Obscenity and Paranoia: Lenny Bruce May Have Been Talking Dirty But I Barely Understood a Word

“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane –
Lenny Bruce is not afraid…”

Lenny Bruce was a big part of making our culture what it is today. R.E.M said so. A fast-talking comedian of the early days of the counter-culture, his trials for obscenity in the early 1960s set the baseline for the Howard Stern’s of the future. His comedy helped set the boundaries that latter day shock-jocks still push against. A jazz-obsessed hipster whose monologues chipped away at the corners of issues like race relations, drug policy, and censorship. He’s an interesting guy, and his autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People should be both important and funny. He was a comedian after all.

And for all I know it is hilarious, but it is not written for the modern reader. Lenny Bruce first published it in 1963, and to my eyes it comes across as hopelessly dated. I don’t mean that as a criticism so much as a statement of fact. Bruce was a comedian and a social satirist so its no wonder that his writing (which seems to be big chunks of his stage routine) is full of cultural references and bits and pieces of the social landscape of his time. My only problem is that much of it is lost on me. The fault may be mine. It’s possible that I am just unreasonably ignorant of 1950’s/1960’s pop-culture minutiae. But the book is peppered through with things like the following, which made no sense whatsoever to me:

“This was sort of a devitalized Dwight Fiske routine, with nothing left but the subtle swish.”

Whoever Dwight Fiske was, I guess he was kind of effeminate? The only way for me to work out some of Bruce’s allusions was to be near my computer, ready to fire up the wikipedia at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, I could work things out by how the references were used in context, but not always. The following passage left me particularly mystified:

“When the evening was over, to my surprise the owner did not assume the Eduardo Cianneli posture with the dialog that I had been conditioned to expect. Lyle Talbot always nods to Eugene Pallette: “You’ve done it again, Mr. Florenzo, this kid’s sensational! We’d better sign him before the Tio Bamba gets him.”

The book is full of name drops like Tio Bamba that don’t register with me, which distracted me a little from the overall thrust of Bruce’s narrative. I can’t really call the comedian out on this, because I’m sure that the contextual nature of his allusions went over much better at the time. They just sort of blurred together for me and I tried to look at his larger points.

Lenny Bruce is a man convinced of the power of language and he spends much of his time thinking about the way that we give words power. The first part of the autobiography sketches a few details about his childhood and time in the navy before he entered show business. Then he hits us with a few routines/anecdotes before moving in to focus on his many legal battles. I particularly enjoyed his story about posing as a priest and getting arrested for soliciting donations. It gives him a platform to talk about the slim line that can separate religion from con games. He gets particularly vitriolic toward what he sees as the hypocrisies of organized religion.

Hypocrisy in general seems to really get under Bruce’s skin. He talks at great length about how ridiculous it was for him to be brought up on obscenity charges when he was only saying what people expected to hear in a place where they had paid money to hear it. As a society we need people like Lenny Bruce chipping away at the corners of American culture. The obscenity charges were promised on the salacious quality of his jokes, and whether or not the cops who witnessed his routine had been turned on.

The latter sections of How to Talk Dirty and Influence People is devoted to his trials and what he saw as his persecution by the police. He did seem to drift along into paranoia, but as we all know that does not mean that they weren’t out to get him. The book adds to his hipster mystique and I think most modern comedians, at least those who lean toward social/political commentary, are walking down the path that Lenny Bruce paved.

2 Comments on "Obscenity and Paranoia: Lenny Bruce May Have Been Talking Dirty But I Barely Understood a Word"

  • How ironic that you tell commenters to “keep it clean and be nice,”etc, when commenting on Lenny Bruce.

    I also don’t see how he was such a positive influence, or even an important one, when the best people he could manage to inspire were people like Howard Stern; yeah, he really improved the intellectual level of comedy for the future…

  • Huh. As far as the “Be nice. Keep it clean.” stuff, that’s built into the wordpress theme and I never really thought about changing it. I suppose it is kind of ridiculous, especially for a Lenny Bruce post. Feel free to not keep it clean, if you’re so inclined.
    As for Bruce, while he wasn’t the first controversial comedian or even the most obscene, his material did go a long way toward pushing comedy into new areas. He poked and prodded around the corners of racism, hypocrisy, and religion at a time when those were seen as areas that comedy couldn’t go. He was important for pushing boundaries and saying things that most people didn’t want to hear.

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