We Still Don’t Understand Lenny Bruce

I have to pause here for a moment just before the end of The Cult of Personality in order to express again some frustration with the appalling ignorance of the press and the way in which that ignorance colors press reports in shades of misunderstanding and outright inaccuracy.

In today’s NYT, John Kifner writes about NY Gov George Pataki’s pardon of Lenny Bruce, who was convicted of obscenity for using 4-letter words in his nightclub act in 1964, and in doing so perpetuates the very myths, misunderstandings, and false accusations that Lenny’s enemies used to destroy his career. It is patently obvious from Kifner’s descriptions of them that he has never heard first-hand any of the routines for which Bruce was condemned but is instead relying on the opinions of others for his understanding of them. In fact, he sounds exactly as uninformed as the contemporary press accounts 40 years ago which were likewise written by men who had never seen Bruce perform and who were simply parroting the characterizations in the indictments.

For instance, he begins his account of Lenny’s life and work with this:

Mr. Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13, 1925, got his first big break in the fall of 1948 on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” a notably wholesome venue. But his humor grew dark and edgy, filled with scatological words and ethnic slurs…

Lenny never used ethnic names as “slurs” in his whole life. As a Jew, he used words like “kike”, “sheeny” and “hebe” only in order to make the case that they were slurs, which in the late 50’s was a startling, not to say revolutionary, concept. When Southern clubs began banning him, they didn’t do it because he used the word “nigger” but because he was attacking their common, everyday use of the very same word, pointing out in the early 60’s in a routine on the power of words that he was being arrested for using a perfectly acceptable word–“come”–in a sexual context at the same time that no one thought twice about, much less objected to, the way bigots used “nigger” to refer to Negroes.

Lenny’s reputation as the first “shock comic” was entirely undeserved. He wasn’t interested in shocking audiences by using forbidden language for its own sake as George Carlin and Howard Stern, among others, have built their reputations doing; his point was always centered around the hypocrisy of that use–the double-standards, the inconsistencies, the hidden assumptions of good vs evil. Lenny wanted his audiences to acknowledge their hypocrisy and try to understand its source so they could reject it. People who focused on the words themselves rather than the way in which the words were used or the people the words hurt were, to him, missing the point and probably perpetuating the hypocrisy.

Mr Kifner, explaining what led to Lenny’s NY arrest, writes:

Mr. Bruce mocked a magazine photograph said to show Jackie Kennedy trying heroically to aid her husband, saying she was really trying to flee.

That was the interpretation of his accusers; in fact, Lenny never said any such thing and what he did say was almost the diametric opposite of Kifner’s “explanation”. He wasn’t “mocking” Jackie Kennedy, he was mocking a society that would have torn her apart without mercy had she reacted the way any human being would be likely to react if the head of the person sitting next to them exploded, spewing brains all over them–by trying to save themselves. He saw nothing abominable in that reaction; it was normal, human, maybe even intelligent. What he found abominable–and what he mocked in that routine–was our insistent belief in a heroic fantasy at the expense of human reality, and our willingness to devour anyone who did not live up to our fantastic, inhuman expectations. That we would have been willing to roast Jackie on a spit for reacting exactly as we would probably have reacted in the same circumstances was what he found hypocritical and uncharitable; to him it proved that our fantasies were more important to us than human life itself, and that made them dangerous.

That we can still be missing Lenny’s point 40 years after his death is testament to how far we haven’t come after all. Much as we may congratulate ourselves for overcoming obstacles and improving our tolerance for difference, Lenny Bruce is still there, not-so-silently rebuking our “progress” for being pretty superficial. If Lenny were still alive, he’d be having a field day mocking all the hypocrisies we continue to embrace.

And John Kifner still wouldn’t get it.

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