Friday, February 8, 2008

Lenny Bruce On Trial & Swearing To Tell the Truth

I figured out after four years why I got arrested so many times. Dig what happens--it's been a comedy of errors...I do my act at, perhaps, eleven o' clock at night; little do I know that at eleven A.M. the next morning, before the grand jury somewhere, there's another guy doing my act who's introduced as Lenny Bruce in substance. "Here he is: Lenny Bruce, in substance." A peace officer...does the act. The grand jury watches him work, and they go: "That stinks!" But I get busted. And the irony is that I have to go to court and defend his act....Now the cop is going to do the act before the judge who never heard of Lenny Bruce before...."I don't remember the whole act, your honor, but I made these notes...Ah, let's see now: 'Catholic,' asshole,' 'shit,' 'in the park,' 'tits,' 'n 'shit,' 'n 'Catholics, 'Jews,' 'n 'shit.' That's about all I remember. That's about the general tenor of the act."--Lenny Bruce, "Performance Film," 1965

JSH previously mentioned the good old days, such as when Richard Pryor could give a way-coked-out, ready-n-raw interview and not be crucified by a media scandal. But if one turned the clock back a decade before the Pryor of the 70s, one finds the Lenny Bruce of the 60s. Bruce of the 60s, who was not only prosecuted but persecuted for that danged old freedom inherent in his speech.

I have long worshipped at the bronze altar of Lenny Bruce. I do recall putting myself on a mission from God to collect all the Bruce recordings I could, pre-internet, and seemingly at a time when Bruce was sort of in had to special order or luck into used records. The lot of my contemporaries were largely ignorant of the facts of the Bruce case. The "real" Lenny Bruce, not the one of liberal myth or Dustin Hoffman in a Bob Fosse movie, but the Lenny Bruce who spoke on stage, was revealed to me. I listened, learned some yiddish slang, and knew that it was good.

I got on a Bruce kick again when I stumbled across the fact that the documentary from '98, Swear to Tell the Truth, was put up on the YouTube by some kind soul. It originally aired on the Sundance Channel, besides playing the film festival circuit, but never received a video release. I missed the boat on this documentary in the 20th century, but the 21st century, such as it does, provides.

As far as a Lenny Bruce documentary goes, this is the way to get some Bruce 101 for the uninitiated, and still a pretty good watch for those steeped in Bruce lore. The real revelation implicit in this flick for man and beast alike, however, is the old footage of a young Bruce, still firmly in his Borscht-Belt comedic stylings, a Bruce very far away from the hipster beatnik paranoid free speech martyr he would become.

Now, "martyr" is a strong word, but I do think it applies to Bruce. He essentially lost, by way of prosecution for obscenity, his ability to make a living as a comedian, sucessfully, at least in the short term, silenced by the courts. It's as if in 1966, the year of his death, there was Lenny Bruce. By the next decade, well, you got the likes of Richard Pryor, who did not have to be put on trial to be "the black Lenny Bruce." The end of Pryor's "Live & Smokin'" was not, in fact, Pryor getting arrested, unlike the end of Bruce's "bootleg" concert in Chicago,"Busted!", that does, in fact, end, with Bruce's arrest.

So "Swear to Tell the Truth" prodded me to finally read "The Trials of Lenny Bruce" (a book that came out in 2002, and while I was aware of it, it came out when my intense interest in all things Bruce had waned). It's not so much a biography of Lenny, but, rather, a biography of Bruce in the context of his legal trials. Which may sound dry, but authors Ronald K.L. Collins & David M. Skover (both with legal backgrounds) manage to show that the story of Bruce's life as a performer, is, ultimately albeit unfortunately, the story of Lenny's predicament of various prosecutions for obscenity during the 60s. If Lenny had lived, he would have lived to have been legally vindicated, but he wasn't, which is why Lenny's bio as a story of legal trials is, in the end, appropriate. And this substantial tome, weighing in at 562 pages in hardcover, makes a noble attempt at vindication.

You'd think this baby would be a snoozer, but Collins & Skover, handle it well. It doesn't read like a book written for lawyers. Rather, it reads like a book chock-full of complex legal information that has not been watered down but instead aptly translated into a common sense language for the average reader.

Lenny Bruce was an entertainer, but he didn't always care about getting laughs. As he famously uttered by way of apology at a concert in which he went off on a tangent about his legal woes, "I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce." With confidence in his stream-of-consciousness rants & ruminations, Bruce was always pushing at the boundaries of spoken performance. Always uncensored, this was, and is, a way of making yourself an enemy of the state, or, at the very least, an enemy of polite and/or pompous discourse.

There's probably not a single performer I admire who, knowingly or not, doesn't have the spirit of Saint Lenny running through their veins. Insert heroin joke here. Amen.


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