Lenny Bruce

Stand-Up Comedian Lenny Bruce

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AKA: Leonard Alfred Schneider

Born: Oct. 13, 1925

Death: Aug. 3, 1966

Blue Meter: Dirty

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Videos

All video pulled from YouTube.

Lenny Bruce: All Alone
Lenny Bruce: All Alone Watch
Lenny Bruce (1 of 7)
Lenny Bruce (1 of 7) Watch
Lenny Bruce - at Carnegie Hall part 1
Lenny Bruce - at Carnegie Hall part 1 Watch

Works

Records

2010 Dirty Words - Live 1962
2005 The Good, The Bad and the Drugly

This album is a compilation of various artists

2005 Live: San Francisco 1966
2004 Thank You Masked Man
2004 Let The Buyer Beware (Box Set)
2003 Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Mind: The Rise & Reckless Fall Of Lenny Bruce

Audio biography about the comedian

1991 The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 2
1991 The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 1
1989 The Berkeley Concert
1970 To Is a Preposition; Come Is a Verb
1969 The Essential Lenny Bruce Politics
1969 Warning Lenny Bruce Is Out Again
1961 Live at the Curran Theater
1961 Carnegie Hall Concert
1960 American

Compiled on The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 1 & 2

1959 Togetherness

Compiled on The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 2

1958 The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce

Compiled on The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 1

1958 Interviews of Our Time

Compiled on The Lenny Bruce Originals, Vol. 1

Specials (and other video)

2012 Looking for Lenny
1998 Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth
1974 Lenny

Biopic about Bruce's life.

1971 Lenny Bruce Without Tears
1967 The Lenny Bruce Performance Film

Books (by and about)

2002 The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon

by Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover

1974 Ladies And Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!

by Albert Goldman

1967 How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

Jokes

A lot of people say to me, “Why did you kill Christ?” I dunno… it was one of those parties that got out of hand.

Biography

In 1960, as Lenny Bruce’s controversial stand-up career was on the upswing, Walter Winchell called him “America’s #1 Vomic.”

In 1966, as Lenny Bruce’s controversial stand-up career was sputtering downward, Dick Gregory declared “Lenny Bruce, two thousand years from now will be one of the names that will still be remembered. He’s to show business what Einstein was to science.”

Twenty years later Dick Cavett said, “He was a dazzling performer at his best, and I don’t know why that isn’t enough for people.”

Even after so many decades, after 800 pages of a biography, and after dozens of posthumous audio and video releases, Lenny Bruce remains the most controversial figure in the history of comedy. Not only do some have moral quarrels with his lifestyle (as earlier generations did with Chaplin and Arbuckle), and not only is there mystery surrounding his death (as there is with comedienne Thelma Todd), there is still debate over the simplest premise for any stand-up performer: whether he’s funny or not.

Born on Long Island, his parents divorced, Lenny grew up neurotic, hungry for affection, bewildered by the rules and regulations of the adult world and the confusion of two separate worlds—his father’s and his mother’s. He leaned toward his mother’s world. She was Sally Marr, a sometime stand-up comic and entertainer who sometimes took him to burlesque shows. She brought him to “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” on April 18, 1949. Lenny tied for first place and began a grinding career doing straight schtick, impressions and mc work in strip clubs. He married a stripper, Honey Harlowe, who had worked as Honey Michel.

Bruce raised money any way he could, and once was arrested for impersonating a priest soliciting funds for a leper colony. Around 1953 he worked briefly as a screenwriter. He managed to star in “Dance Hall Racket,” a stilted low-budget exercise redeemed only slightly by his lively imitation of a murderous small-time hood. Honey had a bit part as a gun moll. Their daughter Kitty was born in 1955, but within a few years, the family was shattered by divorce and drug abuse.

Lenny’s comedy was changing, turning hipper and “sicker.” He fused old-fashioned gags with a new-found irreverence: “My mother-in-law broke up my marriage. My wife came home and found us in bed together.” The more critics objected, the wilder Lenny got. A favorite early (1959) routine was an airline bit on John Graham, the man who blew up a plane with forty people and his mother aboard for the insurance money. Lenny summed it up: “For this the state sent him to the gas chamber, proving actually that the Amerian people are losing their sense of humor…”

Lenny then went on to prove his own sense of humor and his innate ability to satirize human nature as he recreated the scene—the pathetic con-man Graham handing her the gift box and impatiently shouting “fill out the policy!” and the naive mother who believes her son can do no wrong (“it’s a music box!” “yeah, you’ll get a bang out of it”). He moves on chronicle the pesty passengers who elicit laughter from the audience and no sympathy. After the explosion the pilot is concerned only about his job (“are we gonna get yelled at!”) while the stewardess whines that the surviving passengers are becoming “cranky.”

While some of the humor was in the sick concept, much of it was in Lenny’s charismatic ability to create vivid, satirically etched characters. Everybody aboard the plane came to life, every homely detail intact. He didn’t spare himself, either. In the bit on airlines, Lenny sketched in a portrait of himself—alone, making faces at himself in the airplane bathroom. It was part of Bruce’s nature to bare himself to his audience. While Mort Sahl pioneered many of the techniques Lenny adopted, Mort’s attitude was more like a therapist talking to a patient, or the patient on the couch. Lenny was in the confessional, sometimes as priest, sometimes as penitent.

Bruce’s most memorable routines had both aggressive moments and vulnerable moments. In “To Come,” he shocked the 50’s audience by declaring “To is a preposition, come is a verb.” But in the course of his fierce routine (accompanied by drums) he talked about impotence and love (“I can’t come” “‘Cause you don’t love me, that’s why you can’t come.” “I love you. I just can’t come. That’s my hangup…”) In another routine, he challenges the audience: “Would You Sell Out Your Country?” Then he adds, “I don’t have to think twice. I know me, Jim. The flag goes right down the toilet.” And he describes a torture scene, a patriot who won’t spill his country’s secrets—until he discovers he’s about to be given a hot lead enema.

