When Lenny Bruce overdosed in 1966, he left behind an impressive legacy of edgy, politically charged comedy. Four short years later, a new breed of comic, inspired by Bruce's artistic fearlessness, made telling jokes an art form, forever putting to rest the stereotype of the one-liner borscht belt set. During the 1970s, a small group of brilliant, iconoclastic comedians, led by George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Robert Klein, tore through the country and became as big as rock stars in an era when Saturday Night Live and SCTV were the apotheosis of cool, and the Improv and Catch a Rising Star were the hottest clubs around. That a new wave of innovative comedians, like Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Robin Williams, and Andy Kauffman followed closely behind only cemented comedy's place as one of the most important art forms of the decade. In Comedy at the Edge, Richard Zoglin explores in depth this ten-year period when comedians stood, with microphone in hand, at the white-hot center of popular culture, stretching the boundaries of the genre, fighting obscenity laws, and becoming the collective voices of their generation. In the process, they revolutionized an art form. Based on extensive interviews with club owners, booking agents, groupies, and the players themselves, Zoglin traces the decade's tumultuous arc in this no-holds barred, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most influential decades in American popular culture.
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About the Author
Richard Zoglin is a senior editor and writer at Time, also serving as the resident television and film critic. In his 20 years covering entertainment for the magazine, he has written cover stories on Bill Cosby, David Letterman, Diane Sawyer, and Arsenio Hall, among others; and done major pieces on Jerry Seinfeld and Johnny Carson. He lives in New York City.
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Comedy at the Edge
By Richard Zoglin Bloomsbury Copyright © 2008 Richard Zoglin
All right reserved.
Chapter One After Lenny
If God made the body and the body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer. -Lenny Bruce
The police paddy wagon was a fitting place for two comedy renegades-one under siege for his "obscene" material, the other just along for the ride-to run into each other.
Lenny Bruce and George Carlin had met before. Indeed, Bruce had played an important role in the younger comedian's early career. When Carlin was still a radio DJ in Los Angeles, developing a comedy act with his drive-time partner, Jack Burns, Bruce came to see them at a Hollywood coffeehouse called Cosmo Alley and liked them well enough to get his talent agency to sign the team. Now, a couple of years later, Carlin was striking out on his own as a solo act, doing a gig at the Playboy Club in downtown Chicago. Bruce was appearing just down the street at the Gate of Horn, a popular folk-music club where Carlin used to buy pot, and after his own show was done, Carlin would walk the few blocks to catch Bruce's late show.
It was just after midnight on December 6, 1962, and Bruce was showing some of the strain of his mounting legal troubles. In just the previous two months he had been arrested three times: once for drug possession and twice for obscenity during an engagement at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. He came onstage that night in Chicago wearing a raincoat over a pajama top and rumpled jeans (he wore the coat, he said, so he'd be ready to go in case the cops arrested him). Just as he was getting into a bit about marijuana, two plainclothes policemen in the audience stood up, announced, "The show is over, ladies and gentlemen," and placed Bruce under arrest.
Carlin, downing beers at a table with a friend from the folk group the Terriers, was pretty loaded by this time, and when the cops, looking for underage patrons, made everyone in the club show ID as they filed out, Carlin mouthed off. The next thing he knew, he was being hustled into the same paddy wagon where Bruce, the club's owner, and a couple of others were waiting.
"What are you doin' here?" Bruce asked when he saw the younger comic.
"I told the cops I didn't believe in ID," Carlin said.
"Shmuck," Bruce replied.
Bruce was convicted of obscenity in Chicago two months later, another chapter in the long-running courtroom drama that, over the next few years, depleted his finances and virtually destroyed his career. Carlin saw him just once more-in the summer of 1966, when Carlin and his wife, Brenda, paid Bruce a visit at his crumbling Hollywood Hills home, where the pool was filled with leaves and the living room strewn with law books. A few weeks later, on August 3, 1966, he was found dead in his bathroom of a morphine overdose.
