© 1999 New York Times; August 8, 1999
By Peter Keepnews
Lenny Bruce is remembered as the comic who made the world safe for four-letter words. But his real goal was comic truth.
Lenny Bruce is hot again.
For the first time since the early 1970's, when he was the subject of a Broadway play, a feature film and an exhaustive biography, Brucewho redefined the parameters of stand-up comedy, who became as well known for his obscenity arrests as he was for his routines and who died of a drug overdose at the age of 40 in 1966 is the focus of a concentrated burst of media attention.
Robert B. Weide's Academy Award-nominated 1998 documentary, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, will have its television premiere tomorrow night on HBO. Made-for-television Bruce documentaries have recently been shown on Court TV and the E! Channel. Through Oct. 3, the New York and Los Angeles branches of the Museum of Television and Radio are simultaneously presenting a retrospective of Bruce's television appearances. And in London, the comedian Eddie Izzard is starring in a revival of Lenny, Julian Barry's 1971 play about Bruce's groundbreaking comedy and troubled life.
The current comedy climate, in which few if any subjects are off-limits, would probably look strange to the man who was once labeled a "sick comic," as much for his scathing take on subjects like racism and organized religion as for his use of four letter words. ("I'm not sick," he responded. "The world is sick, and I'm the doctor.") Language that he was arrested, tried and in some cases sentenced to prison for using in public is now commonplace in nightclubs and on cable television. Bruce's friend and disciple George Carlin has starred in numerous HBO specials, with all his colorfully worded invective intact. Chris Rock and Dennis Miller, sharp-tongued stand-up satirists in the Bruce tradition, have their own talk shows on the same network, on which they speak their minds without restraint.
"If there had been an HBO when Lenny was alive, he might still be around today," Mr. Weide said in an interview, only half jokingly. But, he added, "I think Lenny bears very little resemblance to the people who are supposedly carrying on in his name. I think he'd be bored silly by most of them."
There is no shortage of young comedians who look to Lenny Bruce as a role model whether for his language, his iconoclasm, his riveting stage presence or other reasons. Margaret Cho, 30, who waxes comedic about her battles with racism, substance abuse and the Hollywood establishment in her Off Broadway one-woman show, I'm the One That I Want, says she draws inspiration from Bruce's willingness to talk about his own life with almost embarrassing honesty.
"He showed me that the truest humor comes from pain and tragedy," Ms. Cho said. "That has given me permission to do what I do."
Jon Stewart, 36, the host of Comedy Central's Daily Show, counts Bruce among the comedians he admires most but suggests that his significance is often misunderstood. "He should be remembered for the substance of what he said, and for the incredibly lyrical way he used the language," Mr. Stewart said in an interview. "Unfortunately, he's remembered more for the fact that he used certain words. So much of what he was saying is completely lost in how he was perceived as saying it."
Lenny Bruce was arrested four times for obscenity between 1961 and 1964. His last such arrest, made on stage at Cafe au Go Go in New York, resulted in a lengthy trial and eventually in conviction, and effectively ended his career. (The conviction was overturned two years after Bruce's death.) But although dirty words were the primary source of his notoriety, they were far from the whole story.
The humorist Paul Krassner suggests, in Swear to Tell the Truth, that arresting Bruce for obscenity was "really a cover for arresting him for blasphemy." Both that film and the Court TV documentary present a convincing argument that what got Bruce in trouble more than anything else was his criticism of religious institutions, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, although he himself always claimed he was simply a seeker. "I am searching for an answer," he says in a 1962 television interview excerpted in Mr. Weide's film, "as Billy Graham is."
Bruce's refusal to dilute his act despite his many skirmishes with the law had a profound impact on comedy. Everything from the naked self-revelation of Richard Pryor to the nose-thumbing of Saturday Night Live to the unfettered grossness of Howard Stern owes a debt to one extent or another, for better or worse to Lenny Bruce's sacrifice.
Denis Leary, 41, another comedian who considers Bruce an inspiration, says as much on Court TV. After Bruce's death, he observes, restrictions on what a performer could say on stage virtually disappeared.
"His legacy was dying for that cause," Mr. Leary says. "Everyone kind of washed their hands and said, 'O.K., it's over, it's over.' And the authorities walked away, and all of a sudden you could say whatever you wanted to."
It wasn't really quite that sudden or that simple. Outspoken comedians like Mr. Carlin and Mr. Pryor who followed in Bruce's immediate wake continued to face harassment and censorship; Mr. Carlin's use of profanity at an outdoor concert in Milwaukee led to an arrest for disorderly conduct in 1972, although the charges were later dismissed. As recently as six years. ago, an entire routine by the young comedian Bill Hicks was excised from CBS's Late Show With David Letterman because of his comments about religion But certainly the dangers involved in doing edgy comedy, especially for anyone willing to forgo broadcast television, became a lot less daunting after Bruce's death.
There's no doubt that by risking arrest for speaking his mind, Lenny Bruce made it easier for stand-up comedians (and, probably, for filmmakers, radio personalities and others as well) to say what they want to say, however they want to say it. Of course, organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Federal Communications Commission continue to impose standards, sometimes without any apparent logic, and to make it tough for self-styled envelope-pushers to say everything they want to say. But it's hard to imagine Mr. Stern or the creators of South Park ever facing jail time for their words. As Mr. Weides film points out, Lenny Bruce was the last performer in the United States to be tried for using obscene language.
Now that comedians can say pretty much anything they want to say, are they saying anything worth saying? "If they're doing it in Lenny's name, or if Lenny really did spawn this stuff, they've gotten away from his intentions," Mr. Weide said of the current generation of stand-ups. "The intent seems to be 'How uncomfortable can I make the audience?' or 'How savagely can I attack?' Lenny was not mean-spirited.
"Lenny's message was 'Speak in your own voice; say what's on your mind.' But some of these guys don't have much on their minds. What's lacking now is wit. That's what it boils down to. I don't see wit out there."
Mr. Stewart said: "He didn't step over the line just to step over the line.There was method to his madness. Nowadays too many comedians are just saying, 'Look what I can get away with.' "
Seeing and hearing the excerpts from Bruce's routines that are at the heart of Swear to Tell the Truth, one is struck less by his vulgarity or even his anger than by how thoughtful he seems, and how gentle as well, especially in comparison with even the best and most socially aware of today's comedians. In his pointed observations on the differences between the way things are and the way they're supposed to be, Lenny Bruce as preserved on film and on record comes across as more philosophical than outraged.
Despite the revisionist historians who cast him as a moral crusader and despite his own frequently quoted words "I'm not a comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce" he was a comedian before he was anything else, and his most important goal was to get laughs. Sometimes he really did say things just for their shock value (Swear to Tell the Truth contains a staggeringly unfunny routine from late in his career about Eleanor Roosevelt's breasts). And sometimes, as his legal woes mounted, he became so obsessed with talking about the law that he neglected to even try for laughs.
But mostly, he was very, very funny. And ultimately, his humor came less from the language he used or the taboos he broke than simply from his determination to tell the truth as he saw it, whether about society or about himself. That determination may have been his single most important gift to stand-up comedy, and to the world.