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by
Kathy Shaidle

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December 31, 2011 - 1:13 am

2. LENNY BRUCE

Stuff that happens to kids in the dark can mess with their minds forever….

Back in the early 1970s, the exchange rate was so upside down that if you were a Canadian who lived close enough and wanted to save a ton of money, you drove across the border to Buffalo to go shopping.

My grandmother dragged me along on some of these jaunts, where she’d stock up on weird tasting off-brand toothpaste because it was 42 cents, while my grandfather drank beer in extremely dark bars with “ladies’ entrances.”

Once she bought a ring from a guy on the street and tested to see if it was a real diamond by raking it across a department store window.

Another day, it rained. Really hard. To get out of the downpour, we ducked into a movie theater.

Doing the math, I must have been 10 or 11 years old, and why they let me in, I don’t know.

Because the movie was Lenny.

I had no business watching an “R” rated movie, especially one that ends with (admittedly unerotic) male full frontal nudity.

I loved how this kind of cute Lenny Bruce guy kept getting into so much trouble, and you better believe I absorbed the message of Lenny: the troublemaker was the good guy, the cool guy, the guy who people made a movie about after he died.

I didn’t laugh at the jokes in Lenny and for a long time figured that was because I was ten. Then I got older and read books by and about Lenny Bruce, and later, heard and saw him thanks to the miracle of the internet.

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And I was forced to admit that Lenny Bruce wasn’t really that funny. (Except for “Poor Vaughn Meader” – a cosmic once-in-a-death-time opportunity.)

But only to myself. Until – again, internet, miracle, etc. – I found out I wasn’t alone.

It’s become acceptable now to explain that of course Lenny Bruce wasn’t funny but he was “important” and “courageous” and so on:

In theory, what director John Magnuson shot at the Basin Street West in San Francisco was an hour of Bruce doing stand-up. In reality, Bruce delivered something closer to a long-form conceptual art piece about a zonked-out free-speech lawyer: one part legal rebuttal, one part self-reflexive critique. In lieu of telling any actual jokes, Bruce read descriptions of the jokes that got him convicted of obscenity in 1964. As Bruce wanders the stage, his mind wanders through the trial transcript; by the time he’s chaotically and haphazardly reading the part of the suit that describes his act as “chaotic and haphazard,” he has achieved new heights of meta.

Ah, “meta” —  art “that has a nice personality…”

Here’s the thing:

The received wisdom from on high when I was a punk was: “Well, the Sex Pistols can’t play their instruments, but they’re important because they’re pushing boundaries and shocking the bourgeoisie.”

Trouble is: the Sex Pistols (except for Sid Vicious) actually could play their instruments. Steve Jones turned out to be a hell of a guitarist, and few frontmen have equaled John Lydon, before or since. Their only album is one of the great debuts in rock history, and remains – yes – listenable today, over — God help me — almost 35 years later.

Lenny Bruce? Not that:

Part of the reason is that Bruce’s targets — organized religion, politicians, sexual hypocrisy, racism — long ago lost whatever widespread, uncritical support they once might have enjoyed. (To be sure, Bruce himself contributed to this.) Part of the reason is that Bruce’s insistence on his didactic function — “I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values,” he used to say — transformed him into an adults-only version of the tedious magazine Highlights for Children, whose subtitle threatens to deliver “Fun With a Purpose.”

For the most part, the name of Lenny Bruce is never to be taken in vain, however, and is tossed about as a talisman, almost as freely as the curse words he helped make acceptable. Talk radio fanatic Camille Paglia has gamely tried to convince her fellow Democrats that Rush “Limbaugh, like our own liberal culture hero Lenny Bruce, is a professional commentator who can be as rude and crude as he wants.”

I’d add that Rush is funnier.

(Also? Liberal hero Jon Stewart employs a stable of writers to help him do a hour of taped comedy five days a week. Limbaugh? Live, three hours a day, five days a week, 20-plus years – all by himself.)

And yeah, again with the Nehru jacket.

The good news is that Lenny Bruce died before he could get any less funny. Or grow a long grey ponytail…

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