Stand-up comic of the revolution

Issue 

The Lenny Bruce Originals
Compact Discs in two volumes
Fantasy 1991 FCD-60-023/4
Reviewed by Dave Riley

Over 20 years ago in our shared, boldly political household, we took our icons seriously. To live the revolution in those days, we made sure that a portrait of Malcolm X was featured in the lounge room. Among the other images on our four walls, that of Lenny Bruce seemed just as relevant to our ongoing radicalism as Malcolm's commitment to any means necessary.

Although the postie may have refused to deliver the mail while the red flag flew from the chimney, we could still foster our righteousness by playing our cherished recordings of Lenny Bruce's live routines. Bruce crystallised rebellion for us because he was intolerant of any form of hypocrisy or bigotry and said so in the funniest and most outlandish ways.

Compared to the short order comedy that occupies our television screens today the idea that a stand-up comic could rally insurgent youth to undermine the established order seems almost bizarre. This power in a man, remember, who was already dead by the time we got to appreciate him.

Fellow comic Dick Gregory once called Bruce the eighth wonder of the world. "You have to go back to Mark Twain to find anything remotely like him", he told Lenny's manager after witnessing Bruce's unnerving "Nigger" routine. "And if they don't kill him, or throw him in jail, he's liable to shake up the whole fuckin' country."

This is exactly what happened. Bruce's commitment to his art guaranteed that he was persecuted to the death. As his edge sharpened in the early '60s more of his performances were stopped by the authorities; he found himself victim of incessant obscenity busts. Even his audience began to change as he culled his humour of the merely entertaining. "The liberals are so liberal that they can't understand the bigots: 'I'm so understanding. I can't understand anyone not understanding me, as understanding as I am.'" — is pure Brucean wit on target.

His approach to politics and his humanism transcended the usual cliches of his times. In his famous Religion Inc routine: "'Thou shalt not kill' means just that — it doesn't mean 'Amend., section A', it means, 'Stop war!'" — The point would not be lost on his audience.

Or take Lenny as Adolf Eichmann outlining his defence: "I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day's effort. I saw all the work that I did. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance ... without ever seeing what you had done to them?"

Stuff like this hurts. Patrons squirmed in their seats as Bruce asked them: "Are there any niggers here tonight?" ("Ohmygod, did you hear what he said?")

The Lenny Bruce Originals reissue four of the Fantasy albums recorded between 1958 and 1959. Volume II contains recordings that suggest more of the performer's genius and present us with vintage Bruce, the social critic and commentator. "How to relax your colored friends at parties" and "Father Flotski's triumph" catch him at his peak. Volume I unfortunately contains some of his studio material. Nonetheless the classic, "Religion Inc" is included.

By contrast, today's satire seems a shrill nihilism ultimately resting on a depressing hollowness. Smart repartee is delivered empty of anger, which only weakens its impact and relevance. If it weren't for the feminist comics, our laughter would have no point to it and would fail to be liberating. Even among the more politically "correct", Bruce would be marked down for being too sexist for the new age of gender puritanism.

Immerse yourself in the performances of Lenny Bruce. After listening to these reissues, check out Bob Fosse's feature film, Lenny, on video, which starkly portrays the comic's life story and captures the style of his stage work. Then move onto anthologies published as The Essential Lenny Bruce or his autobiography How to talk dirty and influence people. You'll discover a secular moralist as profoundly relevant to our times as he was to the youthful radicals of the '60s.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.