October 13, 2009KR BlogKR

Kenyon Review Readers — Lenny Bruce!!

Ten or so years ago, at the University of Washington, I taught a course titled “That’s Not Funny!” We looked at writers who elicit difficult laughs: Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, Amy Hempel. And we studied (if that’s the right word) stand-up comics: Richard Pryor, Sandra Bernhard, Lenny Bruce. In what qualifies as one of my more awkward classroom memories, we devoted two hours to Bob Fosse’s 1974 film Lenny and watched a much-too-slow sex scene between Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine. Now it’s the early hours of October 13th — Lenny Bruce’s birthday — and I’m searching for that scene on YouTube.


Instead I find Lenny Bruce Without Tears, which I can “Watch Instantly” on Netflix. [Abandon blog; watch film.] Three observations:

(1) When Lenny walks onto Steve Allen’s stage, he looks — and moves — remarkably like Pee Wee Herman. Was Paul Reubens borrowing from America’s “sick comic” as much as from Pinky Lee?

(2) Kenneth Tynan is wonderfully at home with hyperbole. About Lenny, he says, “At his best, he rises above mere evangelism and moral fervor into flights of fantasy, unscalable skyscrapers of sheer wit and baroque invention that as far as I know have never had any rivals on the English-speaking stage.” (In his Foreword to Lenny’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Tynan writes that Lenny “is seldom funny without an ulterior motive. You squirm as you smile.”)

(3) When asked about his motivation for getting on stage, Lenny answers, “It’s fun to say a poem in front of everyone.” And he’s serious; he lights up like a little boy. Then he gets up and dances an “American folk dance.” Then, in a jarring cut, he’s lying in a doorway — dead, naked.

John Limon, in his 2000 study Stand-Up Comedy in Theory or, Abjection in America, claims that comedy arises from “a psychic worrying of those aspects of oneself that one cannot be rid of . . . blood, urine, feces, nails, and the corpse.” Limon gives an example of one of Lenny’s routines that convulsed the audience in laughter for an astonishing seventeen seconds: “If you’ve, er, [pause] ever seen this bit before, I want you to tell me. Stop me if you’ve seen it. [Long pause] I’m going to piss on you.” Limon writes, “What the audience is finding funny is that it finds this funny.”

Lenny also pissed on bigots, on hypocrites, on religious cranks. Do any of today’s comics possess the moral authority to do the same? (If only I were asking the question sixteen months ago. RIP, Mr. Carlin.) On the back cover of this month’s Poetry, I see a line from Fernando Pessoa: “No superior man deigns to grant other people’s opinion such importance that he’d bother to contradict it.” And I wonder if that gives the Birthers and the Beck crowd too much rope. Jon Stewart recently challenged Obama in ways that were both funny and bracing. Like Leonard Schneider, Jonathan Leibowitz holds both sides accountable.

Here’s a joke from The Official Lenny Bruce Web Site. (The site has a puzzling subheading: “The only website approved by Lenny Bruce’s daughter Kitty.” Does Kitty not approve of Salon? Of Slate?)

A lot of people say to me, “Why did you kill Christ?” “I dunno . . . it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know.” “We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.”

Happy birthday, Lenny Bruce.