Identical liner notes are used for both volumes of The Lenny Bruce Originals (FCD-60-023 and 60-024) and make reference to bits in both discs.
The Golden Age of cabaret satire that began with Mort Sahl in San Francisco in the terror-ridden early years of the Cold War reached its climax with Lenny Bruce.
Unlike the Bob Hopes and Milton Berles of "old show biz," these new-wave satirists addressed a post-World War II audience of campus intellectuals and closet liberals who crowded the hungry i to revel in the audacity of Mort Sahl's open assault on the icons of conformity - like Nixon, and the sacrosanct J. Edgar Hoover. It's easy to overlook the courage required of Mort - and the hungry i - in that spooky era when you didn't joke about the President, except in the privacy of your living room, and only if you were very sure of your friends. Sahl and Enrico Banducci's hungry i inspired spinoff cabarets in Chicago, New York, and L.A. jumping with Mike & Elaine, Redd Foxx (before Sanford & Son), Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory, Jonathan Winters, the Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, and in England, The Establishment and Beyond the Fringe. A new entertainment phenomenon arose: the best-selling comedy album.
When Lenny Bruce surfaced in the late 1950's in the L.A. strip joints, Variety roasted him for "only trying to make the band laugh." The "Bible of Show Business" had stumbled upon the difference between Lenny and the Bob Hope one-liner bananas he squashed at the Palladium. The best of these new-wave comics were beboppers; they worked the jazz clubs before graduating to the concert circuit. Mort and Lenny first recorded for Fantasy; Lord Buckley, a nonstop spritzer with a three-octave range and imagination to match, recorded for Pacific Jazz, rendering the Bible and Shakespeare into the argot of a black hipster. Sahl shared a bill with the Stan Kenton Band and buddied with Paul Desmond. Lenny hung out with jazzmen who dug his bizarre and irreverent view of life - Joe Maini, and Philly Joe Jones, who often enlivened a Miles Davis set with uncanny sendups of Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Professor Corey and Lenny worked the Village Vanguard, the world's oldest jazz club.
Nightclub and burlesque bands always made a point of not laughing at the comic, but Lenny broke the band up. In his early L.A. days, Lenny once followed the headline stripper on stage with "Awright! Let's give the little lady a great big hand!," stripped down to his socks and a wristwatch.
Mort Sahl's timely satire was mostly political; Lenny violated immemorial cabaret taboos dealing with religion, race, sex, and forbidden words. Mort offended the conservatives and the squares, but Lenny upset everybody, even the finger-poppin' hipster with his wife, cracking up at "Father Flotski's Triumph" and "Religions, Inc.," until:
"...there's this kind of guy who says: 'When I chippie on my wife, I have to tell her, I can't live a lie, have to be honest with myself. I have to tell her because I like to hurt her.'-AE 'Here's the handkerchief with lipstick, honey, I chippied on you last night and feel rotten about it, and if you left me and took the five kids and got a job in the five-and-ten I wouldn't blame you.'
"Man, if you love your old lady, really love her, you'll never tell her that! Women don't want to hear that! If she's got pictures - deny it!
"Gee, honey, I don't know how this broad got in here - she had a sign around her neck, "I am a diabetic - lie on top of me or I'll die.' No, I don't know how I got my underwear on upside down or backwards...."
Laughter froze in the hipster's throat while his wife stared at his shoes. Lenny had opened another bedroom door in public.
Lenny was discovered by Ralph J. Gleason, Orrin Keepnews, Gene Lees, Lou Gottlieb, Nat Hentoff, and Ira Gitler. Few theatre critics, aside from Martin Gottfried, ever heard of him. The "dean of Broadway drama critics," Walter Kerr, admitted he never saw Lenny work, which didn't dissuade him from writing a New York Times putdown of the entire Bruce output. Time's first review of Lenny labeled him a "sickcomic." Lenny answered with "The Tribunal":
"The kind of sickness I wish Time had written about, is that school teachers in Oklahoma get a top annual salary of $4000, while Sammy Davis,Jr. gets $10,000 a week in Vegas."
Time's 1996 obituary kissed him off as a "cult comic," neglecting to add that the "cult" included Paul Mazursky, Lou Gottlieb, Paul Krassner (founder of the first "alternative" magazine The Realist), Gene Lees, Saul Zaentz, Lawerence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, the editors of Playboy, all the bright young comics, and other image-makers of the 1960's who still recite from the memory the classic tracks in this reissue package.
