Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) wasn’t funny. Oh, everyone is funny occasionally, but he wasn’t funnier than the average person. Maybe less so. Is this opinion a personal quirk of mine or perhaps a reflection of changing tastes? Was Lenny funny in his own day? I don’t think so, and I’m old enough to remember his day. He was, as Harlan Ellison said, “a pain in the ass.” Don’t take my word for it. Look up his routines on youtube. A relatively un-scabrous (but typically dull) one is below.
A lot of comedy is timeless. Mark Twain still amuses; Oscar Wilde’s wit still cuts; I Love Lucy is permanently in reruns. Topical humor has a tougher time of it. The political routines of Mort Saul from the 1950s, for example, make sense only to historians or to those who remember the Eisenhower Administration. Only hard-core classicists understand Aristophanes. Nevertheless, if we are properly informed, we still get Mort’s and Ari’s jokes. Sexually edgy humor is a constant, but what qualifies as “edgy” varies over time. In the 1950s the most risqué material was confined to burlesque houses, and it is no surprise that these were where Lenny Bruce got his start.
Lenny was controversial, and that is the reason he won a following (largely of people celebrating their own hipness). Being controversial is not without merit, but it isn’t the same thing as funny. Lenny was famous for getting arrested. He even got arrested in burlesque houses where the standards were pretty lax. Vocabulary was the ostensible reason for most of his arrests. Today, it is hard to imagine anyone being arrested for using four-letter words in a night club act. Nor were all of the arrests in the US. Lenny’s Australian tour was cut short after a grand total of one sentence.
In truth, he might have gotten away with his word choices if it weren’t for the actual content of his routines – the gibes about religion, politics, and basic values. Many folks found them offensive, but offensive views were not illegal. So, those wanting to shut him down had no choice but to use laws that did exist: the ones against obscene language. In the end, the obscenity laws fell, as judges remembered the existence of the First Amendment. Lenny’s many arrests and court cases therefore were important as part of the social revolution of the 60s. No night club comic in the US has been arrested over spoken obscenities for forty years.
Are Lenny’s views still controversial? Yes. His contention that pornography should be provided to children because it is healthier than what they learn about sex from parents, school, and Hollywood, for example, is still outside the mainstream. No one would think to arrest him for saying so, regardless of how he expressed it though; it is even a rare case where he was funny. Some of his antics still might have legal consequences. In one burlesque venue a young lady completed her strip routine with the minimum garb required by local ordinances, so Lenny defied the ordinances by walking out and doing his stand-up act totally nude. Not only could this still get him arrested today, depending on the precise venue, but it might put him on a sex offenders list. Yes, in the 21st century we have become a nation of potty-mouths, but, for all that, a fundamentally puritanical streak remains in us. I’m sure Lenny would continue pointing it out to us if he were still here. He might find few listeners though. Other comics today say it far better.
It is hard to like Lenny. He really did defend and extend free expression by violating the taboos of his day, and we owe him something for that. It’s just too bad he wasn’t funnier while he was at it. A comic is, after all, what he billed himself as being.