For most of America, Lenny Bruce's death was not much more than a lurid Hollywood headline. Time magazine dismissed him in a twenty-line obituary, describing him as a "leading outpatient of the sick-comic school," who "viewed life as a four-letter word and, with gestures, commented blackly on it." But for Carlin and a new generation of comics who revered Bruce and learned from him, his death touched off a creative explosion that would echo through the 1970s, move stand-up comedy to the very center of contemporary culture, and define the shape of a distinctly American art form.
And it all started with Lenny Bruce.
Or did it? Hailed for his daring social commentary and harassed for his dirty words, idolized by a devoted coterie of fans and beset by paranoia and drug problems, eulogized in books, films, documentaries, stage plays, and the liner notes in countless reissues of his often haphazardly recorded performances, Lenny Bruce, the man and comedian, has long since been obscured by his legend. To understand just why he was the founding father of modern stand-up comedy, that legend needs a bit of cleaning up.
Bruce was, to begin with, just one of a pioneering generation of stand-up comics who in the 1950s and '60s collectively made a clean break with the old one-liner-dominated style of the borscht belt comics. Unlike these old tummlers, with their interchangeable mother-in-law jokes, the new-wave comics-Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, as well as Bruce-wrote their own material, developed highly individual styles, and put stand-up, for the first time, in touch with the real world. From Sahl's political gibes to Nichols and May's pas de deux of modern angst, they showed that stand-up comedy could be hip, personal, politically provocative, and psychologically subtle.
Bruce was hardly (to get this heresy out of the way first) the funniest of the lot. Not during his peak years and certainly not now, when so much of his material sounds dated and heavy-handed. His battles against the protectors of public decency, to be sure, helped knock down barriers to free speech and led the way to a more open popular culture, where four-letter words, nudity, and sexual candor would soon become accepted, even second nature. No other comedian (or any other American entertainer, for that matter) again faced anything close to the legal harassment that Bruce did. But even that does not get at the core of Bruce's impact-the reason why he was the indispensable comedian for a new generation of stand-up comics.
He was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925, in Mineola, Long Island, the son of mismatched Jewish parents: a conservative, British-born father who sold shoes, and a live-wire showbiz mother who worked as a comedian in burlesque under the stage name Sally Marr. His parents divorced when he was eight, and Lenny grew up mostly with his father, a stern disciplinarian whom he grew to resent, while his mother, who gave him his irreverent point of view, took him on outings to burlesque houses from the age of twelve. After running away from home and spending two years working on a chicken ranch in rural Long Island, he enlisted in the Navy at age seventeen. He served on the cruiser Brooklyn, which saw action during World War II, before wrangling a discharge by convincing a Navy psychiatrist that he had homosexual tendencies.
After the war, Bruce began doing comedy in small-time clubs around New York and made his national debut on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts radio show in October 1948-introduced by his mother and playing a German mimic doing impressions of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. After moving to L.A., he worked as an emcee in seedy strip clubs, where he would try anything to get the customers' attention: feigning epileptic fits onstage, making fake phone calls from the stage to the wives of men in the audience, miming getting a blow job from a hand puppet behind the curtain. One night, as a stripper was ending her act, Bruce topped her by walking onstage stark naked.
