, Sam Kineson, and Bills Hicks and Bill Maher after him, Bruce’s relationship to religion was paradoxical in both topic and treatment. As much as his content is condemnatory of the church, its critical impetus emanates from a moral foundation one might actually associate with the preaching profession. Although satire and parody provide the rhetorical methods of delivery, ethical resoluteness and stridency arealso omnipresent. In many respects, Bruce made the stage his pulpit, the audience his parishioners, and stand-up the sermons for his alternative secular faith.

This co-option or echoing of religion while simultaneously critiquing it provides a paradox not lost on Frank Kofsky, who argues in his book, Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist (New York: Monad Press, 1974), that Bruce embodied many of the traditional traits of Jewish religious leaders and teachers. He calls Lenny “a functioning rabbi in secular drag”, positing that the kinds of moral instruction and enlightenment the comedian provided have much in common with rabbis, whom, he notes, should be distinguished from priests and ministers because of their primary role as teachers rather than as heads of an institutional hierarchy (p.87).

Kofsky further compares Bruce to other Jewish theological figures, such as “the maggid”, another teacher-preacher less formal than a rabbi. The maggid is known for his humility and tolerance, as well as for his often witty anecdotal methods of instruction. Humor has often played significant roles in Jewish (religious) traditions, used as a tool not just for enjoyment and entertainment but for critical insight, enlightenment, and social uplift, too. Unlike in some of the other major faiths, Judaism does not confine religiosity to houses of worship, but encourages preaching and teaching to take place wherever possible—even from the stages of nightclubs.

Noting his fire-and-brimstone delivery, complete with moral outrage and righteous zealotry, some critics have evoked religious allusions for Bruce’s secular protestations. Nat Hentoff titled one essay on Bruce, “The Crucifixion of a True Believer” (2001), while Time magazine once referred to him as the “high priest of sick comedians” (John Strausbaugh. A History of Greenwich Village. New York: Harper Collins, 2013. p.419). Enrico Banducci, who ran the hungry i club in San Francisco where Bruce used to perform, stated, “I don’t think he was a comedian, really. I think he was a preacher” (Arthur Asa Berger. Jewish Jesters: A Study in American Popular Comedy. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc. 2001. p.90), and Gerald Nachman spoke of him as a “savior” for hypocritical Christians, as well as a “messiah” with a Jesus obsession (p.415). Comparably exclamatory in his analysis, Eric Bogosian, in writing the “Introduction” to the 1992 edition of Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, called his fellow humorist “Saint Lenny” and described him as the “martyr” who “died for our sins” (p.vii).

These religious metaphors and allusions have elements of mock hyperbole, yet they implicitly concede the key role that religion, particularly Judaism, played in the making of Bruce’s satirical sensibility and personal identity. Despite Bruce’s incessant indictments of religious institutional hypocrisy, Kofsky argues that “the one thing he could not do was extirpate his Jewish conscience” (p.81). Central to this was compassion, what in Judaism is sometimes called “rachmones”. Invariably, rachmones would provide the driving impetus for Bruce’s most critical and condemnatory religious humor, such as in this scattershot musing over the sanctity of the Sixth Commandment, “thou shalt not kill”: “Goddamn the priests and the rabbis. Goddamn the Popes and all their hypocrisy.... What influence did they exert to save the lives of the Rosenbergs—guilty or not?... The Ten Commandments doesn’t say, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill Sometimes….’” (Bruce. p.71). Besides the closing sarcasm here, one would be hard-pressed to even call such bits “comedy”, as the rachmones is prioritized over the pursuit of an easy laugh.

Rachmones (or the lack thereof) is similarly central to one of Bruce’s most infamous and groundbreaking early sketches, “Christ and Moses”. Here, the comedian highlights the many ways religious leaders ignore or avoid their supposed calling in order to protect their own power and privilege. One version has Christ and Moses descend from the heavens to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York City. There, amidst the splendor of the surroundings, they witness a conversation between Cardinal Francis Spellman and Bishop Sheen over the arrival of some lepers at the church. Rather than show compassion for the poor and lame, though, Spellman instead gets on the phone to Pope John Paul, complaining, “Look, all I know is that I’m up to my ass in crutches and wheelchairs here!” He adds, “What are we paying protection for?” characterizing the Pope as some kind of Mafia godfather.

Soon, the skit tangentially spins off in other directions, as Lenny’s concerns turn to issues of racism and priest pedophilia. “Of course they’re white”, the Cardinal tells the Pope in describing the holy visitors; and long before the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals were exposed, Bruce incorporates suggestive asides as Spellman tells the Pope, “He brought a very attractive Jewish boy with him” and “I gotta lotta kids staying over here” (Kofsky. p.48-52).

Such harsh, uncompromising, and personalized caricatures would be just as controversial if aired today, yet this “play frame” amounts to more than mere character assassination. Excess and exaggeration are the essence of parody, and the power of its critique exists by virtue of its very extremism. By juxtaposing true symbols of compassion (Jesus and Moses) against those who only parade it for personal expediency (church leaders), Bruce declares which side he is on. Reflecting upon this piece in his autobiography, Bruce states (mock?) immodestly, “I really loved Christ and Moses. I related strongly to them because it seemed to me that I thought so much like them in so many ways” (p.57). Furthermore, in articulating the culture/generational wars of the day, Bruce would often cite the line that “Everyday people are straying away from the church and going back to God” (Lenny Bruce [ed. John Cohen). The Essential Lenny Bruce. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967. p.57).

The history of discrimination against Jews need not be recounted again here, but it's quite comprehensible how and why issues of acceptance, justice, and compassion should be so central not only to the Judaic faith, but to a history of humor so ubiquitous in Jewish cultural expression. The desire to unmask the fake and expose the hypocrite has been more than a mere comedic exercise for Jews; it has been a strategy of solidarity—for coping and surviving.

Yet, like so many fellow Jewish comedians before him and since, Bruce’s relationship to both Judaism and Jewish identity has been complicated, if not contradictory. As part of a post-war generation of Jews still discriminated against in public entertainment forums, Leonard Schneider followed the familiar precedent of changing his name for greater acceptance and accessibility, this despite the fact that Jews constituted the vast majority of comedians in the US. However, Bruce was far from self-loathing or denying when it came to his Jewish identity. Early in his autobiography he muses over the cultural meanings of Jewishness in the modern world and is far from reticent in boasting of its cool and hip factors. Dividing his world into the symbolically Jewish and “goyish” (gentile), he offers the following comparative list: “If you live in New York you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish… Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very goyish” (p.5).

Assimilation was always an uncomfortable proposition for Bruce, as he was aware that accommodation was often accompanied by the willingness to compromise values. In this regard, the comedian reserved particular scorn for liberal Jews who prefer to stay silent in the face of injustices (like racism and segregation) rather than call attention to, or publicly stand by, their socially “aberrant” Judaic beliefs. They are “so Reform they’re ashamed they’re Jewish” he would say of such two-faced liberals. “Goddamn Israel and its bond drives”, Lenny decries in his autobiography. “What influence did they exert to save the lives of the Rosenbergs” (p.71). Not only did Bruce call out his fellow Jews for sacrificing rachmones in favor of assimilation, but he also expected gentile culture to do the assimilating to his Judaic-based commandments regarding justice and liberation.

Such a stance included an explicit unwillingness to take on the guilt historically and unjustly foisted upon the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “In the dictionary a Jew is one who is descended from the ancient tribe of Judea”, he starts, adding, “but…you and I know what a Jew is: one who killed our Lord”. Voicing the collective exasperation of the Jewish everyman, Bruce calls for a “statute of limitations”, concluding, “Yes, we did it. I did it. My family. I found a note in the basement: ‘We killed him—signed, Morty’” (How to Talk Dirty. p.155).

Lenny’s embrace of his Jewish roots is particularly apparent in his language patterns, in a vernacular that fuses the hip slang of the black jazz world he inhabited as a performer with the Yiddish expressions he picked up as a youth. “My conversation, spoken and written, is usually flavored with the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish”, he explains in Chapter One of his autobiography (p.5). Joe Ancis, his friend and comedy peer, was influential in encouraging Lenny to draw from his Jewish heredity, a strategy that would distinguish him from most other Jewish comedians of the time.

Admittedly, Mickey Katz and others used Yiddish when playing to predominantly Jewish audiences at clubs in the Catskills, but others like Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman eschewed such vernacular for fear of alienating gentile audiences or eliciting their prejudices. For some, overt Jewishness in comedy routines was often equated with cultural isolationism or with perpetuating damaging stereotypes.

While “Briddish not Yiddish” was the order of the day for most Jewish comedians, Bruce refused to compromise for accommodation or deny his Jewish identity. Conversely, he paraded it, incorporating Yiddish as a crest of coolness in his act. Tony Hendra comments, “His Jewishness was loud and clear, joyous and contemptuous, right off the street corner, deli-counter ranting, babbling Yiddish his vernacular, the language he referred to in extremis, the root and branch of half his characterizations, an in-joke with himself, his own hip within Hip” (Going Too Far. New York: Doubleday, 1987. p.125).

There is credibility in the critical comedy of Bruce, Carlin, Hicks, and Kineson that comes by virtue of their personal experiences and socialization within religious environments. This involved more than the rejection of Judaism for Bruce, though, who embraced that faith’s moral commandments, invoking them and testing them in the real world of religious America. Melding satire and parody with old-time preaching, Bruce unveiled hypocrisy, highlighted injustices, and ironically reinvigorated, from a secular point-of-view, the central tenets claimed by all major religions.

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