©1999 - The Times Mirror Company/Los Angeles Times; August 7, 1999
By Paul Brownfield
Television: Robert Weide's documentary traces the evolution of the legendary comedian whose controversial act was early fuel for the ongoing obscenity debate.
In the end, Lenny Bruce lay on the bathroom floor of his Hollywood Hills home, sprawled out in the nude, dead of a drug overdose. It was Aug. 3, 1966, and this was, in a perversely fitting way, the comedian's last performance. For while Bruce had died in his bathroom, he'd in fact been sitting on the toilet, pants at his ankles. By the time police arrived, a friend had pulled Bruce's pants back on, but the authorities wanted a different photo-op, one befitting a junkie and so-called "sick comic." So they posed him -- took the pants back off and moved his body into a more visible position. For good measure, they went to a closet and brought out a box of syringes. Then they escorted the press into the bathroom. Reporters and photographers viewed his body in groups of two.
By today's stand-up standard, it seems odd, if not laughable, to think that a comedian could actually be considered dangerous. Future generations have produced echoes of the comic (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks), but all in all, Bruce has become more forgotten icon than enduring 1st Amendment martyr, and stand-up comedy has continued to be theater for folks who don't read beyond headlines. Thirty-three years after his death, Bruce's name is probably unfamiliar to the new generations of comedy fans, and yet the controversies he stimulated are still very relevant. For while no one is floating jail time for the Farrelly brothers or Howard Stern, people are still debating whether explicit sexual content and language in comedic product has gone too far.
Of course, Bruce was much moreand sometimes much lessthan a comic who helped make it possible to employ explicit language with impunity, as Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, a 90-minute documentary airing Monday night at 10:15 on HBO, entertainingly explains. By depicting the complete evolution of Bruce from precocious child to vaudeville-influenced entertainer to edgy comic philosopher to drug-addled, sometimes muddled performer filmmaker Robert Weide shows how easy it can be to misinterpret Bruce's art and legacy, and how reductive to remember him as a guy who went to court for the right to use four-letter words in his act.
"Oddly enough, Lenny did believe in obscenity laws, he just didn't feel he was being obscene," says Weide, whose film was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year after a limited theatrical release and is now vying for a couple of Emmys.
To Weide, whose most recent project, scheduled to air on HBO in the fall, involves Seinfeld co-creator Larry David's return to stand-up comedy, Bruce did not set out to thwart authority in any calculated way.
"He didn't come on the scene fully formed. It was an evolution.... As he started to talk about what was really on his mind, instead of talking about the things that he thought you talked about as a stand-up comic, that's when he started to get the reputation.... He talked to the audience the way he talked to his friends. It would not be unlike him to be on stage and say, There was a wild article today in Time magazine. Did any of you see it? Hold on.' Then he'd go backstage and grab the magazine and come back."
By the time Bruce had developed the style that would endear him to hipsters and intellectuals, speaking anecdotally on-stage, sometimes with jazz accompaniment, he had already cycled through incarnations as a wannabe entertainer and later a borscht belt-like road comic traveling the country playing clubs and strip joints (where he met his wife, stripper Honey Harlowe, along the way).
Part exhibitionist, part clown Bruce "wasn't always profound,' the film's narrator, Robert De Niro, tells us at the outset. Indeed, it wasn't until Bruce began to abandon the conventions of his chosen profession, moving further away from sanctioned topics and sanctioned approaches to stand-up comedy, that he grew into the edgy artist he has remained in perpetuity.
At his best, Bruce took on organized religion (comparing, for instance, the Catholic Church to Howard Johnson's, an amoeba-like franchise colonizing the morality of the country), sexual mores and bigotry (he sang a song on-stage that featured repeated use of a racial epithet).
"What was interesting to him," says Weide of this last bit, "was that the managers would get very upset and the audience would get very uncomfortable, but the black guys in the band were cracking up."
For Weide, 40, whose previous documentaries included looks at the comedy of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Mort Sahl, putting together Swear to Tell the Truth was a 13-year process. Begun as part of a documentary on Bruce, Sahl and Dick Gregory, Swear to Tell the Truth remained on the shelf as Weide awaited funding; in 1995, the project was jump-started when the filmmaker was contacted by the Toyota Comedy Festival in New York. That prompted Weide to complete a 90-minute film, which subsequently drew interest from HBO.
All along, Weide was driven by his longtime passion for Bruce's art and by a conviction that his pioneering efforts in comedy needed to be reinforced on the public. In 1983, in the course of making an HBO documentary called The Great Standups, Weide met Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, who was anxious to see a documentary made of her son's life. She and Weide forged a relationship that continued until her death in December 1997 at the age of 90.
The film doesn't suffer from the fact that Weide could only find so much performance videotape of Bruce to use. In addition to audio recordings of his material, the film includes interviews with most of the key people in the comedian's life and work Harlowe; the late comedian Lotus Weinstock, who was close to Bruce in the last years of his life; and critic Nat Hentoff, who was among those intellectuals who championed Bruce during his career.
Another such champion was Steve Allen who used Bruce numerous times on The Steve Allen Show even in the end, when Bruce's run-ins with the law via drug busts and obscenity charges scared off club owners, leaving Bruce hard up for money. Among the clips in the film, in fact, is a 1964 Bruce appearance on Steve Allen that never aired because the routine (Bruce did a perfunctory bit about the difficulty of getting "snot" off of a suede jacket) was deemed too offensive by the show's censors. You can see this clip not only in Swear to Tell the Truth, but also at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills, which is screening a 90-minute retrospective of Bruce's TV appearances through Oct. 3. (Weide helped the Museum assemble the performance footage.)
"It's interesting that he was not talking about sex or politics or religion none of the touchy subjects about which he normally spoke," Allen says of Bruce's banned appearance on his show.
Today, Allen finds himself seemingly on the opposite side of the censorship issue, decrying what he calls the "tasteless dumbo vulgarity" on television through his work with the Parents Television Council.
But Allen doesn't see his former support of Bruce and his current campaign for more family-oriented fare as being in conflict.
''[Bruce] was not using vulgar language in the way that today's foulmouths do," Allen says. "Now, they cannot seem to do any kind of a simple statement without as many four-letter words (as) they can cram in."
This was, however, precisely how Bruce was viewed by the authorities who sought to silence him as his popularity grew and it became fashionable to bust one of his performances. Police attended his shows and jotted down stray profanities, then read them back in court, reducing Bruce's routine to a series of guttural utterances. It was a practice that led the comedian to complain that he was forever having to defend some other guy's act in court. Sometimes, the arrests hit absurd notes, as in Los Angeles, when Bruce was arrested at the Troubadour for using the word "schmuck" on-stage (the late Sherman Block was one of the arresting officers).
Eventually, Bruce became-so singular-minded about his court battles that he brought them on-stage, sometimes reading from trial transcripts to humorless results.
"He became almost a Dostoevskyan character in terms of his total absorption with the law as a redemptive force," Hentoff says in the film.
As for his legacy? Weide, for one, doesn't think Bruce is smiling down on comedy's ever-widening appetite for raunch and shock, because that misses the essence of the impact he had on comedy.
"I think the final frontier for comedy gets back to what it was back thenit's the truth. Telling the truth and keeping it funny. And I think Lenny was just telling the truth the way he saw it."