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The Fearless, Politically Incorrect Lenny Bruce

Miki and Sally Schneider’s only son was born in Long Island in 1925. He was circumcised when he was 8 days old, and named Leonard Alfred, or “Lenny”. Little did his parents know then, that this baby was about to smash the idols of his time and announce a new religion: counter-culture.

“Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had”, Bob Dylan wrote after Lenny’s death. And this is, perhaps, Lenny’s story in a nut shell. Dylan always knew how to nail it. For him and his friends, Lenny was a spiritual brother who pulled the mask off the face of the American double standard morality during the 1950’s, clearing the way for the great cultural revolution of the 1960’s.

Part of the Lenny Bruce exhibit in the exhibition “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World” in The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot

Part of the Lenny Bruce exhibit in the exhibition “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World” in The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot

Lenny Bruce was scathing and critical. He wasn’t a nice comedian who made nice people in nice clubs laugh at nice jokes. He was a protest performer, kicking and angry. Behind his profanity and the wallowing in the sewers of human language, there was a complex, agonized and hurting man hiding.

The mean Lenny who used to damn his audience and hold merciless social experiments on stage; and the good-hearted Lenny who married a junky stripper called Honey Harlow (1951) in order to help her out of the hell she was living in – were the same man. Lenny and Honey had one daughter, Kitty, and eventually separated in 1957.

Gifted with one of kind humane sensitivity, shared only by a few, such as the great comedians Bill Hicks and Geroge Carline, Lenny Bruce was a trailblazer in predicting the Politically Correct trend. In a comic show he held with the black musician Eric miller, Bruce used to mock white condescending people who tended to become way too nice to black people, out of embarrassment. What can be more racist than trying to cover it up with a righteous appearance, he used to tease them sharply.

Behind the profanity, a complex, agonized and hurting man hiding. Lenny Bruce, photo: The Library of Congress, Wikimedia

Behind the profanity, a complex, agonized and hurting man hiding. Lenny Bruce, photo: The Library of Congress, Wikimedia

Unlike joke tellers, Lenny did not care so much for punches, he considered himself more a critic than a comedian. In his acts, a three minutes’ joke could easily become a 30 minutes’ passionate address. He used to mold an idea and improvise on it like a Jazz artist, using humor instruments.

He pulled the Jewish humor out of the closet of the Shtetl and the Borscht Belt, and introduced a new kind of Jewish culture – not nice, not humble, proud and kicking. He turned Jewish comedy upside down. The great comedians of the previous generation came from the center of the “Borscht Belt”: Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, Rodney Dangerfield – though comic geniuses, they kept their acts clean from profanity, and addressed decent Americans. They were extremely careful not to mention their Jewish background in front of non-Jewish listeners. Just like authors and illustrators who often changed their last name, because they did not wish to sound “too Jewish”. They wished to obscure their Jewish background and be “all American”.

And then Lenny came, and did the exact opposite. He did not hesitate to laugh at gentiles, at Christians, at Judaism and the relations between the two faiths. In the puritan 1950’s, when the threat of senator McCarthy was everywhere in show business, most Jews just wished to integrate and not make a fuss. But not Lenny Bruce. He poked a finger right in the eye of Christian American society, and kept it down. “We Jews killed Christ and if he comes back, we’ll kill him again”, he provoked a packed club once.

Some of Lenny’s bits made it into the hall of fame: for example, “Jewish or Goyish”, where he proved it was much cooler to be a Jew than a Goy; or that if Jesus was killed in our generation, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks. Some of his jokes were in Yiddish. He had one mythical bit of how he got arrested for saying the word “Shmock” in an act, which means stupid in Yiddish, because they thought he meant to curse and use the word for a penis.

This is where the story turns sad. Today, many people complain that democracy is dying and civil rights are in danger. But to be honest, though there are occasionally some sanctions by the PC police – no one today is imprisoned for using dirty language. But in America in the 1950’s, an era of extreme conservatism, there was an actual regulation of what could and could not be said by people. Profanity, cursing and criticism towards the authorities – were against the law. Lenny Bruce kept provoking the government – and kept entering prison one time after the other. This was no spin nor a marketing trick, as by that time he was already a successful popular performer, who filled venues such as the Carnegie Hall more than once. He simply could not hold his tongue. He was truly and uncontrollably subversive as if he was aware of his role in the history of popular culture. Many places would not invite him for shows: Britain and Australia banned him from performing and he was not even allowed in Britain at all. The recurring arrests finally broke Lenny, and on August 3, 1966, he was found dead in his home in Los Angeles, with a heroine needle in his arm. He was 41 years old.

Louis C.K, Sarah Silverman, and other comedians owe Lenny Bruce. Thanks to him they are able to stand and use whatever dirty words they wish. Lenny has also indirectly influenced the practicing of the freedom of speech first amendment of the constitution, allowing citizens of the Unites States to express themselves freely. In 2004 the “Comedy Central” channel placed Lenny third in a list of 100 great comedy artists of all times. Richard Pryor and George Carline were in the first two places. For both of them, Lenny was a main inspiration. The Jewish boy from Long Island was a living proof that humor indeed can change reality – something that nice conventional jokes about marriage and parenting on prime time of commercial channels or on social networks will never be able to do.

Lenny Bruce is included in the exhibition “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World” in The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot

The tombstone of Lenny Bruce in Mission Hills, California: “Peace at Last”

The tombstone of Lenny Bruce in Mission Hills, California, inscripted: “Peace at Last”

(Translated from Hebrew by Danna Paz Prins)

 

Ushi Derman