1. Comedy as Commentary
We comedians are all entertainers because we entertain. But there is an artist at work in some of us, as well. And the artist is involved with interpreting the world—interpreting the universe around us through his filter, through his prism. Same as a painter does. Same as a composer or a serious writer does. He looks at the values that the culture presents to him, and he has a take on that. The comedian who does that is more than just a comedian. He's something of a commentator. —George Carlin
Blasphemy or Obscenity?
Sydney has never seen . . . a public performance of such blasphemy . . .
—Sydney Sun (September 7, 1962)
HIS GIG AT Sydney's Aarons Hotel opened Thursday night. Come Friday morning, it was history. Cancellation due to a "blasphemous account of the Crucifixion" and a "steady stream of dirty words." Lenny, so the complaints ran, had breached both the law and the people's faith. The commands of God and man could not countenance such comedy.
Blasphemy had been illegal for ages. "Profane scoffing," observed the great seventeenth-century British jurist William Blackstone, long had been a crime warranting "fine and imprisonment, or other infamous corporal punishment." No laughing matter.
The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras was cast into a dungeon when he mocked the popular gods as fanciful playthings. And then there were all those other blasphemers from Jesus to the Quakers. As late as 1971, two Pittsburgh shopkeepers were charged with blasphemy for displaying publicly a "wanted" poster of a hippie Christ. So, Lenny Bruce was bucking the lessons of history when he hit Sydney with his raw line of satire: "We Jews killed Christ, and if he comes back, we'll kill him again!"
But Australia is not America. We have the First Amendment. Our comics—including those who ridicule religion—are to be protected. It is the American creed.
Ephraim London, one of Lenny's lawyers, made it his business to defend that bedrock American principle. In 1952, London took on the National Legion of Decency and Cardinal Francis Spellman when he challenged an attempt by New York officials to censor a "sacrilegious" movie denounced by moralists. The Supreme Court sided with the "blasphemers:" the state "has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views which are distasteful to them. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks" upon religion.
That should have settled it. Whatever the laws of Sydney, Lenny Bruce's American acts were beyond prosecution for blasphemy. And, in a way, they were. For Lenny was never formally charged with blasphemy. His sin, if there were one, was obscenity—that cousin of blasphemy. According to the official record, the State had no truck with the comedian's frontal attacks on organized religion. What purportedly bothered officialdom were all the "motherfucker" and "tits-and-ass" remarks, those verbal offenses committed in dark, smoke-filled jazz and folk clubs.
The words, then, and not the parties against whom they were directed, landed Lenny in jail. That, at least, was the prosecutors' line. For them to prevail in court, a Lenny Bruce bit could only be dirty words: vulgarity divorced from any redeeming social value.
From Godfrey to Gazunka!
The basic division in current American and British topical satire is between Lenny Bruce and all the others.
—Nat Hentoff (1963)
LENNY BRUCE WASN'T always a social critic-comic. When he appeared on The Arthur Godfrey Showin 1948 (a year after he changed his name from Leonard Schneider and three years after he was discharged from the Navy for wearing women's clothing), Lenny and his act were hokey. He was a living black-and-white Brylcreem ad: greased-down hair, bow-tie, wide lapels. His movements only slightly exaggerated the stock-in-trade gestures of comic impersonators. There he was, doing Cagney and even Hepburn: "Kiss me Gregory. Naaaaw, kiss me Gregory. Naw, Gregory, naw you can peck!" For the most part, Lenny echoed his burlesque-comedian mother's routine—virtually the same act that Sally Marr did in a 1942 USO show for sailors (with seventeen-year-old Lenny sitting among the uniformed members of the audience). He mimicked Sally's zany impressions, such as Bogart talking in a German dialect: "All right, Veagah! Drop the schmeagah!" Not political, not philosophical, not satirical, and certainly not controversial . . . but enough to put his name on the marquee of New York's famous Strand Theater in 1949.
In time, clean-cut gave way to raunch, when Lenny worked Southern California's strip-joint circuit from 1953 to 1956. He found comic liberation in those "burlesque shithouses," as he called them. Comedy born in the bump-and-grind of Downey's Cup & Saucer and in the debauchery of The Cobblestone, that libidinal honky-tonk at the wrong end of Lankershim Boulevard. Both the act and the marquee had changed. Now, the lights bore the names of "China Doll," "Lora Lei," and "Marnee," the dancers ogled at L.A.'s Strip City. Taking a trade-cue from his wife, Hot Honey Harlowe, a stripper he met in Baltimore, Lenny upstaged "the girls" when he emceed clad in nothing but black socks and shoes. It was a trick that he also pulled at Duffy's Gaieties, with Honey singing "Granada" and mother Marr keeping a watchful eye on the raincoat clientele. Such Freudian frenzies were a far cry from the family-friendly "Ka-zam!" magic routines he had performed with Honey only a few years earlier in New York. And by any measure, his new calling was not the podiatrist's life that his father, Mickey Schneider, had envisioned for him.
Lenny's new reputation spread wildly; a nude comic in new demand. "The cheesier the dive, the freer Lenny became." His wild stage life resonated with all those crazy sex and drug parties at his Palm Avenue house—really a one-bedroom cottage with a picket fence and pink satin bedroom drapes, thanks to Honey the "seamstress." But the days at the dives were ending; physical crassness would give way to cerebral pointedness—and verbal crassness.
Steve Allen: "We've decided that, once a month, we will book a comedian who'll offend everybody. . . . [He's] a man who will disturb a great many social groups. I'm serious. His satirical comments refer to many things not ordinarily discussed on television . . . ." With those words, Steve Allen—the gutsy critic of the Blacklist Era in Hollywood—introduced the new comedian to the new medium. "So, ladies and gentlemen," continued the host of the Tonight show, "here is a very shocking comedian, the most shocking comedian of our time, a young man who is skyrocketing to fame. Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!" While nowhere as shocking as his strip-club highjinks, Lenny's act was daring for his 1959 TV audience.
"I have a reputation for being sort of controversial and irreverent," he admitted. And then he showed why: "There are words that offend me. Let's see: Governor Faubus, segregation. . . . The shows that exploit homosexuality, narcotics, and prostitution under the guise of helping these societal problems." Blending serious commentary with fanciful comedy, he did a drug bit, the tale of an adolescent who accidentally gets high on airplane glue. "I'm the Louie Pasteur of Junkiedom!" the stoned boy proudly exclaims.
What Steve Allen dared to present, however, was received much more cautiously by other television celebrities. For example, in a November 26, 1958, letter to Lenny's manager, Ed Sullivan expressed his concern that once Lenny took to the cameras he would mouth "whatever he damn well pleases." That very much troubled the Great Stone Face. He needed assurances; indeed, he demanded them. He insisted that Bruce prepare an advance script of "exactly" everything he planned to say on the show. Only with such "built-in safeguards" would Sullivan present Lenny Bruce to the world. Of course, such "safeguards" were anathema to Lenny. No deal. He never appeared on the "really big show." Even so, his shticks were drawing more and more attention, though no one was quite sure about Lenny Bruce and what he was doing.
It caught on. Time later gave it a name, "sick comedy," and featured Lenny. He was a "sicknick," one of those comedians who dispense "social criticism liberally laced with cyanide, . . . [with] jolly ghoulishness . . . [and with] a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world." He was not only a "sick comedian," he was the "high priest of the sick comedians . . . ." At last, he was ready to move his comedy to another level.
• • •