Lenny Bruce: Godfather to all shocking entertainers

`Comedy' hardly begins to describe his acerbic satire, daring irreverence

Pop Culture

October 17, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Thirty-eight years after telling his last joke, Lenny Bruce is everywhere and nowhere.

His influence is heard in virtually every comedy club in the country. Rap, rock, hip-hop, music videos and cable shows seem to celebrate the battles of the legendary comic and provocateur. If only they knew who he was.

Bruce's image and knowledge of how he used his comic weapon against intolerance, injustice and conformity - and the heavy price he paid for doing so - have been scraped from the wallpaper of American pop culture since before most of today's envelope-pushers were born.

But now a proper introduction can be made: Let the Buyer Beware, a new six-disc box set from Shout Factory/Sony Entertainment, is an incomplete but certainly comprehensive collection of stand-up shows, interviews, skits, and experimental recordings. The set includes an 80-page booklet with essays, numerous photos and two glossaries: of Yiddish and of people of the day who are mentioned in the recordings.

The box set is perhaps the first accessible portrait of the man who single-handedly changed comedy from just jokes to art. He moved the comedy world from "take my wife, please" schmaltz into the realm of satire, commentary and philosophy. And nothing was sacred.

But it cost him. He was arrested for obscenity time and again, and hounded by the police and the FBI for the rest of his life. The ultra-hip comic became an accidental lightning rod for freedom of speech issues during the 1950s and 1960s, before dying of a heroin overdose in 1966.

"He got the last word, didn't he?" says Bruce's daughter Kitty, who co-produced the collection, which took nearly a decade to bring to fruition. "I had tapes; [co-producer] Marvin Worth had tapes. It took hundreds of hours of listening. That man could talk. There were some things that I sincerely thought weren't funny. But I wanted people to hear it. I didn't want history to repeat itself at my hands."

Then record company legal snags tied up production for seven years. But, Kitty Bruce says, "It's the right time. It was supposed to be released now."

But after all the work, it remains to be seen whether Lenny Bruce's revolutionary humor will ignite 21st-century tastes. Kitty Bruce believes it will.

"I think as any work of art, it stands the test of time. He's still as fresh as then, if you look at the political situation and church situation. They line up perfectly with now. And it means we haven't gone very far forward, if somebody from 1966 is still relevant."

Bruce's success leaves a lasting cultural ripple, though it's sometimes hard to see.

His work begat that of Richard Pryor and George Carlin. In fact, Pryor gives Bruce credit for teaching him how to be funny.

Then TV shows like All in the Family and Saturday Night Live appeared, working around the edges of Bruce's content, if not his language. In music, it was David Bowie, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols; later Public Enemy, 2Live Crew, Madonna, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Eminem and, certainly, Howard Stern.

Whether the intent was simply to shock and provoke audiences or stir their intellect, the foundation was laid for them by Bruce.

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