Sometimes Chumbawamba seem like a brilliant wheeze dreamt up by Conservative Central Office. What better propaganda for rocks say-nothing Tory tendency than an anarcho-leftie collective whose rabble rousing anthems are invariably as inviting as a turd sandwich?... Big Mouth Strikes Again defends Lenny Bruce, dead since 1966, while Give The Anarchist A Cigarette attacks the young Bob Dylan a mere 30 years later. Dangerously topical protest music or what?
And so with the reviews of Lenny the play, many of the critics seem perplexed, finding it jaded, unfunny, cheap bio-drama. They ask the same questions as Dalton: how can Lenny Bruce be considered radical in the nineteen nineties? How can jokes about the Lone Ranger or Lyndon B. Johnson be considered funny today? How can Bruces work be considered even remotely shocking today, when any and every alternative comedian use the same swear words that got Lenny arrested, with a regularity undreamed of by Bruce? These critics like Dalton, miss the point entirely.
Eddie Izzard, as Bruce asking Are there any
niggers in the audience tonight? still in 1999 has the power to shock. He then
launches into an auctioneer routine:
five niggers, eight micks, two Yid, three kikes, four spics and two Polacks. The point, that the words supression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.
It was Bruces dream that if we all said nigger enough times that we would deprive it of the power to hurt the young black kid in the schoolyard. Instead, Lenny met an early death and we grew up with political correctness. There is a myth, that because you can now say fuck on TV there are no taboos left, that Lenny Bruce may have some historical importance for being the first comedian to be known for saying cocksucker, but compared to todays comedians he seems almost quaint. But perhaps it is precisely the overuse of swear words by modern comedians which has deprived those words of any power or shock value.
Lenny Bruces humour has a timeless quality, that stands the test of many, many repeated listenings still having the power to make me laugh and marvel at the intricate layers and subtleties therein, even when I know the the material that is coming. Like a good comedic film script, (eg. Spinal Tap" and Withnail And I) when played well, the power of the words transcends mere jokes and Lenny Bruce didnt tell jokes as such. At the outset of his career he told jokes and did cheap impressions, but he soon discovered in himself different talents. His work preserved on tape and record reveals that Lenny was incredibly gifted, even brilliant. In one and the same bit he could take on in rapid succession three or four different characters, each with a a distinct voice and accent pattern, render each part with absolute fidelity, and never once get the characters confused" (Frank Kofsky in Lenny Bruce - The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular moralist.) But more than that he had a skill for seducing us through his humour, to look at our world in all its ugly, intolerant hypocrisy.
If there was an esscence to Lenny Bruce it was that he tried to see the world as it actually was, rather than subscribing to whoevers version of how it should be. That this somehow buries Bruce in the past, makes him no longer funny, relevent or radical is a nonsense. Bruce was never on a mission to teach us about the wrongs of society, rather he felt compelled from some warm place in his heart and mind to lay bare the ridiculousness of the institutions and traditions which pose as modern humanity.
He made us laugh about the fact that religions preaching of a world as it should be doom us to fail before we even start. How could any of us possibly match St Paul, in his determination to prove his absolute love of God by giving up sex? And yet the whole Catholic religion was founded on the notion of celibate priests, and only allows procreative sex within marriage for the rest of us.That Bruce chose to point out that this does not square with the reality of most peoples sexual lives - not least by suggesting the Lone Ranger was a fag - was what made him funny.
Bruce re-told the scene in the police van after being arrested in San Francisco for obscenity, for using a ten-letter word beginning with c:
POLICE OFFICER: You know that word you used? I
gotta wife and kids-
LENNY: I dont wanna hear that crap at all man. I dont wanna get emotionally involved with this.
POLICE OFFICER: Whaddaya mean you dont wanna hear that crap?
LENNY: I dont wanna hear any of that shit, man, thats all. Unless youre that kind of husband that is that loving that he shields his wife from every taboo derogatory phrase. Or are you the kind of husband that maybe just keeps his old lady knocked up and chained to the kitchen and never brings her a flower and does raise his hand to her and does rap her out? But if I say shit in front of her youll punch me in the mouth - that kind of chivalry, man? ... Did your wife ever do that to you?
