Lenny Bruce was one of the most controversial comedians of all time. But not a lot of people nowadays seems to remember him.
Is that because so much that is censored today is freely talked about tomorrow?
This is part of my takeaway from this autobiography, originally a series of articles in Playboy magazine, which starts one way and ends in another.
How To Talk Dirty And Influence People is a very R rated book written by Lenny Bruce and begins with some of his earliest memories growing up and living with his mother, an existence filled with poverty in the 1920’s. Very quickly he sets the tone by veering into lewd territory, but telling us these recollections through a child’s eyes. As time marches on, and Lenny gets older, his understanding grows of love, lust, loss, and larceny. By the late 1930’s, he has fled the city and seeks tranquility on a farm, but that serenity only keeps until World War II starts, and has Lenny signing onto the Navy. After various schemes, which foretell future shenanigans, he leaves the Navy under a cloud, and lets his restlessness pull him hither and yither.
But when a chance nerve-wracking gig opens up at a show thanks to his mother, something happens. Lenny Bruce finds that special skill that was always present, always causing him mischief, always bubbling up inner turmoil. He found the ability to make people laugh. Thus begins his slow meteoric rise in clubs throughout the land. So slow that he leaves in the middle of it all to travel, see the world, then return to wed his beloved Honey. A kinda detour into the Priesthood, but only slightly, keeps him and his wife going for abit, but eventually he returns to his calling. Answering this change brings his career back, with more honesty and filthy language and screaming at hypocrisy then ever before.
Which entails the final leg of the book, chronicling legal problem after legal problem that Lenny endures. The repeated drug charges he does an excellent job disproving and mocking, but the true craziness is the obscenity trials. All this huff and puff and public money cornering a citizen for bad words and mocking of religion. This continues at this point with the meandering narrative, as Lenny almost seems to sum up his philosophy and defense of what should not have to be defended.
The ending just ends, no absolution, no acquittal, no closure on so many issues. And that is because Lenny dies in 1966 at age 40 from prescription drug abuse. He leaves behind an ex-wife, a daughter – whom he rarely mentions, and a trail of disgruntled establishment types.
These types come across as hypocritical, judgmental, and completely missing the point of what Lenny was preaching about. Viewpoints which to this day might raise hackles are prominently on display here. Lenny would rather his child not see an action film filled with killing and death. Religion is labeled for selling out, and often he would talk about what if Jesus came to earth today. When he publishes a transcript of his often improvised stand-up act, it is an offensive hard to follow rant that meanders everywhere and never quite finishes. And this is something he readily admits to.
This style transmits to the rest of the book, making Lenny’s magnum opus an incredibly rambling stream of consciousness that makes following along often very difficult. When he admits later on to mental issues, it comes as no surprise. Even his own more lucid moments about his court proceedings come across as more somber second thoughts, since it seems highly unlikely Lenny was this put together at those times. Once or twice you wonder if his vivid imagination is more at play on these pages than not. The end of the Florida part in particular has this vibe.
But whatever the faults of the man, whether mental or otherwise, does not equate to the ludicrous treatment for what he says on stage. What should be a no-brainer First Amendment case becomes a farce of stupidity. So many of the topics that Lenny explores is now common fodder for so many stands ups, often proliferating on television specials and YouTube bits. Lenny speaks so much of the truth, a fact even a Catholic Priest attests to, that the hassle they subject him to seems like trying to silence the voice of change in society. That this happens before the Hippie movement reaches full force is interesting from a historical perspective. Was Lenny, The Beatles, and the acceleration of Vietnam helping signal the destruction of the falsehoods called the Eisenhower era?
Lenny did not cause all this by himself, but he was a certain component, now seemingly forgotten by the masses, who pushed boundaries of thought and ideas and what we stupidly collectively considered acceptable behavior.
Times change. It is to bad Lenny never lived to see so many of the shifts he helped foster. He would probably say we still haven’t gone far enough.
…is currently reading The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay by Michael Chabon.