Eventually he moved up to more respectable, beat-era clubs like Ann's 440 in San Francisco and New York's Den in the Duane and began to gain an underground reputation. A tight-wound, darkly handsome man with a jabbing laugh that punctuated his stream-of-consciousness monologues, Bruce did everything from old-movie parodies (his repertoire of impressions ranged from Bela Lugosi to George Macready) to slash-and-burn social commentary that took aim at society's hypocrisy and hang-ups about sex, morality, religion, and race. He imagined Adolf Hitler getting advice from a Hollywood image consultant and spoofed Lawrence Welk being introduced to drugs by the members of his band. He psychoanalyzed the Lone Ranger, the western hero too proud to wait for a thank-you (suggesting that the Masked Man and Tonto were more than just law enforcement partners), and satirized the way white people condescend to blacks at parties. He envisioned Christ and Moses showing up at St. Patrick's Cathedral and wondering why Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem are living forty to a room while Cardinal Spellman "has a ring on worth eight grand." He mused about Eleanor Roosevelt's breasts and suggested that Jackie Kennedy, after the assassination, wasn't trying to save her husband by climbing on that car trunk but simply "hauling ass to save her ass." He tweaked society's fear of nudity, arguing that "if God made the body and the body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer." He got up in front of a nightclub audience and blurted, "Are there any niggers here?" Then, after a silent gasp from the crowd, he explained that "if it was nothing but 'nigger, nigger, nigger,' in six months 'nigger' wouldn't mean any more than 'good night,' 'God bless you,' or 'I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.'" Dick Gregory, the African American stand-up comic, was seeing Bruce for the first time in 1962 when he heard that bit; he turned to his companion and said, "This man is the eighth wonder of the world."
"I'm a surgeon with a scalpel for false values," Bruce once said. Jazz critics like Ralph J. Gleason and Nat Hentoff were early champions. "Others josh, snipe, and rib," wrote the British critic Kenneth Tynan; "only Bruce demolishes." But his raw language and incendiary satire made him a pariah for much of mainstream showbiz. "He airs the lowest thoughts I have ever heard on a stage," wrote one early columnist. He was all but blackballed on television; Steve Allen, who regarded him as a genius, was one of the few who would book him. His career probably hit its peak in February 1961 when he played Carnegie Hall, packing the house for a midnight concert in the middle of a blizzard. It was mostly downhill from there. In October of that same year, he was arrested for saying "cocksucker" onstage at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, the beginning of a string of arrests for his allegedly indecent material. He was acquitted of the San Francisco offense, but after three later convictions (in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York), nightclubs stopped booking him because they were afraid of getting busted too. Defiant to the end, still getting a few gigs but overwhelmed by his legal problems and money woes, Bruce died a broken man.
For a younger generation of comedians, however, Lenny Bruce became a renegade role model: the comedian who showed the possibilities of an art form that suddenly seemed cool and consequential. George Carlin, who was working as a DJ in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he first heard Bruce on record, was impressed by "the honesty, the fact that he didn't ignore or avoid unpleasant truths or realities. That told me that you could tell your own truth-and you might even think of it as the larger truth-and that you could make it entertaining and interesting and a bit daring." Robert Klein, just graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and starting to think about a comedy career, saw Bruce's monologues as proof that comedy could "not only make people laugh; it was social criticism. How to entertain your colored friends at parties, his bits about religion-it was so hip for the 1950s. It was an eye-opening thing."
Richard Lewis was "thunderstruck" when he was introduced to Bruce's records by a professor at Ohio State University. "It was so fearless, so insightful," says Lewis, who instantly put Bruce alongside Joseph Heller and J. D. Salinger on his shelf of cultural heroes. David Steinberg, a Yeshiva student in Chicago who would soon join Second City, saw Bruce live at the Gate of Horn and was impressed by his jazzlike verbal riffs-and the way he sprinkled his monologues with Yiddish expressions, even esoteric ones that Steinberg had never heard outside of the family dinner table. Barry Levinson, who was part of a stand-up comedy team in Los Angeles before he began writing and directing movies like Diner, was knocked out when he went with his friends to see Bruce at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore. "He started to talk about chipping in for gas money," Levinson recalls. "I remember thinking, he's talking just like we would be sitting around and bullshitting at the diner. Everything we had in our minds would come out of his mouth. It was a defining moment."
