Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Influence of Lenny Bruce

You may not have been born when comedian Lenny Bruce died on this day in 1966.

Consequently, you might not think that he has much relevance to the world of 2011.

But the world in which you live almost certainly would be a different place — perhaps very different — if he had not come along.

Bruce was a bridge, a transition from the comedy that had come before to a harder–edged, more sophisticated style of comedy.

Before Bruce, the gold standard in American standup was Jerry Lewis. After Bruce, a whole generation of new comedians burst upon the scene — George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lewis Black, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and so many others, all of whom claim(ed) Bruce as a kind of spiritual father.

In fact, I have long believed that Lenny Bruce's influence was felt beyond the stage. In the years after Bruce's death, television programming began moving away from the silly and the slapstick, like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie and Green Acres, to sitcoms that dared to tackle thornier topics.

Such a shift was also taking place in music and the movies — every form of artistic expression.

But many segments of American culture resisted.

That was the role Bruce played in the essential evolution of comedy. His routines addressed American society and politics frankly. He talked about race and religion and sex, things that no one had dared to talk about before.

I didn't hear any of his comedy routines until many years after his death, but I've always felt that Bruce was an advocate of the First Amendment more than he was anything else.

That doesn't take anything away from his talent as a comedian. But, if it hadn't been for Bruce, I believe freedom of speech would have a different meaning in America.

He used words (those awful four–letter words) on stage that would seem incredibly tame to young people today — but they were regarded as obscene in the 1960s. In fact, he was convicted on obscenity charges and obsessed about it for the rest of his life ...

... which ended, as I say, 45 years ago today.

His body was found in the bathroom of his California home; the official photo taken at the scene showed Bruce's body with drug paraphernalia nearby, but some have suggested it was planted there by people who were eager to smear Bruce in death.

The cause of his death was ruled to be an accidental overdose of morphine.

I don't know what the truth was — and I don't know whether it would matter if the truth could be revealed in 2011.

What I do know is that Bruce, who was 40 when he died, continued to wield an influence on the culture after death. He was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction in 2003. It was the first posthumous pardon in New York history.

And I also know that Bruce's loss was an appalling waste.

When I was in college, I saw Bob Fosse's biopic on Bruce, "Lenny," starring Dustin Hoffman, and I would encourage everyone to watch it at least once — to see Bruce's comic genius, brilliantly reproduced by Hoffman, but also to get a sense of the painful truth of Dick Schaap's final line in his eulogy in Playboy: "One last four–letter word for Lenny: Dead. At 40. That's obscene."