Saturday, February 26, 2005

Lenny Bruce Without Tears

So many people know Lenny Bruce only through his reputation as St. Lenny, the martyr of free speech, the victim of his own drug habit as well as of moralistic prosecuting attorneys, that it’s easy to lose sight of one of the most important things about him: he was a very funny guy. Copping a feel from the zeitgeist at exactly the moment when the Eisenhower 50s turned into the swinging Kennedy 60s, Bruce found his voice after more than a decade floundering in strip clubs and promoting ill-conceived movie projects. Suddenly his almost childlike fascination with the world – a world in which the maneuverings of presidents and popes seemed as fanciful as that revealed on “The Late, Late Show” (the used car ads as well as the old movies).
Suddenly Lenny was swinging on the mike, creating elaborate bits in which high-placed religious figures and mythic heroes like the Lone Ranger opened up to reveal their human side, their petty neuroses and their secret desires. Listen to Lenny’s album with classic sketches like “Religions, Inc.”, “Thank You Masked Man”, or “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” and you’ll find a gifted comedian, a hipster showman just on the cusp of genius, happily riffing on his own imagination and allowing the audience to come along for the ride.
And then on October 3, 1961, everything changed. Lenny got busted for obscenity in San Francisco. While the complaint mentioned several portions of his act, the most damaging part of it was a ten letter word, a reference to a sexual practice described in court as “related to homosexuals” but now so common a part of contemporary parlance that you can hear it on tv sitcoms or read about it in government reports.
The arrest, the first of many, changed Lenny. He made bail in time for his 1 a.m. performance, where he closed with a line that would come to define the rest of his career. “I’m sorry if I’m not very funny tonight” he apologized to the audience, “but I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.”
After that moment, Lenny’s performances changed from nightclub shtick to a more personal combination of soul-baring and free association. At his best, as with the Curran Theatre and Carnegie Hall concerts (both available on cd), he was funnier than ever, but more inclined toward improvising meditations on his legal problems than to deliver the popular routines from his records. (Later, of course, he would become obsessed with is legal problems and his live appearances became rambling arguments about legal minutiae. )
(Bruce’s troubles with the law are given an excellent interpretation through the perspective of subsequent obscenity cases in the recent book “The Trials of Lenny Bruce”, which also includes a CD with pertinent excerpts from his act.)
Fred Baker’s Lenny Bruce Without Tears, just released on DVD by First Run Features, isn’t the most thorough account of Bruce’s life, but for Bruce aficionados it shows the comedian at a rare moment in his career, making the rounds of tv shows designed to validate a hip audience, playing the showbiz game but pushing the boundaries and reveling in his new status as “obscene”. (Baker, a friend of the comedian, was the director of the underground hit Events and a veteran of tv jazz performances. He made his tribute to Bruce hoping to sell it to PBS.) Taken largely from Bruce’s appearances on television, it offers a slightly sanitized view of the comedian, clearly enjoying his new notoriety but recognizing that the “Sick comic” label is a way of getting attention but is not without its drawbacks. Bruce fans won’t want to miss this though they won’t be able to help noticing that it stows only one side of the comedian as he tempers his act for the sake of reaching a wider audience, talking about “how I became obscene” but safely avoiding the blunt honesties that made him a legend as well as a felon.
That said, Lenny Bruce Without Tears pays tribute to Lenny’s short and tumultuous life, but it’s best appreciated by those who already know the man and his work. It’s respectful and maybe even a touch too reverent, but it’s no substitute for the real, raw thing. It’s worth a look, but`check out a few of Bruce’s recordings first and get a taste of the real thing.


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