Joan Rivers, who was inspired more by Bruce than by any of the few female comics who were around when she started doing stand-up in the early '60s, points out one facet of his appeal that rarely gets mentioned (usually because the mentioning is done by men): in contrast to most of the nebbishy stars of the stand-up world at the time, "he was sexy." Even that least Bruce-ian of post-Bruce comedians, Jerry Seinfeld, dates his discovery that stand-up could be a viable career option to reading a passage in Albert Goldman's biography Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! In a fictionalized reconstruction of a day in Bruce's life, Goldman has Lenny on the phone with his mother, talking about his club gig the previous night. "Show went good," he says. "Did a new piece of material." Seinfeld's reaction: "I said to myself, 'You mean it's not all new bits? You mean it's all crafted out and worked on?' It was the lightbulb moment for me."
Heard today, unfortunately, most of Bruce's best-known routines aren't great advertisements for his talent. "Religions, Inc.," his acid re-creation of a Madison Avenue-style meeting of evangelical leaders, was a brave piece of commentary, a swipe at commercialized religion that was years ahead of its time. But as comedy, the juvenile one-liners must have seemed ham-handed even then. (Phone call to the pope: "Billy wants to know if you can get him a deal on one of those Dago sports cars ... When you comin' to the Coast? ... Don't worry, nobody knows you're Jewish.") His famous exposé of white liberal hypocrisy, "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties," is another groundbreaking bit whose satire is hammered home without much finesse. ("That Bojangles, Christ could he tap dance. You tap dance a little yourself? All you people can tap dance.") "Comic at the Palladium," his twenty-minute account of a hack Vegas comic bombing onstage in London, is the ur-satire of the old-school Vegas jokesters, the sort of entertainers Bruce se t out to bury. But next to the sharper showbiz parody that was to follow from Robert Klein, Albert Brooks, and others, it today seems flabby and obvious.
In his later years Bruce stopped doing most of these scripted routines in favor of more free-flowing, free-association monologues that many compared to jazz improvisations. His celebrated 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, a two-hour stream-of-consciousness splurge on everything from religion and politics to fellow comedians and a recent hip operation, was hailed by Goldman, his biographer, as "the finest all-round performance of his career. Brilliant, vivid, spontaneous, variegated, moody, honest, fantastic, and incredibly candid." To which one could add, a real mess: half-finished sentences, digressions on digressions, hipster lingo, and Yiddish slang so out of control that, at times, Bruce doesn't appear even to be performing for the band; he seems to be talking to himself. (Fred Willard, who was in the audience that night, says many people in the crowd had trouble even hearing him.)
And yet, it was in performances like these that Bruce's real achievement could best be seen. He broke down the old setup-punch line structure of stand-up comedy. And he held back nothing. Everything got tossed into the performance Mixmaster: social criticism, political commentary, pop culture satire, snatches of autobiography, sexual confessions, personal gripes, public hectoring, today's headlines, and yesterday's trip to the laundry. All of it was out there on the stage, raw and unfiltered-everything that he knew, thought, hated, remembered, or could dream up.
This was something new. The old-school comics told jokes that bore little, if any, relation to their "real" lives, feelings, or political views. The new-wave satirists of the '50s were more personal and more connected to the world around them, but they were relatively one-dimensional performers who kept a certain distance from the audience. Mort Sahl, perched on a stool with his ever-present newspaper, came across as an acerbic college professor, lecturing from afar. Bob Newhart, playing such characters as a harried driving instructor or the watchman on duty the night King Kong climbs the Empire State Building, created an instantly recognizable comic persona-the beleaguered Organization Man-but left the audience to wonder just how closely that character matched the real-life Bob Newhart. Nichols and May did biting, beautifully crafted bits about modern relationships, but they were essentially translating sketch material to the standup stage. Even Woody Allen, who drew comedy out of his own real-life neuroses and sexual insecurities, had far more of the old-style jokemeister in him than we often remember. ("I cheated on my metaphysics final. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.")
Excerpted from Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin Copyright © 2008 by Richard Zoglin. Excerpted by permission.
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