Lenny's career went through three phases, starting with the "bits" that polarized show business and launched audience walkouts. In 1958, when the Tammy Faye Bakers and Pat Robertsons were in their professional infancy, "Religions, Inc." unfrocked the religious leaders sitting around a table on Madison Avenue talking business like sleazy Broadway agents, hustlers, and used car pimps, capped with redneck evangelist Oral Roberts on the phone with Pope Pius ("P.P.") and later, John XXIII;
"Johnny, they buggin' us ovah heah with this here dumb-ass integration....no, I don' want no more quotations from outen th' Bible! They want us to come out and say things like, let them go to school with them! And they don't want the Bomb....Sure they're commies!....And Philly Joe [Jones, Miles Davis's drummer] says hello...."
Lenny's mosy disturbing bit, never recorded in its entirety, was "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties" with black guitarist Eric Miller. Lenny starts by proposing toasts to Joe Louis, Bojangles - "all you people can tapdance, right?" - and Paul Robeson "who was all right until he got into that commie horseshit." Getting progressively smashed, Lenny concludes with:
"Say, you're a good boy. Lemme ask you somethin'. I always heard that you guys, well, I heard you really got a big wang-on, like a baby's arm with an apple in its fist. Could I see it? Aw, c'mon - let's whip out that roll of tarpaper and see whatcha got there, Chonga!"
Nat Hentoff wrote: "The lines are close enough to parody to allow the audience to laugh, but many find themselves squirming, because Bruce's point is how very little casual social relationship exists between Negroes and the most enlightened white liberals."
Jewish humor dominated American comedy during radio's Golden Age of the 1930's. But unlike Jack Benny (Kubelsky), George Burns (Birnbaum), and Eddie Cantor (Izkowitz), Lenny did not disguise his Jewishness (other than changing his name from Schneider to Bruce). To be Jewish was urban and hip; goyish was shitkicker and square. Lenny flaunted Jewish Pride his opening night in San Francisco's Jazz Workshop in 1961, sharing a double bill with Ben Webster. It was the only time this jazz club booked a comic. Ben had never caught Lenny's act; he stood with me in the back of the club:
"If you're from New York and you're Catholic, you're still Jewish. If you're from Butte, Montanna and you're Jewish, you're still goyisch. The Air Force is Jewish, the Marine Corps dangerous goyisch. Rye bread is Jewish, instant potatoes, scary goyisch. Eddie Cantor is goyisch, George Jessel is goyisch - Coleman Hawkins is Jewish."
Ben Webster turned to me in slack-jawed amazement: "That sonofabitch is crazy!" Then Lenny zinged in:
"Ben Webster is very Jewish! I've got an uncle who looks exactly like Ben Webster!"
And Ben fell out.
The police busted Lenny his second night at the Jazz Workshop in 1961 for violating the California Obscenity Code, specifically for referring to the exposure of male genetalia, relating the bedroom conversations of varied couples vainly striving for orgasmic release, and most of all, for using the vernacular for fellatio - the same word used by Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice for which she won the Academy Award as Best Actress of 1982.
Aside from its explosions of hilarity, intentional and otherwise, Lenny's 1962 jury trial for obscenity in San Francisco was a landmark in the ongoing struggle to preserve the First Amendment. His defense attorney Albert Bendich earlier had won a victory for Allen Ginsberg in the celebrated Howl obscenity case. (Bendich is now the Vice-President and Counsel for Fantasy Records and the Saul Zaentz Company.) The District Attorney, Albert Wollenberg, nourished a religious conviction that "Lenny Bruce belongs in jail, not on a nightclub stage." (Wollenberg was later appointed a Judge by the then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan.) Witnesses included Ralph J. Gleason and the Limeliters' Lou Gottlieb who got the trial's biggest boffo during Wollenberg's indignant cross-examination:
D.A.: In other words, Doctor Gottlieb, you say Mr. Bruce is just up on the stage trying to get laughs? That's all?
Gottlieb: Yes, Mr. District Attorney - that's the professional comedian's duty.
D.A.: Well, Dr. Gottlieb - do you think there's anything funny about somebody getting up in a public place and saying "cocksucker"?!
Gottlieb: Well, it isn't very funny when you say it!
It took Judge Clayton Horn five minutes to subdue the courtroom. Stern yet twinkly, Horn had presided over the Howl trial where Al Bendich indoctrinated him with the intricacies of the First Amendment. His thirty-minute summation to the jury concluded with a clear instruction for acquittal:
"Sex and obscenity are not synonymous. In order to make the portrayal come within the definition of obscenity, its dominant tendency must be to deprave or corrupt the average adult by tending to create a clear and present danger of anti-social behavior."
"The law does not prohibit the realistic portrayal by an artist of his subject matter, and does not require the author to put a refined language into the mouths of primitive people."
"The speech of the performer must be considered in relation to its setting. The use of blasphemy, foul or course language and vulgar behavior does not in itself constitute obscenity."
