FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Unpardonable Lenny Bruce

No doubt Lenny Bruce would have laughed with at least a tinge of bitterness if — like millions of Americans — he picked up a newspaper the day before Christmas 2003 and read that he’d been “pardoned” by the governor of New York for an obscenity conviction.

In their own time, people who are stubbornly ahead of it usually get a lot more grief than accolades. And decades later — in this case, 39 years after Bruce’s bust for a nightclub performance and 37 years after his death — the belated praise from on high is predictably insufferable.

The New York Times lead sentence on Dec. 24 called Bruce “the potty-mouthed wit who turned stand-up comedy into social commentary.” Actually, far from being “potty-mouthed” in an emblematic way, Lenny Bruce was a Fool in the Shakespearean sense, jousting with a society dominated by various aspiring Lears — and quite a few Elmer Gantrys.

Most people who can remember Lenny Bruce have their favorite moments. I think of when he took the opportunity, on a network TV show, to “play” a dollar bill as a percussion device, snapping it in front of the microphone. Or his bits, taped and then captured on record albums, satirizing the entrepreneurial zeal of evangelical moralists. He anticipated the unctuous likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and, yes, George W. Bush.

Lenny Bruce lampooned hypocrisy, yet he avoided the earnest fervor that dulls the teeth of much would-be biting humor. Bruce may have occasionally lapsed into sermonizing, but he was not pious. The 1974 movie “Lenny” strayed when actor Dustin Hoffman wasn’t quite able to portray Bruce’s righteousness without preceding it with the hyphenated “self.”

Bruce was a consummate mimic who spent many hours fiddling with tape from his on-stage routines. As an instrument of enormous versatility, his voice was orchestral in scope.

Protracted struggles with judicial repression for saying “bad” words made him obsessed with absurdities in law books. For Bruce, legalistic labyrinths culminated in August 1966 with a morphine overdose, two months short of his 40th birthday.

We ought to note that his last two years spanned from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through a period of rapid military escalation in Vietnam, with U.S. troop deployments mounting into the hundreds of thousands.

On a noncommercial radio station about 30 years ago, while the war was still raging, I used to air an obscure record that featured some of Bruce’s final performance. He did a bit he’d presented many times before, reciting (with a thick German accent) a poem by the radically humanistic Trappist monk Thomas Merton — a meditation on the high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.

Here are words I’ve often remembered over the course of three decades:

“My defense: I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?”

Such questions are still too hot for mainstream media to handle. We may congratulate ourselves on how risque the words and images are now, in mass media, but the lasting power of Lenny Bruce’s caustic humor has nothing to do with four-letter words. Today, naughty language and sexual images are big media sellers. The tacit taboos are in other realms of expression.

Though it wasn’t then the propaganda mantra that it has recently become, President Johnson referred to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Vietnam as “terrorists.” These days, President Bush is fond of applying the “terrorist” label to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Naturally, as one of the home-front politicos eager to boost the latest war, New York’s Gov. George Pataki could not resist combining the announcement of his pardon for Bruce with a plug for the sanctification of present-day militarism under the guise of combating terrorism. “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties,” Pataki declared, “and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

But the question that Lenny Bruce kept voicing from the stage, meanwhile, still hangs in the air: “Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?”

NORMAN SOLOMON is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy in San Francisco. He is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You. (Context Books, 2003).

 

More articles by:

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.

December 13, 2018
John Davis
What World Do We Seek?
Subhankar Banerjee
Biological Annihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode
Lawrence Davidson
What the Attack on Marc Lamont Hill Tells Us
James McEnteer
Breathless
Ramzy Baroud
The Real Face of Justin Trudeau: Are Palestinians Canada’s new Jews?
Dean Baker
Pelosi Would Sabotage the Progressive Agenda With a Pay-Go Rule
Elliot Sperber
Understanding the Yellow Vests Movement Through Basic Color Theory 
Rivera Sun
The End of the NRA? Business Magazines Tell Activists: The Strategy is Working
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Historic Opportunity to Transform Trade
December 12, 2018
Arshad Khan
War, Anniversaries and Lessons Never Learned
Paul Street
Blacking Out the Yellow Vests on Cable News: Corporate Media Doing its Job
Kenneth Surin
The Brexit Shambles Rambles On
David Schultz
Stacking the Deck Against Democracy in Wisconsin
Steve Early
The Housing Affordability Crisis and What Millennials Can do About It
George Ochenski
Collaboration Failure: Trump Trashes Sage Grouse Protections
Rob Seimetz
Bringing a Life Into a Dying World: A Letter From a Father to His Unborn Son
Michael Howard
PETA and the ‘S’-Word
John Kendall Hawkins
Good Panopt, Bad Panopt: Does It Make A Difference?
Kim C. Domenico
Redeeming Utopia: a Meditation On An Essay by Ursula LeGuin
Binoy Kampmark
Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Immemorial Divisions
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Democratizing Money
Laura Finley
Congress Must Reauthorize VAWA
December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail