Forty years ago, Lenny Bruce sat down and wrote a letter. Having just fired his attorney, Ephraim London, at the conclusion of his 43-day trial on obscenity charges in the New York courts, the comedian whipped off a multipage missive to Justice John Murtagh, the head of the three-justice panel deciding his case.
“Dear Judge Murtaugh,” the letter began, and after that initial misspelling, went downhill from there. Bruce asked that he be named the attorney of record for the trial. He asserted that London had withheld important evidence from the court. And then, as Ronald Collins and David Skover note in their exhaustive chronicle, “The Trials of Lenny Bruce,” he “proceeded to take the justice on a magical mystery tour through the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.”
Bruce was at the end of his rope. The cops and the courts seemed to be on a vendetta against him. No nightclub would book him. He would soon be convicted of obscenity by the New York justices, a conviction that would stand until last December, when Bruce was pardoned by New York Gov. George Pataki. By then, of course, Bruce was long dead, driven by prosecutors, paranoia and his own heroin addiction to an overdose in August 1966.
We remember Bruce today for his struggles with the courts of California, Illinois and New York, and for his ugly death. His First Amendment battles paved the way for comedians like Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and George Carlin to address the most taboo of subjects in their own routines. But with the release of “Let the Buyer Beware,” a deluxe six-CD box set produced by Hal Willner, Bruce’s own louche comedy routines are back in the spotlight.
Much of Bruce’s act was deliberately not funny, especially late in his career, when his courthouse misadventures took over his nightclub shows. (“The Lenny Bruce Performance Film,” the only widely available video of his work, is a painful chronicle of one of his final performances, spent on a point-by-point rant against Murtagh’s opinion.) But his early routines, as captured on “Let the Buyer Beware,” reveal a rapid-fire performer who combined outrageous ad-libbing with carefully honed bits and shtick. Bruce was tireless in pointing out hypocrisy — in religion, in sex, in race relations. He cursed a blue streak, eager to exploit four-letter (and 12-letter) words for their shock value while simultaneously trying to “liberate” those words from their gutter status.
And listening to him today raises the inevitable question: Who is fighting the battles — for good and ill — that Lenny Bruce fought 40 years ago? Bruce’s trials helped assure that anyone can say “cocksucker” on a nightclub stage, but who among contemporary artists is pushing the boundaries of correctness, making people angry, and exposing hypocrisy? Here’s a list of the 10 best that are out there now, and a guide to where you can catch their incendiary humor.
10. The Upright Citizens Brigade (Matt Besser/Amy Poehler/Ian Roberts/Matt Walsh)
In their Comedy Central sketch show, the Chicago-trained quartet combined a healthy distrust of authority with a taste for unlikely juxtapositions, calling to mind Bruce’s riffs on cops, judges and polite society. But it’s with the opening of their own comedy theater in New York (where, full disclosure, I occasionally perform) that the UCB has demonstrated their debt to Bruce most clearly, by making the theater a summer haven for protesters and protest comedy. The theater offered water and shelter to RNC protesters last month, and recent shows like “The Real Real World: The White House” and Adam McKay’s satire “George Bush Is a Motherfucker” obscenely skewered public figures with a vigor Bruce would’ve appreciated. (For a show schedule, go here.)
9. Louis CK
A former writer for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “The Chris Rock Show,” CK’s stand-up comedy focuses on the darker sides of sex, family and society. In this way he’s reminiscent of Bruce, whose comedy sought out the darker side in almost any issue — and often went way over the line separating dark from pitch black. Plus, one would never suspect from CK’s fringe of unruly red hair and goatee that he’s the crackpot behind “Pootie Tang.” For a taste of the shifty ferocity of CK’s humor, listen as he talks about how easy it is for people to make fun of “white trash” — “Everybody laughs at them. Do you know why everybody laughs at them? Because they’re poor, that’s why. What’s funny about them is that they’re starving to death” — and hear the audience howling with laughter. Are they laughing at the sheer meanness of his humor? Or is he slyly turning the audience into the very people he’s really making fun of? (For a show schedule and humor tracks, click here.)
8. Chris Rock
Bruce didn’t shy away from race relations; several of his most plangent bits, including “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties,” assailed white liberal racial guilt. Years later, Chris Rock would call to mind Bruce’s race talk with this riff: “There ain’t a white man in this room that would change places with me! And I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white. There’s a one-legged busboy in here right now saying, ‘I don’t want to change. I’m gonna ride this white thing out, see where it takes me.’” (Rock’s fourth HBO special, is out now on DVD.)
7. Eddie Izzard
In 1999, Izzard — best known as the manic stand-up behind the shows “Dress to Kill” and “Glorious” — played Bruce in a revival of Julian Barry’s 1970 play “Lenny” in London. Reviewers praised Izzard in the role — particularly for undercutting his own lighter spirits and injecting the role with the darkness and desperation Bruce himself brought to the stage. While Izzard’s own jokes are far more innocuous than Bruce’s (for a sample, go here to listen to his riff on “chickens”), their coming out of the mouth of a burly transvestite gives them a bit more zing. (For upcoming tours and appearances, go here.)
