Friday, February 13, 2009

Lenny Bruce Isn't Funny

By Steve Evans
So I was enjoying the anthropological amusement of watching Joaquin Phoenix make a doofus of himself on Letterman the other night, convinced in my mind that his seemingly drugged-out behavior was just a ruse to create some controversy and prop up interest in his going-nowhere musical career. Then I got to thinking about another oddball who made audiences uncomfortable. No, not Andy Kaufman — I drew those parallels in the previous entry, below.

Today I'm pondering a putz named Lenny Bruce, whose screws were loose, a man whose posthumous reputation far and away exceeds his accomplishments in this life. There's a DVD of Bruce material called Performance Film on the market. Below are some thoughts on the disc and the man ranting on it for 72 minutes. If you're pressed for time, here's the bottom-line at the top: Lenny Bruce was not a funny guy. Nor was Andy Kaufman. Some people act weird because they can't help it. Some people act weird because there's money in it. That makes Joaquin Phoenix merely shrewd.

Opening rim shot
Controversial comedian Lenny Bruce gives his second-to-last live performance in this grainy, poorly recorded film shot in 1965 at the Basin Street West nightclub in San Francisco. Bruce devotes most of the show to reading transcripts of his many court appearances on obscenity charges, and remarking wryly on his legal woes.

Comedian, Free-Speech Advocate, Drug Addict:
The sad life and lonesome death of Lenny Bruce
Hilarity is subjective. Having seen this disc and listened to several Lenny Bruce records, I say with total conviction that he was not a very funny guy. Provocative? Yes. Controversial? No doubt. Influential? Absolutely. But he does not make me laugh. I think of Bruce — when I bother to think of him at all — as a performance artist and storyteller, along the lines of Eric Bogosian or the late Spaulding Gray, but not as a comedian. The Lenny Bruce legacy, if there is such a thing, would have to be his influence on future performers. During his lifetime George Carlin often credited Bruce with paving the road for modern stand-up comics. Anyone who has heard Carlin, Richard Pryor or Robin Williams — arguably the funniest man alive — should realize that Bruce kicked open the doors for them. Bruce established his reputation on naughty language and bawdy social commentary: the hallmarks of modern stand-up comedy. So he was a pioneer, albeit a relentlessly self-obsessed, often tiresome, and unamusing comic.

Woody Allen took self-obsession to new heights of hilarity by serving as a foil for his own neuroses. But unlike Bruce, there is an essential humanity in Allen's comedy, not least of which is his willingness to take responsibility for the problems he brings on himself (Allen is his own worst enemy and he knows it). When Lenny Bruce dwells on his travails, he wallows in self-pity while adopting the posture of a condescending hipster. Worse, he defends himself with flawed logic that undermines his credibility, draws his judgment into question, and makes us wonder why we should listen to an obviously bitter man carp about his mostly self-inflicted troubles.

Let me be clear. It may be difficult to appreciate the significance of his act in retrospect, given our exposure in the last 45 years to more talented comedians who followed Bruce and built brilliantly on the foundation he helped establish. Put another way, Bruce and his shtick have dated rather badly, although his chutzpah unquestionably liberated the next generation of stand-up comics. To his credit, Bruce picked at the scabs of bigotry and religious intolerance in this country while treading into taboo territory with his use of profanity (amusingly tame by today’s standards) and scatological humor. So we should acknowledge Bruce for hacking his way through rhetorical razor wire and perhaps pity him to some degree for the abuse heaped on the man by his censors. This doesn't change the fact that he is not amusing, endearing, or particularly entertaining in this film. The same can be said for Bob Fosse’s biopic of Bruce, Lenny (1974) starring Dustin Hoffman.

After nearly an hour of ranting about his legal troubles (including a verbatim reading of several pages of his grand jury indictment on obscenity charges…snore), in the last 20 minutes of his performance Bruce finally delivers a few of his stand-up sketches. These include the famous prison riot routine with Dutch, the Warden, Father Flotski, and prison doctor, Sabu — all racially-charged caricatures. Bruce also manages to work up a good head of steam yammering about sex, whether it’s between people, animals, or some combination of the two. Welcome to comedy, Lenny Bruce style.

Although fans of Lenny Bruce still think of him as a martyr for freedom of speech, the fact remains that he was addicted to narcotics for the last three years of his life before dying of a morphine overdose in August 1966, two months shy of his 41st birthday. Whether his illness and depression, and ultimately his death, stemmed from perpetual legal persecution remains unclear. In his final years his act certainly fed on all the attention.

What we do know is that the man lived a hardscrabble life, honing his act in strip clubs and anonymous New York bars. He married a stripper named Honey and had a daughter with her in 1955. The child, Kitty Bruce, would go on to appear in a duo of exploitation films: Switchblade Sisters (reportedly one of Quentin Tarantino's favorites from the mid-1970s), and Andy Warhol's Bad (in a bit part). Kitty has since vanished from the scene. She turned 53 in November 2008.

Bruce himself flirted briefly with Hollywood, appearing with his wife in Dance Hall Racket, a sublime piece of cinematic trash from 1953 by Phil Tucker, now legendary among bad-movie addicts as the director of Robot Monster, released that same year. We need only connect the dots to see that Bruce and most everyone in his orbit lived on the fringe.

Extras on the disc before us are limited to an unrelated seven-minute cartoon, Thank You Mask Man, written and voiced by Bruce, who spoofs the Lone Ranger while mocking the hypocrisy of insincere social conventions, such as automatic politeness. Bruce takes sarcastic glee in observing that “polite” people will turn on each other in an instant if they discover their views and values clash. The animated short is an odd little curio, all itchy and scratchy like most underground projects of the late 1960s. As social commentary it is not particularly offensive or enlightening, yet like the rest of the Bruce oeuvre on this disc, it isn’t terribly funny, either.

Disc audio and video are drawn from source materials of poor quality. The digital transfer appears to have been sourced from a badly worn print, which at times is nearly inaudible.


Lenny Bruce: Performance Film is not rated, but only a lunatic would allow children to watch. For pop culture fanatics, aging hipsters, and 20th century historians, this disc may hold some fascination. Those looking for a laff riot would do well to move along.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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