When it comes to causing moral outrage it’s a fickle old world we live in. As a society we can at times be very selective over what can cause us to drop a knitting stich. You’re average tabloid leaps at the chance to splash its front page with headlines of sexual deviance run amok almost on a daily basis, while at the same time trying to cram the inside of the same publication with as many photographs of topless young women as is acceptable around the family breakfast table.
Turning from the breakfast table you can pop on the news and find stories of gross inequalities. Homelessness, poverty, famine, genocide, illegal wars and you’ll hardly raise an eyebrow as you gulp down the last of your Coco Pops and head off to the office.
So why is it we can get so outraged by what a comedian says? Whether it be a prank phone call or a “throwaway” line about the holocaust, we seem as a society at the moment to be on a hair trigger of knee jerk indignity at the slightest of slights.
Perhaps it’s the fact we now live in a culture of 24 hour rolling news and endless social media. Our outrage can be quickly packaged, turned up to number 10 and fed in concise little bites of affronted acerbity to the masses.
Whatever the reason. This new need for all commentary to be filtered and diluted until it’s fit for consumption by a 99 year old member of your local women’s guild while she has the clergy around for nibbles is not (in the humble opinion of this commentator) a healthy way to process the quirkiness, scatology, polemic and really naughty words of the fine art of stand up.
So rather than pander to any potential Daily Mail readers who may have wandered in here by accident I’d like here to celebrate not castigate those comedians who have ruffled the feathers of conformity. Some of them to such an extent that the conformity bird has ended up crushed to a bloody pulp on the boot of their punch lines. Whether it be a lightning in a bottle moment, a career dedicated to dissent and non-agreement or on a really good day forcing the law to be changed. Let us salute the bone pickers, agitators and violators.
Lenny Bruce Takes the Power From the Racist…
Jewish American comedian Lenny Bruce (1925 to 1966) was the Big Bang for outspoken comedians, the ground zero of boundary pushers and the spark that lit a fire of comedic combative belligerence. On his own he practically invented the template for the outspoken stand ups that followed in his wake, paving the way for many that came after him. In 2004 comedy Central named him number three on a list of the 100 Greatest Stand Ups of all Time, placing him above George Carlin and Woody Allen.
In his short but blazing career he was among other things arrested for impersonating a priest and embezzling funds, drug possession and on several occasions for breaking obscenity laws. One such arrest being in Sydney Australia where he walked on stage and announced “what a fucking wonderful audience.” only then to have his mike cut and be escorted from the theatre. Surely a record for shortest gig ever! He died of a heroin overdose aged 40. As you can probably tell from this introduction he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as a McIntyre or a Bishop.
Bruce honed his craft working as the master of ceremonies in strip clubs in the San Fernando Valley, where he would work his routines into the gaps between introducing the strippers. It sounds seedy and low because that’s exactly what it was. But it also provided a perfect environment for him to develop his routines, freeing him from the inhibitions of a more mainstream audience and more importantly club owners who may have become anxious about content.
The main thrust of Bruce’s routines covered politics, religion and sex. But in a style that still sounds provocative now. You can but imagine the impact that would have on the far more conservative ears of the late 50’s and early 60’s.
As mentioned Bruce was arrested several times on obscenity charges. The last couple of times were In April 1964, when he appeared twice at the Café Au Go Go in that most bohemian of quarters Greenwich Village. On the first arrest you could maybe forgive Lenny for being caught out by the undercover detectives who were in the audience that night. They arrested and charged him on his use of various obscenities. A lesson learned? Nope. He then went straight back out the next night and repeated all the offending obscenities. This again resulting in him being arrested on the same charge. Belligerence or a dignified stance against censorship you can make up your own mind. But posthumously it would be Lenny who had the last laugh.
The convictions were announced and despite a large petition from various writers and artists including Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer, Lenny was found guilty on December 21st 1964. He was sentenced to four months in a workhouse. After the trial he was set free on bail, but the events bankrupted him and may have contributed to a decline in health and lifestyle. He died in 1966 before the appeal was decided and his conviction was never stricken…
Until… on December 23, 2003, 37 years after his death, New York Governor George Pataki granted Bruce a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction. They might have won the battles, but in the end Lenny won the war.
As you’ve maybe noted this segment is titled “Lenny Bruce Takes the Power from The Racist.” This is in reference to a famous routine of his in which he attempts to disempower the language of racism. Although this would later be tackled by others such as Richard Pryor and in 80’s Hip Hop culture it’s an interesting historical footnote that he was never arrested for the words used in this routine, yet was arrested for saying shmuck, a Jewish reference to penis.
I’ve decided to print the routine in full. 1. To show an example of the power of his work. 2. To see if I can get arrested.
Lenny Bruce on Racist language.
“Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? “Are there any niggers here tonight?” I know there’s one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let’s see, there’s two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kyke. And there’s another kyke— that’s two kykes and three niggers. And there’s a spic. Right? Hmm? There’s another spic. Ooh, there’s a wop; there’s a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there’s three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there’s one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kykes here, do I hear five kykes? I got five kykes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kykes, three guineas, and one wop.
Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, “I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” to every nigger he saw, “boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,” “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”