Lenny Bruce: A stinging voice of conscience who told it like it is

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He would have turned 80 this month. And in our time of ill-lived religious fanatics and retrograde policy planners, we feel his loss all the more.

Lenny Bruce, brilliant U.S. satirist and comedian, pointed his whip and lashed out at America's hypocrites, whether high-toned charlatans of the church or "some of my best friends are Negro" liberals.

His heyday was the decade between 1955 and 1965, when several leading stand-up comics turned philosophical and radical. But even his contemporaries such as Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart and the comic duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, were much more in a mold that would give shape to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen: gentle lampooners of the middle class and its newfound suburban neuroses.

Lenny Bruce began that way, performing in the "alpine borscht belt" of the Catskills in New York State, but soon he was confronting America with its dark underside, turning the tables on the country's self-righteous scam-artist leaders. He challenged virtually every taboo, openly using "offensive" language and denouncing racial and religious bigotry.

"If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago," he said, "Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses."

He sent up evangelist Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman of New York to the high heavens, and did a hilarious shtick about the Pope in which the pontiff calls him from Rome, and Lenny says, "Yes, operator, I'll accept the charges."

"Every day people are straying away from the Church . . . and going back to God" was his way of pointing out how far the established Church itself had strayed from original faith.

I listened to a great many old routines of Lenny Bruce in preparation for this article, and they are still as funny and relevant as ever.

In one, he is in conversation with a black man at a party. Trying to be nice and liberal, he exposes the patronizing prejudices of the white community.

"Hey, all of you people can tap dance," he tells the black man. "Want somethin' to eat? They got watermelon and fried chicken."

But the thing that incensed the stalwarts more than anything else was his use of language. If you want to hear an offensive word, he said, " 'segregation' -- that offends me."

"Take away the right to say 'fuck' and you take away the right to say 'fuck the government.' " Lenny Bruce would be amused (if that's the word) by our world today, where a vice president of the United States can get away with what he was arrested for....

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Vernon Clayson - 10/8/2005

We don't miss Lenny Bruce as we have Bill Maher, our own foul-mouthed, ugly and perverse commentator now.
As compared to Bill Maher, Lenny Bruce is as a choir singer to today's rapsters who are also foul-mouthed, ugly and perverse.

Daniel Piazza - 10/5/2005

I always thought Bruce was just a foul-mouthed, anti-Catholic, drug crazed fool. I didn't realize he was, in fact, a "voice of conscience" and a "brilliant satirist."

I stand corrected.

It's just too bad that his legendary sensitivity toward blacks didn't extend to Roman Catholics, whose institutions he vilified, clergy he mocked, and faithful he ridiculed.

Why is hnn wasting time on this dreck anyway?

Mr. Hellmann - 10/5/2005