Sometimes Bruce used more poignant observation than harsh satire, as in his portrait of homely home folks in Lima, Ohio: “they show me how the house used to look…how dirty the other people were who lived there…we cleaned for months…yeah, that’s a very lovely closet. It’s nice the way the towels are folded…they always have a piano nobody plays. The function of the piano is to have that brown 8x10 picture of that shlub in the army saluting…”

One of the reasons Lenny Bruce was so important to comedy was the complexity of his work. Something as simple as a parody of “The Lone Ranger” had shock comedy (“masked man’s a fag! bet you got mascara under that mask!”), satire (“I like what they do to fags in this country—they throw them in jail with a lot of men, very clever!”) and vulnerability (as the hero admits “I must have a ‘thank you, masked man…’).

Audiences encouraged Lenny toward more “free-form” comedy. He wanted to do less set “bits” and one-liners and more observational material drawn, like a jazz musician, from his feelings and emotions of the moment. When some of his sexual or religious material received negative criticism, it only goaded him into more furious assaults. He took on any topic that he felt discomfort in talking about, whether it was how to remove snot from suede or whether Jacqueline Kennedy was “going for help” or running for cover when the shots were fired in Dallas, a difference between supposed heroism and forgivable human nature.

Bruce didn’t have all the answers. He questioned his own business—where an entertainer could earn $50,000 a week while a school teacher made next to nothing.

Anti-Bruce forces were powerful. While there wasn’t much that could be done to silence him for religious or political material, when it came to “dirty words,” the law was clearly on their side. “What’s wrong with appealing to prurient interests?” Lenny wanted to know. He wondered why Las Vegas was the entertainment capitol of the country when the big attraction was “tits and ass.” His use of those terms was shocking at the time—ironic considering that his use popularized the term and it’s slang abbreviation “T & A.”

He joked, “if anyone believes that God made his body, and that body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer.” But it was no joke to those who were offended by Lenny Bruce. Lenny was busted for obscenity several times—and in his struggle to not only free himself, but change the attitudes and laws on obscenity—he found himself in legal quicksand, his money and strength draining away. Lenny had his weaknesses to begin with and drugs were part of that. The narcotics busts that always seemed to occur around the same time as the obscenity arrests exacerbating Bruce’s problems and his increasing paranoia.

Bruce struggled on, his stage act becoming increasingly obsessed with dissecting law and language, trying to make sense of the nonsense. Variety reported that he made $108,000 in 1960 and just $6,000 in 1964. He was bankrupt in 1965 and dead in 1966. In his last days he had experimented with LSD taken sleeping pills, and worried his friends with his heroin abuse. Nobody was in the house when Lenny died. He had been typing—the electric typewriter was on, and he had been in mid-sentence: “Conspiracy to interfere with the fourth amendment const.”

He was found by his friends, in the bathroom, a needle in his arm. It seemed strange. Lenny would not have simply thrown a sash around his arm and jabbed the needle in. None of the paraphernalia he used to shoot up, including a spoon and matches, were around. When the police arrived, they arranged the body for some photographs and added a few touches—like a box of syringes found under the sink. There remain conflicts between the police reports and eyewitness testimony. Confusion over such basic facts as whether the drug was morphine or heroin, and whether the injection was administered by Lenny (accidentally or as a suicide attempt) or by someone else, have left the death of Lenny Bruce as controversial as his life.

In 1971 the Broadway show “Lenny” sparked a Lenny Bruce revival, and in this radical half of the decade, students clamored for the re-issue of his albums, and previously unavailable works. Lenny was nominated for more Grammy awards posthumously than during his lifetime. The 1974 film version of “Lenny” brought even more attention to Bruce, along with Albert Goldman’s biography. In the passing years other comedians utilized elements of Lenny’s style and teachings, often with broader and more cartoonish strokes. Some young listeners complain they simply can’t “get” the original. They didn’t grow up going to Jewish candy stores and were too young to understand the guilt trips involved in growing up in the repressed 50’s.They never saw the films Lenny satirized and didn’t understand the jazz lingo or Yiddishisms strewn through his bits. They had no ear for routines without big payoffs, and were used to far “dirtier” material. They enjoyed George Carlin’s more accessible bits on dirty words and Richard Pryor’s version of the “I’m going to piss on you” bit.

But for many, Lenny Bruce remains not only an original—but still funny, still provocative, and one of the few comedians whose “sound” is so charismatic it can be heard over and over for the sheer pleasure of his characterizations and word-weaving.

There were songs written about Lenny Bruce as he rose to notoriety. Grace Slick and her band at the time, The Great Society, sang: “he’s our kind of preacher, ain’t none of us gonna put him down. He’s trying to say something to ya. Listen while you’re still around.”

There were songs for Lenny Bruce when he died. Tim Hardin’s was a dirge: “I’ve lost a friend and I don’t know why…” Paul Simon collaged the news reports of his death with a chorus of “Silent Night.” And on another number he declared, “I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce!”

There were songs for Lenny Bruce twenty years after his death. Bob Dylan sang: “...he was an outlaw, that’s for sure. More of an outlaw than you ever were. Lenny Bruce is gone but his spirit’s livin’ on and on.”

Songs are sung for those who are bigger than life and bigger than death. Legends. In his lifetime, he once said, “I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.” Now, no writer, no critic, no friend and no foe ever can write about him as just a comedian. Because he was Lenny Bruce.