Friday, November 20, 2009

Lenny Bruce Without Tears - 1972 Documentary

Lenny Bruce was to stand-up comedy what Sir Isaac Newton was to mathematics: he may not have invented it, but he sure as hell owned it. The Fred Baker documentary, Lenny Bruce Without Tears (1972), brings a fascinating, sympathetic, unvarnished portrait of Lenny to audiences who may have never heard of him.

Lenny revolutionized stand-up comedy by bringing to the stage a level of honesty, razor wit and social satire that was so cutting and controversial, that by the 1960s, police routinely observed his performances and sometimes arrested him right on stage. The charges against Lenny? Obscenity. It was the time of "Uncle Milty" and I Love Lucy, and bringing the issues of the day to the nightclub stage with frank, unprettied langauge, was virtually unheard of.

Against a backdrop of stock film footage, Fred Baker lets Lenny speak for himself, running long excerpts from Lenny's numerous albums while hilariously timed images - from cowboy, football and historical movies, as well as news footage of politicians and military leaders - flit across the screen. All Lenny ever wanted to do was make his own case for his act. Fred Baker afforded him that opportunity, albeit, too late.

Time Magazine referred to Lenny Bruce as a "sick comic," and much of the press jumped onto that superficial bandwagon. Ever after, Lenny battled the semantic trap of "bad taste," ably, articulately, humorously defending himself in his nightclub act. Lenny was deemed "sick" because he held up a mirror to a sick society. Audiences got it. The authorities wanted to kill the messenger.

Born in Mineola, New York in 1925, and named Leonard Alfred Schneider, Lenny was once asked by a police officer, "If your name's really 'Schneider' whyja change it to 'Bruce'?" Lenny replied, "Because 'Schneider' sounded too Hollywood."

In speaking about modern life - sexuality, drug use, racism, and the hypocrisy rampant in organized religion - Lenny packed audiences into nightclubs, some of them undercover police. What commonly occurred was that Lenny's show would be attended by a plainclothes police officer who would make note of each "dirty" word uttered by Lenny. "He sees my show at eleven o'clock at night," Lenny described from a San Francisco stage near the end of his life, "and then does the act for a judge at eleven o'clock the next morning. The cop bombs, but I get busted!"

He called his routines "bits", and among the best of Lenny's bits was called "Christ and Moses," in which he imagined Jesus Christ and Moses returning to modern America of the 1960s, and what they'd find: the opulence of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, the $8,000 ring on the finger of Cardinal Spellman.

Another bit titled "Religions, Inc.," satirized religious leaders of the day -- among them Billy Graham and Orel Roberts -- and carrying on as though at a business meeting.

On the subject of media's influence on children, Lenny once said, "I'd prefer my kid watch a stag movie rather than 'King of Kings.' Because there's killing in 'King of Kings' and I don't want my kid to kill Christ when he comes back."

Regarding racism and bigotry, Lenny once said to an audience, "You and I know what a Jew is" -- Lenny was Jewish -- "one who killed the Lord." He then took the satire further: rather than trying to reason with that faulty, ridiculous logic, he decided to confess: "We did it, I did it -- my family did it. We found a note in the basement that said, 'We did Him in,' signed Morty."

Lenny was considered "dirty" in America, but in Canada and Europe he was regarded as a satirist on par with Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. London Observer critic, Kenneth Tynan, was among his proponents, as were the young cast of comedians who would ultimately become Monty Python. In the end, though, Lenny was deported from England and from Australia because the establishment simply felt too threatened by his comedy.

By 1964, Lenny had been arrested more than a dozen times and had cases pending in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. He began arguing his legal case on the nightclub stage. Nightclub owners across the country were threatened by authorities not to book Lenny Bruce. At one point, authorities took away his cabaret card, rendering him unable to work.

The trials and the lawyers and legal arguments exhausted Lenny, who never gave up hope that if he just perform his act before a judge, everything would be solved. But courts do not work in such a straightforward manner. To the end, Lenny believed in the power of words, but the judicial system kept him from harnessing them to bring his argument to the fore in any meaningful way.

After years of countless arrests and court battles across the country, Lenny Bruce died of a morphine overdose on August 3, 1966. He was immediately enshrined as a secular saint in popular culture, as "Father Bruce," in a Jefferson Airplane song, and a song about him appeared on Bob Dylan's late 70s album, Saved. Only a few years after his passing, stage plays of his life and act and comedy were performed to rave reviews and packed theaters. In 1974, Bob Fosse directed Dustin Hoffman in a bio pic titled Lenny.

Fred Baker's documentary Lenny Bruce Without Tears delivers what it promises -- an uncompromising look at one of the most brilliant and controversial public figures in the later part of the 20th century. It's not a sentimental, hero worshipping look at Lenny, but a fitting eptiaph for a comedian who left the world much changed from how he'd found it at the beginning of his 40-year life.

Lenny found his voice and vision as an MC in third rate strip clubs, introducing dancers and doing shtick in between acts. Since the audience was there to see the strippers, Lenny found he could say anything that came to mind and always got the same reaction: no reaction. After a while, though, he found that he was consistently cracking up the band, jazzmen earning stale pay checks accompanying the dancers.

By the late 1950s, Lenny was headlining in nightclubs in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. He took his act from his daily life, commenting items in the news, and generally riffing on the hypocrisies of the day.

The film opens with Lenny entering an office in what appears to be a courthouse. There are fans and observers and even a camera crew on hand. When asked by a voice offscreen what the purpose of his visit is, Lenny states, "I'd like to report a crime."

No comments: