My wife was once a professional comedian. Everybody with whom she worked is now famous, but she didn’t have the stomach for it. Literally– she felt gross living out of a suitcase and taking the amount of drugs that it takes to fuel a permanent road show are obviously way beyond what is healthy to ingest, if you can ever get them all down after swallowing your own self-loathing. But as her anecdotes about life on the road trickle out to me over our years together, she has consistently expressed admiration for Paula Poundstone. They would do two sets a night and Poundstone’s shows rarely had very much overlapping material. According to my wife, Poundstone was gifted with such a fearless capacity for improvisation that she could invent three fresh hours of material each night.
Poundstone, clearly a venerated veteran at this point, has been delivering apt social critique from the stage since the ’80s. This near to unattainable level of longevity surely counts for a lot in the comedy business. Doing it longest is one thing; doing it best is another thing and doing it first is yet another.
When comedians talk about the greats in their profession, they often go back to George Carlin, who began working in the ’60s. Carlin’s career spanned several decades, he got in a good deal of legal trouble for his work, and his legacy of social satire is unparalleled — or, nearly unparalleled. After reading Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, I realized that everything I have ever loved about Poundstone or Carlin and their genre of hilarity actually began in the late ’40s, with Bruce.
When asked about his own influences, Bruce is dismissive. “What an absurd question. I am influenced by every second of my waking hour” (188). His work was based on experience and completely of the moment. He could rework a bit hundreds of times, but it was never done quite the same way twice, either in form or in content. Many of his most famous bits caused him to be labelled a “sick comic” from the whitewashed suburban viewpoint of the ’50s, about which he shrugs, “It is impossible to label me. I develop, on the average, four minutes of new material a night, constantly growing and changing my point of view; I am heinously guilty of the paradoxes I assail in our society” (97).
Chief among Bruce’s peeves is hypocrisy of any stripe, and chief among his virtues is his constant willingness to cop to his own sordid contradictions. “Every man reading this has at one time pissed in the sink. I have, and I am part of every guy in the world. We’re all included. I know you’ve pissed in the sink. You may have pretended to be washing your hands, but you were definitely pissing in the sink” (174). This profound dislike for pretense would shape up into anecdotal evidence and storytelling of all kinds during his set, and Bruce could run the gamut of diverse social issues from marijuana legalization to the treatment of women to his view of institutionalized religion. His “Religion, Inc.” bit was a major catalyst for his success.
“Of course I disagree with [church-goers] and of course they have the right to believe whatever they do; all I want is for them to come out and admit it and stop issuing sanctimonious bulls saying one thing while they pursue the opposite” (72). He also believed that this widespread insincerity was setting society up for failure. “The what-should-be never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is only what is” (187). When it didn’t come at too high a cost, he tried to live up to his own standards of charitable behavior, albeit often in an unusual fashion. The autobiography spins a great yarn about getting busted for impersonating a priest in Miami to garner financial donations — half to the legitimate charity, half to Bruce’s rent payment.
The first half of the book is concerned with Bruce’s formative years, and his memories serve more as evidence of moral development than development of his comedic craft. He begins with childhood and then moves to his time in the Navy. As he grows older, he shifts from learning about communication between men and women toward cross-cultural communication between citizens of the world. As a result of these reminisces, he arrives at a deep, firsthand understanding of the scant virtues of capitalism and war. Despite his heavy-hearted cynicism, he is surprised to find himself making room for love.
The antics of his courtship and marriage to stripper Honey Harlow are surprisingly heart-warming both to Bruce and his readers. When she was nearly killed in a car crash, he found himself frantically bargaining with God — when she survived, he followed through on his promises despite not necessarily believing in their efficacy in her recovery. Of course, they later divorced, whereupon he reflects, “How can I ever get married again? I’d have to say the same things to another woman that I said to Honey. And I couldn’t say the same things to another woman because somehow that would be corrupt to me” (92).
He wasn’t generally interested in elaborating on the “somehow” that lands people in the middle of corruption. He focuses on the symptoms of it and then asks why we don’t treat the disease. This rhetorical question is perhaps his greatest asset as a comedian, because audiences laugh uncomfortably in the empty space where they should be able to provide an answer. But the fact of human nature’s attraction to contradiction cannot be answered for, and Bruce knew this. He opted for the only rational response: faith in the essential productivity of generating confusion over our own hypocrisies. “As a child I loved confusion: a freezing blizzard that would stop all traffic and mail; toilets that would get stopped up and overflow and run down the halls; electrical failures –anything that would stop the flow and make it back up and find a new direction. Confusion was entertainment to me” (21).
What was entertainment to Bruce was often construed as unlawful by others. He was famously arrested several times in the early ’60s, sometimes for drugs and sometimes for the obscenity of his comedic work on stage. “Believe it or not,” he says, “I have a dread of being a martyr” (164). Nevertheless, his obscenity trial was a major sensation. He was hauled in for using the word “cocksucker”. It wasn’t even the punchline to the joke, just a casual part of the dialogue that he used in order to properly characterize two people and set the tone in a scene he was narrating. The second half of the book primarily concerns his legal troubles. Bruce provides excerpts from the court transcripts, his own recollections, letters and petitions on his behalf, and so on.
This stunning farce of decency forced Bruce to play the straight man against very many unintentional laugh lines given by witness and experts in court. In the book, he provides thorough context and is really quite fair to his critics. Given his willingness to admit his faults, the court documents showing his persecution are especially disturbing. Though his show is far from arousing, he’s even willing to concede the point. “Well, I want to know what’s wrong with appealing to prurient interest. I really want the Supreme Court to stand up and tell me that fucking is dirty and no good” (152). Subsequent arrests were greased by the sensationalism of the first obscenity trial and compounded by rumors of his drug use. “It is because of newspapers — their disregard for the truth when it comes to reporting — that my reputation has been hurt” (160).
The autobiography was written as his case was awaiting appeal, and timed no doubt in part to drum up funding and support for his legal woes. That’s not a criticism. “Of course, there are some people who sell themselves for money. That ‘some’ constitutes ninety percent of the people I’ve known in my life, including myself. We all sell out some part of us” (82). Bruce recalls that the best letter he got during this time period was from the Reverend Sydney Lanier, vicar of Saint Clement’s Church in New York, who wrote to him that “it is never popular to be so scathingly honest, whether it is from a night-club stage or from a pulpit, and I was not surprised to hear you were having some ‘trouble’” (150).
Bruce got many comparisons to other satirists in the vein of Jonathan Swift and even Aristophanes, but he himself seems to return over and over again not to other comedians, but to religious leaders. Indeed, he felt that his performance was a type of calling from deep within his heart. “I felt — and still do feel — that all so-called ‘men of God’ are self-ordained. The ‘calling’ they hear is just their own echo” (53). Much of his childhood reflection centers on having been brought up culturally Jewish. Much of his stage act is framed by the fundamentalist hypocrisy he saw in religious institutions. Much of his legal battle was predicated upon a churchgoer’s sense of indecency. His own best scam was to imitate a priest.
Unconcerned by matters of personal faith but deeply invested in the double-standards of its public application, Bruce’s worldview consists of both authentic empathy and social responsibility. This perspective caused him to be both revered and vilified for most of his short life. “Constant, abrasive irritation produces the pearl: it is a disease of the oyster,” reflects Kenneth Tynan in the introduction (xi). There are three introductions, in fact — two that are new to the 2016 50th anniversary edition here, and the original from Tynan in 1965. Tynan locates Bruce as “a tightrope walker between morality and nihilism” (ix). In some ways, he’s above us.
Lewis Black also likes the idea of the God’s eye view. In acknowledging his debt to Bruce, he says he’s made “a career out of expressing [his] dissatisfaction with the world” (vii). But Tynan and Black disagree about the extent to which a comedian can be viewed as a preacher. Black maintains that, “I don’t think about changing minds; I think about getting laughs. Changing a mind is collateral damage, if you will” (vii). Tynan says that Bruce was “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” (ix). One page later, he declares, “Bruce has the heart of an unfrocked evangelist” (x).
The other new introduction is from Howard Reich, jazz critic. He seems at first to agree with Black. “Bruce was no preacher, telling others how to live. He was simply saying what he believed: not to win converts but only to make his case to those who bothered to encounter it” (xv).” Perhaps thinking about Bruce as a preacher is not quite the right word, perhaps conversion is not quite the best frame of the relationship between comedian and audience. To most effectively value his work and to take his self-concept into our own hearts, we must simply remember that “like all genuine sages, Bruce directs as much criticism toward himself as anyone else, which lends credibility to his skepticism of others” (xvii). Lenny Bruce was a sage – possessed of unique experience, performing with excellent judgment, and perpetuating a profound wisdom.