6. Sacha Baron Cohen
On HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” British comedian Cohen combines Lenny Bruce’s willingness to deliver discomfort with Andy Kaufman’s devilish persona-swapping. As Ali G, a clueless British rapper, or as Borat Sagdiyev, Kazakh journalist, Cohen interviews unwitting subjects like Buzz Aldrin, Jim Baker and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, forcing them into rhetorical corners by force of cluelessness. In doing so Cohen’s not afraid to make himself look bad and his targets look worse: Witness the wince-inducing recent episode in which Borat got the patrons of a Tucson, Ariz., bar to enthusiastically sing along with him: “Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by the horns/ And then we have a big party,” which sparked an investigation by the British FCC and raised the ire of the ADL against Cohen (who happens to be Jewish). Lenny Bruce — who noted that not only did Jews kill Christ but “we’ll kill Him again when He comes back” — would surely have approved. (HBO is airing reruns of the recent season of “Da Ali G Show” at various times; check schedules, or HBO’s Ali G home page.)
5. David Cross
One-half of the team behind HBO’s “Mr. Show” and a cast member on FOX’s “Arrested Development,” Cross brings to his stand-up a jittery energy and an impatience with hypocrisy that easily call Bruce to mind. A 1999 bit in which he railed against airlines’ Miles for Kids program — in which customers donate their frequent-flier miles so that sick children can take one last trip — is Brucean in its fury. Cross imagines a holding pen of terminally ill children inside the airport and plays a smiling idiot of a gate agent who refuses to board most of them: “Oh, there are empty seats on the plane, but you’d have to pay for those tickets, because nobody donated his miles. I’m sorry. Airline policy.” (“Arrested Development” airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox. For Cross’ schedule and information on his comedy recordings, including the recent “It’s Not Funny,” click here.)
4. Sarah Silverman
“Relations between black and white would be greatly improved if we were more accepting of our fears and our feelings and more vocal about it,” Silverman said in interview in the Forward last year. “When my comic friends who are black [and I] joke about race and say racist shit to each other, it makes it silly, and easy to laugh at.” To that end, Silverman — one of the creators and stars of Trio’s new “Pilot Season” — wryly spouts material that, in the hands of a less sure comic, would seem truly offensive. No, screw that — even in Silverman’s hands, her jokes are truly offensive, and that’s what would make Lenny Bruce proud. Among her many Brucean moments was the one that earned her the ire of Asian-American media watchdog groups in 2001. Called to jury duty, Silverman asks a friend how to get out of it. “My friend said, ‘Why don’t you write something inappropriate on the form, like ‘I hate chinks’? But I don’t want people to think I was racist, so I just filled out the form and I wrote ‘I love chinks.’” (“Pilot Season” will rerun in its entirety Sept. 25 and 26 on Trio.)
3. Aaron McGruder
McGruder’s comic strip, “The Boondocks,” appears in about 300 newspapers every day, and as Bruce did with stand-up comedy, McGruder is reinventing a staid pop-culture medium as a forum for rabble rousing. And just as Bruce’s anger eventually took over his act, so has McGruder’s taken over the strip; in recent months, “The Boondocks” has been so vitriolic toward the current administration as to barely qualify as entertainment. When McGruder is funny, he’s hilarious, but even when he isn’t, he’s mad as hell. Particularly reminiscent of Bruce in its mixture of the personal and the political was last October’s series in which Caesar and Huey developed a plan to save the world: Get Condoleezza Rice a boyfriend. “Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn’t be so hell-bent to destroy it.” (Read “The Boondocks” here.)
2. Rick Shapiro
Of all the comics on this list, Shapiro is the one whose style most overtly apes Bruce’s; the wiry, black-clad New York comedian/performance artist unleashes stream-of-consciousness rants reminiscent of Bruce’s most wired gigs. A former junkie and prostitute — he sells bumper stickers at his shows that read “I Sucked Dick for Heroin” — Shapiro is as famous for his breakdowns on the doorstep of fame as he is for his years of success at some of the best comedy clubs in L.A. and New York. In his latest brush with fame, a plan to reenact Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall show off-Broadway fell apart due to lack of financing; his manager quit the business the same week. Like Lenny Bruce, Rick Shapiro knows what it feels like when it all falls to shit. (For performance schedules click here.)
1. Howard Stern
Sure, Stern hardly makes the pop-culture meter move these days. Sure, his show has become a parody of itself, with a constant parade of saline-enhanced dim bulbs lining up for a cheap Web site plug in exchange for a few slaps on the ass from the King of All Media. Sure, Stern’s barely even funny. But remember what Lenny Bruce said: “I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.” Similarly, Howard Stern is no longer a shock jock. He’s Howard Stern. Howard Stern, the man who cost Clear Channel $1.75 million this spring; Howard Stern, the man who openly rips both George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey on the air; Howard Stern, just about the only celebrity actively fighting the FCC’s new indecency rules, the contemporary equivalent of those New York vice cops furiously scribbling in their notebooks at Lenny Bruce’s Cafe Au Go-Go shows more than 40 years ago. Like him or hate him — and I myself can’t stand to listen to more than three minutes of his show — you have to admit that, more than any other public figure out there, Stern is following in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce. Like Bruce, he’s furious about the hypocrisy of those attacking him; like Bruce, he’s obsessed with finding justice; and like Bruce, his career is coming to a flaming end before our eyes. (You can hear him here.)