"A performance cannot be considered utterly without redeeming social importance if it has literary or artistic merit, or if the performance contains ideas of redeeming social importance - regardless of whether those ideas are unorthodox, controversial, or hateful."
Following his acquittal, Lenny entered Phase Two, abandoning the "bits" and "routines" he had long tired of, and free-forming it all the way. I got a look at Lenny's genius for winging it one night at the North Beach club, Off Broadway. Between shows we walked the half-block to Lawerence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookshop. Lenny asked me to help him pick out "some really far out shit." We found Eisenhower Speaks! published by Ferlinghetti, a collection of verbatim press conference gems of the sainted President before the wire services added subjects, predicates and some semblance of coherency; The Fatty Arbuckle Story ("hey, meybe I could go on stage with a Coke bottle..."); and a copy of True, the sensation-mongering National Enquirer of its day. Lenny's reverie was interrupted by Off Broadways nervous boss, Voss Boretta: "For chrissake, Lenny - you're on!"
With a swift glance at True, Lenny opened his second show:
"True magazine just came out with this vicious expose of the Birdman of Alcatraz. The book's a hoax and the movie's a joke. True tells you why. Are you ready for this? Reason number one. Dig: 'The Birdman of Alcatraz is a self-confessed ho-mo-sex-u-al!' Well isn't that a kick in the ass? He's been in the joint fifty-seven years! Look at all the cunt he coulda' had, and he turns out to be a faggot! I don't know about you, Jim, but if you put me on a desert island for three months without chicks, I'll do it to mud! Here's reason number two: 'The Birdman of Alcatraz is a menace to the younger inmates.' Oh, sure - like the ones sixty-three, sixty-five...."
Across the street from Off Broadway, Dick Gregory was headlining the hungry i. Like Chaplin, Fields, Lenny, and Erwin Corey, Greg was another American comic turned social critic. Greg and I walked in on the middle of Lenny's show; he had never heard Lenny. Spotting Greg, Lenny peered at the audience for an unnerving interval:
"Are ther any niggers here tonight?" Greg stiffened like a retriever, with the rest of the audience. In 1962, nobody had ever heard that word on stage, not in a white nightclub. Lenny began a mock soliloquy:
"Ohmygod, did you hear what he said? 'Are there any niggers here tonight?' Is that rank! Is that cruel! Is that a cheap way to get laughs? Well, I think I see a nigger at the bar talking to two guinea qwners, and next to them are a couple of wops, one kike, two greaseballs, a squarehead, three gooks, one frog, two limeys, a couple of sheenies, two jigaboos, one hunkey, fonky boogie - bid 'em up! Bid 'em up! Six more niggers! I pass with two dykes, four kikes, and eight niggers!"
The once frozen audience now gave way to hysteria, the sweet laughter of liberation only Lenny could unloose:
"Now, why have I done this? Is this only for shock-value? Well, if all the niggers started calling each other 'nigger,' not only among themselves, which they do anyway, but among the ofays. If President Kennedy got on television and said: 'I'm considering appointing two or three of the top niggers in the country into my cabinet' - if it was nothing but nigger, nigger, nigger - in six months 'nigger' wouldn't mean any more than 'goodnight,' 'God bless you,' or "I promise to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God - when that beautiful day comes, you'll never see another nigger kid come home from school crying because some ofay motherfucker called him a nigger."
Gregory turned to me: "This man is the eighth wonder of the world. You have to go back to Mark Twain to find anything remotely like him. And if they don't kill him, or throw him in jail, he's liable to shake up this whole fuckin' country."
A year later, Gregory published his book Nigger dedicated to "Dear Momma - Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word 'nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book."
Paul Krassner said that "Lenny fought for the right to say on a nightclub stage what he felt free to say in his own living room." As a result, he was deported from Britain and busted for either obscenity or narcotics in Los Angeles, Hollywood, New York, and San Francisco where he was declared a legally bankrupt pauper in 1964. Lenny was not hassled so much for "dirty words," but for what he said between those words. When he played Chicago's Gate of Horn, a police captain rousted the club owner: "If Lenny Bruce says anything against the Pope again - and I'm speaking here as a Catholic - I'm going to arrest you, him, and everyone else in this place. Do you understand?"
The incessant obscenity busts propelled Lenny into Phase Three - his on-and-off stage obsession with the ambiguities and contradictions of our legal systems. Working out of attorney Melvin Belli's plush Victorian offices, Lenny made himself an authority on obscenity law. Critics who once complained he was only trying to make the band laugh, now attacked him for only trying to make the Bar laugh:
"Now, what is obscene? I can do a disgusting show, I can eat a ham sandwich on stage, which is disgusting to all jews, muslims, and vegetarians - that's my right. I can do a vulgar show - I can sing rock 'n' roll tunes. But in order to do an obscene show, under the definition of the law, I must appeal exclusively to the purient interest - I must get you horney. That's why we have these laws, because some guy sees a horney striptease act and goes out and rapes somebody that didn't see the show. The Catholic Church has the best, the clearest definition of obscenity, much clearer than the Supreme Court. Dig the Catholic Church: "To be obscene, the genital apparatus must be in a position to unite sexually." Now, that's beautiful! You wouldn't want a clearer definition than that! And dig, they really got cute with it!"
