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Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce: - Albert Goldman;Lawrence Schiller I had expected this to be a quick read; after all, aren’t most pop culture biographies written at a sixth grade level, for readers with a mild passing interest in the subject? This book goes way beyond that. It is hard to imagine any but the most fanatical Lenny Bruce fans enjoying this exhaustively detailed 800+ page tome. Hell, in 800 pages, Edward Gibbon could chronicle at least three centuries of Roman imperial decline and fall! In the course of telling Mr. Bruce’s life story, author Albert Goldman saw fit to include tedious details about all the assorted instances Bruce changed managers and addresses. (Fun tidbit: Bruce once shared managers with Captain Kangaroo!) He gives excessive background information on women Bruce had very short and apparently not very meaningful relationships with. He describes the unnecessary minutiae of the interior decorating schemes of clubs where Bruce only performed once or twice. A good editor could have probably cut 400 pages from this book, with no substantial loss of content. In return for the agony of slogging through Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!, I will admit there were some bizarre parts which occasionally made for good reading. Bruce’s childhood years were about as fucked up as I’ve ever heard of. His parents divorced when he was young, and they were such polar opposites, I can’t even imagine how they ever got together in the first place. His father was loving but neurotic, stifling and authoritarian. His mother (Sally) was a struggling singer and occasional stripper. She was more fun to be around, but not in a healthy way; she seemed to treat Lenny more like a pal, or at best a younger brother, than a son -taking him out at all hours to clubs where they both got into drugs, booze, and other kinds of trouble. Sometimes Mom and son would pick up dates and bring them back to their tiny apartment to fuck in adjacent rooms- yikes! The author seems to hint at incest here too, or maybe not quite full-blown incest but inappropriate affection with poor boundaries. I don’t think anybody really knows what exactly was going on there. Sally ended up marring a guy slightly younger than Lenny, who by all accounts looked almost exactly like him. Creepy.What I really wanted to hear about was Lenny’s career. Why is he cited so widely as one of the seminal forces in modern comedy? Big names in the biz, like Richard Pryor and George Carlin have pledged their gratitude to his groundbreaking work, which made their careers possible. So why is Lenny Bruce so special? For one thing, it is definitely true that he pushed the boundaries of his day. He didn’t invent the dirty joke; Buddy Hackett was making a career out of dirty jokes a good ten years before Lenny Bruce broke out, and some of the bawdier Vaudeville acts and burlesque shows before Hackett made open humor out of fairly direct sex talk. I think the thing is that Buddy Hacket would sprinkle small amounts of obscenity into longer acts which, for the most part were clean. And the Vaudville stuff was secluded enough from polite society to not matter. Lenny Bruce, on the other hand, was a national name, and he had a 20 minute bit about giving oral sex to a woman. His most famous obscenity trial (there were at least five, if you count appeals separately) centers on a 30 minute act exploring what people say during sex, and how the phrase “to come” is used to describe orgasm. This, in 1961. Unfortunately, the bit is extremely repetitive, and honestly not that funny; I think it’s fair to opine that the laughs he got may have been more out of shock and discomfort than humor.Then there are jokes about race and ethnicity. Lenny Bruce didn’t invent these either. Certainly racist comics existed everywhere, but I’m not really talking about them. I’m talking about people who could talk to audiences about race, without engaging in actual racism. Obviously it’s a fine line, open to a lot of interpretation. Some of Bruce’s contemporaries performing in the “Borscht Belt” (i.e. Catskill Mountain resorts) dwelt long and hard on elements of Jewish life in America, which were arguably a sort of “soft” racism... practiced within the group, towards itself, behind closed doors… sort of like a family airing its dirty laundry in private. Out in more mainstream venues, Sammy Davis Jr could occasionally shock uncomfortable mixed audiences with black jokes, but the fact that he was black obviously put audiences somewhat at ease, and- right or wrong- gave him more license to tell them. More adventurous comics in New York City had bits about the “melting pot” aspect of the city- in which they could poke fun at just about any ethnicity, at their own peril. In this regard, maybe Lenny Bruce was more daring than most, but it depends on how you look at it. He definitely made humor out of racial stereotypes, and it wasn’t always clear whether he endorsed the stereotypes he was poking fun at, but the thrust of his humor (my interpretation) seems to be that (1) most people harbor more prejudicial views than they are willing to admit, and (2) that often people outside a particular ethnic or racial group manifest the same traits they ascribe (uniquely) to the target group. Bruce had a whole bit called How to Put Your Colored Friends at Ease, about a racist who doesn’t know he’s racist, who gets himself invited to a black family’s house for dinner, and proceeds to reveal every racist preconception he has, without realizing he’s doing so. The act is definitely calling racism out for its ignorance, but you really need to watch it in a detached, urbane, permissive frame of mind to appreciate that. It’s easy to see why the act was offensive to many- if nothing else for its prodigious use of the “n word”. Lenny played with a lot of taboo subjects in this way over the years: abortion, the