BAM! Then it got sticky.
POLICE OFFICER: Never!
LENNY: you ever say the word?
POLICE OFFICER: No.
LENNY: Never said it? Honest to God never said it?
POLICE OFFICER: Never!
LENNY: How long you married?
POLICE OFFICER: Eighteen years.
LENNY: Did you ever chippy on your wife?
POLICE OFFICER: Never!
LENNY: Never one time in eighteen years? You never chippied on your old lady!
POLICE OFFICER: Never!
LENNY: Then goddamnit I love you! Cause youre the kind of husband I would like to have been, cause youre a spiritual guy. But if youre lying, youre going to spend some dead time in purgatory, man. Let ye cast the first stone.
With the Kennedy assassination Lenny Bruce suggested that in the Time magazine photographs of Jackie Kennedy crawling over the boot of the car was her attempt to get out of the firing line to save her own skin, rather than Time would have it, as her going to get help. The comedy is at once, hilarious and terrifying:
Why this is a dirty picture to me, and offensive, is because it sets up a lie, that she was going to get help ... because when youre daughters, if their husbands get shot , and they haul ass to save their asses, theyll feel shitty, and low, because theyre not like that good Mrs Kennedy who stayed there. And fuck it, she didnt stay there! Thats a lie they keep telling prople, to keep living up to bullshit that never did exist. Because the people who believe that bullshit are the foremen of juries that put you away.”
Lenny Bruce survives by reputation and in the form of difficult to get vinyl studio albums and live performance recordings, some of which are now on equally difficult to find CDs, and in two books The Essential Lenny Bruce edited by John Cohen, which is absolutely essential, beings chunks and chunks of his routines arranged according to subject matter, and How To Talk Dirty And Influence People, Bruces own autobiograpy. Julian Barrys play dates from 1971 and was made into the 1974 film Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, completes the legacy, whilst new documentary about Lenny Bruce, ten years in the making, has recently been completed in the United States, with Robert DeNiro narrating.
Peter Hall the director of the current production of Lenny, saw Lenny Bruce in concert in London in 1962, before he was banned from entering Britain. In a recent interview he said that Eddie Izzard is the only comedian to have come along in a long time who he felt could play the lead role in the play. Izzard and Bruce are different kinds of comedians by a long chalk, but in the Lenny Bruce portrayed by Eddie Izzard I saw something which I never thought possible. We saw the bits that didnt make it on to the albums, we saw the comedian in full flow, improvising and even making his supporting cast of actors laugh at bits which you knew were not in the previous nights performance. There were moments when you truly forgot that it was Izzard up there on stage and that he was acting. Izzard took the stuff of Bruce and gave it his own twist, whilst still remaining true to the spirit of the original work. He injected the ghost with life.
One of the reasons that Lenny Bruce found himself in court for obscenity, was that the police officers and District Attorneys were acting as guardians of the Nations should-be morality. Bruce was gifted and funny, but he got busted because he was a threat. He represented the anti-christ to the Time magazine version of Jackie Kennedy. Old hat? Redundant? Actually no, when in 1999 you have the likes of Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York, threatening to close the Brooklyn Art Museum, because he is personally offended by Chris Ofilis dung-bespattered picture of the Virgin Mary.
During the obscenity trials, Lenny Bruce became fed up with the police officers on the witness stand reading inaccurate transcripts of his shows, in a deadpan, detached voices, depriving them of any context and of all humour. He felt that if only he could perform his own material for the court then they would understand that it was not obscene, but actually hilarious and heartfelt. They never let him of course. This dynamic fuels the drama of the stage play, the stage-set and the theatre of the courtroom, being transformed into the night-club performances, and back again. Perhaps the most telling moment, and an indication of the plays power, comes when Izzard inprovising as Bruce goes off into a new bit, and the actor who plays the judge, and is at that moment, sat side-on in the shadows, stage right, has to turn his back completely away from the audience, to conceal his own laughter at the comic on stage.
There will probably always be powers that seek to police our lives and instruct us in the acceptable ways of behaving. And the critics who think Lenny Bruces comedy has no meaning today are right there with them and the paparazzi, who photographed Lenny Bruces naked, narcotic addled body, on the day he died in 1966.