He took to walking on stage laden with law books: "Now, here's the law. In Darien, Connecticut, if you knock on a strange chick's door, never saw her before, she opens the door, you bust her in the mouth hard as you can, they'll put you away for two years. Now in this same town, you knock on a strange chick's door, you're wearing a raincoat and nothing underneath, you flash open the raincoat and yell, 'Yoo-hoo, lady!' They'll put you away for ten years. Now what hurts worse - 'Yoo-hoo, lady?' Or a bust in the chops? You jack off in front of a nun and they put you away for life!"
The legacy of Lenny endures with George Carlin, Richard Lewis, Eric Bogosian, and most of all, Richard Pryor of his cabaret days before the movies ran him on one of his twelve cylinders. A full-scale Bruce revival is long overdue to enlighten devotees of Saturday Night Live and Evening at the Improv who have never been exposed to an improvising comic genius. This reissue of Lenny Bruce's first records that revolutionized satirical comedy and signaled lasting and profound changes in the society-at-large seems a good place to start.
(Note: INTERVIEW WITH DR. SHOLEM STEIN and the classic, often-quoted SHORTY PETTERSTEIN INTERVIEW were not done by Lenny Bruce, but are Bob & Ray-type improvisations by Henry [Sandy] Jacobs and Woodrow Leafer.)
NON SKEDDO FLIES AGAIN
MARRIAGE, DIVORCE AND MOTELS
(Grover Sales handled personal publicity for Lenny Bruce in San Francisco. He is the author of a film-TV script "The Trial of Lenny Bruce" based on the court transcript of Bruce's 1962 obscenity trial in San Francisco.)
***1/2 Lenny Bruce originals vol. 1 Lenny Bruce fantasy **** Lenny Bruce originals vol. 2 Lenny Bruce fantasy
Exploding out of the joyless comfort of the Fifties America, Lenny Bruce was comedy’s avenging angel, revolutionizing his art form as surely as Elvis rocked popular music. The hippest heir to a comic tradition dating back to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, Bruce parlayed a new style of contemporary humor - tart, honest, and smart, truth rendered as cathartic barbs. A tough guy driven by Jewish empathy for fellow outsiders , he championed every misfit - and god-damn any force that tried to stifle the novel, the offbeat or the mad. Overdosing at 40 in 1966, Bruce was canonized as a wounded seer, his foulmouthed jokes, drug busts, and private life and doomed aura had made him mythic. He deserves the homage, but the coolest victory of the two volumes of the Lenny Bruce Originals is that they remind us - as Kenneth Tynan says in his intro to Bruce’s raffish autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People - "the primary fact about Bruce is ….is that he is extremely funny".
Reissuing four albums (totaling 34 sketches) from 1958 to 1960 - The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce and Interviews of Our Times on Volume 1. Togetherness and Lenny Bruce: American on Volume 2, the Originals are ritous. Volume 1, including Ralph J Gleason’s original liner notes, finds Bruce doing virtuoso bits on Hitler’s imaginary public relations crew (they had to prettify der Furher’s real name: Schickelgrubber.) and presciently trashing televangelists on "Religion’s Inc." Volume two swing harder. Contrasting in "White Collar Drunks" the hypocritical "cleanshaven, buffed nails. Wacked out of their skulls" alkies with "good legit Gallo wine" types, Bruce aligns himself, as always with the underdog, and "How to relax Your Colored Friends at Parties" anticipates the best, earliest Richard Pryor. A master of language, jazz influenced rhythm and polyglot accents, he not only prophesies the observational routines of George Carlin, but foretells Eric Boggosian’s solo career. "The Palladium" may be Bruce’s tour de force (it’s the tale of a bullshit-comic, who bombs at the dream gig of his life) but the bourgeoise-savaging of "Lima, Ohio" is nearly as trenchant: Subtly the comic manages to convey compassion for the close-minded porch-sitters who consider him a pariah.
Today’s Biltzkrieg comedians - Sam Kinison, Bob Goldthwait and espically the loathsome Andrew "Dice" Clay - may be Bruce’s bastards, but the originals prove that, in terms of intelligence, wit and sheer humanity, their dead master hasn’t found a rival yet.
- Paul Evans