Ku Klux Klan, Catholicism, Communists, premarital sex, Hitler, masturbation, and drug addiction, for starters. The only thing I read in this book which struck me as having no redeeming value was his making fun of Jackie Kennedy, just four months after JFK’s assassination, for climbing up on the back of the car when the second bullet struck. This sort of humor might have passed without incident early on in his career, when he played seedy clubs where pretty much “anything goes”. He ran into trouble when he began to get famous, and started to perform at more mainstream venues, but didn’t tailor his acts accordingly. Before reading this book, I might have thought that was a testament to his integrity, but really I think it was that he just wasn’t savvy enough, or concerned enough to care. He was already addicted to heroin by the time he played Carnegie Hall, or made his television debut on The Steve Allen Show. By then, most of his waking life was dedicated to getting his next fix, not planning a commercially successful career. Aside from the content of his acts, Lenny Bruce gets a lot of praise for his style of delivery. Instead of relating to the audience like a performer doing an act, Bruce got up and took them into his confidence, as if having a personal one-on-one conversation with them. He enacted a few rehearsed bits, which became staples in his routine, but as often as not, he just ad libbed whatever was on his mind… riffing on the news of the day, or whatever little incident in his personal life had a bee in his bonnet at the moment. This is pretty standard now; Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin almost never deliver punchlines to set-up jokes; they’re just up on stage making observations about the world around them (albeit rehearsed observations). Again, Lenny Bruce didn’t invent this style; Mort Sahl was a successful Beat comic doing observational comedy before Lenny Bruce… it’s just that Lenny Bruce was so good at it, history tends to remember it as his own.The other stylistic element which got Lenny Bruce acclaim was the rapid-fire free association, which would skip from subject to subject, with little apparent connection or transition. People sometimes complained that his act was hard to follow, and there are some unintentionally funny parts in one obscenity trial, where transcripts of his monologue are read into the record, and nobody –including Bruce- can keep track of what he was talking about. Robbin Williams does this a lot in his act too, but I’m inclined to think Williams doesn’t owe Lenny Bruce as an influence; instead I think Williams and Bruce can both thank subclinical mania for their style of performance.While his act was still taking off… when times were still good, it is amazing to read how many influential people of his day Lenny Bruce interacted with. Obviously, Bruce rubbed elbows with a lot of big name comics, many of them before they were famous, including Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Dick Cavett (arguably not exactly a comic), Bob Newhart, and George Carlin (he and Bruce got arrested together). Beyond that, in the late 50’s Hugh Hefner was testing social boundaries with Playboy, so it’s probably natural that he took a shine to Lenny Bruce. He had Bruce over to the Chicago mansion frequently, started collaboration on a film project which went nowhere, and even advanced Lenny $16,000 for a book that never got written. Then, in the early and mid-60’s, record producer Phil Spector came into Bruce’s orbit, and probably helped him score drugs. When Lenny Bruce died of a heroin overdose in 1966, Spector bought the leaked police photos, to prevent them from being published in the newspapers. Two fun bits here: (1) Lenny had an improbable axe to grind with Alfred Hitchcock, in which LB claimed Hitchcock had spit in the face of one of his friends; and (2) Lenny Bruce became close friends with John Judnich- who is even today not a household name, but probably should be. Judnich was kind of a Beatnick loser during the period he lived with Bruce, but he was also an engineering prodigy. Judnich later invented various pieces of audio equipment, became a concert sound engineer for high-profile groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, and ELO; and he went on to found his own successful company (Tycobrahe Sound Co). He even held a patent on one of the early prototypes for the artificial heart! What he was doing in the early 60’s, hanging around a dope-addicted Lenny Bruce is beyond me.That’s a good transition for the last part of the book: Lenny’s six-year long slow suicide with heroin, and his concurrent legal troubles –both for obscenity and drug possession. From 1960 to 1966, he was almost continually embroiled in one legal battle or another… juggling as many as three at a time. As drugs distorted his view of reality, and he got more paranoid, he insisted on representing himself in court, which makes for some painful tragicomic scenes of inept self-advocacy. Fame and legal trouble formed a vicious circle… as he became more famous, legal authorities strove to make an example of him (re: both drugs and obscenity), and as he sunk deeper into trouble, his act was perceived as more edgy and anti-establishment. He commanded more money at the box office, which helped pay his legal fees for a while, but it also drew more attention from the cops. His downfall came when he became so addicted (not just to heroin, but to a whole slew of drugs) that he could no longer function on stage. His last few performances are disorganized rants about the legal establishment. Sam Kinnison may have drawn some influence from this; I don’t know.Overall, I found this book to be tedious and frankly boring, but looking at all I’ve written here, I guess I got something out of it. I hear Dustin Hoffman portrayed Lenny Bruce well in the 1974 movie “Lenny”. I haven’t seen it, but it can’t possibly be more painful than reading this book was.