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Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) - Leonard Alfred Schneider

 

American stand-up comedian and brilliant satirist, who created much controversy in his time due to his use of so-called '"dirty words" in his nightclub comedy act. The black humor of Bruce's largely improvised shows often overstepped the bounds of what was considered in the 1950s and 1960s respectable. Bruce's performances, his fresh and daring way of breaking rules, influenced such comedians as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams.

"Children ought to watch pornographic movies : it's healthier than learning about sex from Hollywood." (in How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 1965)

Leonard Alfred Schneider (Lenny Bruce) was born in New York, the son of Mickey (Myron) Schneider, a podiatrist, and Sally Marr (née Kitchenberg), a stage performer. "To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish, he once said. " It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you are going to be goyish if you're Jewish." Bruce's mother had tricked his father into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant. They divorced when Bruce was five and he was brought up by relatives.

During World War II Bruce served in the Navy on the U. S. S. Brooklyn, a light cruiser. He saw action in Anzio, Salerno, Sicily, and the Southern France and was discharged from the Navy for wearing women's clothing. After spending some time in odd jobs, he went to California to study acting. Because "Leonard Alfred Schneider sounded too Hollywood", he changed his name in 1947 to Bruce. To pursue his career closer at home, Bruce moved back to New York. At Hanson's, a hang-out for comics, he met Joe Ancis, famous for his very "sick" comic. Under his influence Bruce began to incorporate taboo subjects into his routines.

The fifties was the breakthrough decade for Bruce and such comedians as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Mort Sahl, who were all Jewish, with their own vision of ethnicity. Their humor evoked a response among young Bohemians and college-educated people. However, though Bruce's monologues were flavoured with Yiddishisms, his unleashed, manic style and raw courage did not draw from the traditions of Yiddish humor, characterized by subtlety, self-mockery, and wryness. He had more in common with Jazz musicians: "Dig: I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish." (from The Essential Lenny Bruce, 1970)  

Bruce worked as a night-club performer in Brooklyn and Baltimore, where he met a striptease dancer, known as Hot Honey Harlowe. Born Harriett Jolliff in 1927, she had ran away from home in her teens. At some point of her life she had been sentenced to jail. "Honey and I just stared at each other and got hot," Bruce later said. They married in 1951 and had one daughter. On Bruce's insistence, Honey had several abortions, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1957. Honey, who later published a book of memoir, Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady (1976), died in 2005 in Honolulu. She was cast in two films, Dance Hall Racket (1953), written by Lenny Bruce and directed by Phil Tucker, and Princess of the Nile (1954), starring Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter and Michael Rennie.

Bruce appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Show and drew national attention with his daring style of satire, in which he probed taboo subjects such as racial fears, sexual fantasies, Jewish-Christian tensions, and presidents. "I really dig what they do with a homosexual in this country. They put him into a prison with a lot of other men. That's a really good punishment." (Dustin Hoffman in Lenny)

Bruce imagined Hitler in show business and stewardesses jettisoning infants from overloaded airliners, betraying at the same time a schooling in the Catskills resorts. The black sheep among young comics, such as Joe E. Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Bruce played to intellectuals. His wit and inimitable frankness made his act celebrated in liberal literary circles, with some notable exeptions, such as Jack Kerouac who said, "I hate him! He hates everything, he hates life!"

In Hollywood Bruce worked at night-clubs and on a local television show. The 20th Century Fox assigned him to strenghten comic sequences of The Rocket Man (1954), starring Charles Coburn, Spring Byington and Anne Francis, who said in an interview: "I was most fond of Lenny. He was a real pussycat, and wanted me to go out with him. I told him I would be terrified to do so, and that was that!" From 1953 to 1956 Bruce worked Southern California's strip-joint circuit. Once he entered the stage wearing nothing but back socks and shoes.

Bruce's divorce from Honey was followed by a burst of creativity and legal battles. Steve Allen had Bruce on his show in April 1959. While in New York City, he appeared at the Den in the Duane, a small club on Madison Avenue, where Dick Cavett and Milt Kamen did comedy, too. In 1961 Bruce was imprisoned on obscenity charges. After Peter Cook had opened The Establishment Club in Soho, London, he performed there in 1962, but in the next year he was refused permission to enter Britain. "The comic, Lenny Bruce, was booed offstage in England," claimed the controversial radio journalist Walter Winchell. Eventually Bruce's show was banned both in England and Australia.

When a number of nightclub owners refused to take Bruce's show, assuming that it would only lead to police arrest, he was unable to perform his material. In 1962 the United States District Court in San Francisco, in support of a bankruptcy action, declared him a pauper. In spite of pressures, Bruce refused to clean up his language. "All my humour is based on destruction and despair," he said. "If the whole world were tranquil, I'd be standing in the breadline, right back of J. Edgar Hoover." (in The Essential Lenny Bruce, 1970) In 1964 Bruce was convicted of giving obscene performances at the Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village.

The idea for Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, was suggested by Hugh Hefner in 1963. It was published in Playboy over the next two years and in book form in 1965.  When Bruce was arrested by the police in April 1964, Norman Mailer, James Jones,  James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and other prominent writers and intellectuals defended him as a social satirist "in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais and Twain." Bruce himself thought that the petition was ridiculous. During his later years Bruce was addicted to heroin. In 1963 he was found guilty of illegal possession of drugs. Lenny Bruce died of an overdose on August 3, 1966, in his home on Hollywood Boulevard. He was 40 years old.

Bruce's life inspired Julian Barry's 1971 play Lenny and Bob Fosse's film Lenny (1974), which portrayed him as a martyr of freedom of speech. Marvin Worth, Bruce's longtime friend, had tried to produce a screen biography of him since 1968. Fosse considered Dustin Hoffman the best candidate for the title role – the actor even looked like Lenny. Actress Valerie Perrine, who played his wife, Honey, had been a Las Vegas stripper. In the nightclub scenes Hoffman performed many of Bruce's most remembered monologues, with a live audience looking on. "I'm totally corrupted. I mean, really. My whole act, my whole economic success, whatever that is, is based solely on the existence of segregation, violence, despair, disease and injustice. And if by some miracle, the whole world would suddenly tranquilize, be pured, I would be standing in an unemployment line somewhere. So you see, I'm not a moralist." (Dustin Hoffman in Lenny)

Hoffman had prepared himself well for the role – he listened to records, watched films, and read books on the comedian. He also had his own view of the Lenny myth: "I don't believe Lenny used drugs just to get wasted. Instead, I thought he used them to keep himself going for four days, since he was under enormous pressure from performing in clubs, writing new material, recording new record albums, and planning concerts." (in Dustin Hoffman, Hollywood's Antihero by Jeff Lenburg, 1983)

Lenny Bruce expanded dramatically the style and subject matter of stand-up-comedy. His style has left impact on many performers. Years later Eddie Murphy was using language and material that would have made Bruce seem inhibited. Woody Allen, who had became a respected comedy writer in the late 1950s, appealed to a similar audience, but when Bruce satirized middle-class values, Allen satirized his own idiosyncrasies.

"Lenny Bruce is dead but he didn't commit any crime
He just had the insight to rip off the lid before its time.
I rode with him in a taxi once, only for a mile and a half,
Seemed like it took a couple of months.
Lenny Bruce moved on and like the ones that killed him, gone."

(Bob Dylan in 'Lenny Bruce', Shot of Love, 1983)

For further reading: The Tragic Clowns: An Analysis of the Short Lives of John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, and Chris Farley by Joe Guse (2009); The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of An American Icon by Ronald K. L. Collins, David M. Skover (2002); Society, Language and the University: From Lenny Bruce to Noam Chomsky by Sol Saporta (1994); Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet by William Karl Thomas (1989); Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor by Sarah Blacher Cohen (1987); Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady by Honey Bruce (1976); Lenny Bruce: The Comedian As Social Critic and Secular Moralist by Frank Kofsky (1974); Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller (1974); The Essential Lenny Bruce, ed. by J. Cohen (1970)

Selected works:

  • Stamp Help Out!, 1962 (booklet)
  • How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography, 1965 (with Paul Krassner; a new introduction by Eric Bogosian, 1992)
  • The Essential Lenny Bruce, 1970 (compiled and edited by John Cohen)

Sound recordings:

  • Interviews in Our Times, 1959
  • The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, 1959
  • Lenny Bruce - American, 1960
  • I Am Nut, Elect Me!, 1960
  • The Best of Lenny Bruce, 1963
  • To Is a Preposition: Come Is a Verb, 1964
  • Lenny Bruce in Concert, 1967
  • Berkeley Concert, 1969 (2 sound discs)
  • The Essential Lenny Bruce: Politics, 1969
  • The Law, Language, and Lenny Bruce, 1974
  • Story of Lenny: What I Was Arrested for, 1975
  • Midmight Concert, 1975
  • In Concert: Lenny: Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall, 1986
  • The Berkeley Concert Sound Recording, 1989
  • Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Rennaissance, 1993 (4 sound discs; compiled and annotated by Ann Charters)
  • White Men Can't Wrap, 1994
  • Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware, 2004 (6 sound discs)


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Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto 2008


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