Saturday, 9 August 2014

THANK YOU MASK MAN: GOODBYE LENNY BRUCE



This week saw the 48th anniversary of the death of American comic Lenny Bruce. I learned this from Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!! a 1974 biography of Bruce by Albert Goldman based on the journalism of Lawrence Schiller. If you like Lenny Bruce, or are interested in 1950s America, the book is mandatory.

Goldman makes the words swing on the page as a perfect complement to an artist performing in an age when comedy wasn’t the new rock ‘n’ roll but the new jazz. And, like jazz, Bruce’s audience were looking for the risqué, a flirtation with taboo, a walk on the wild side.

 

“Yes, Lenny’s hot now. He did business at that dump, the Duane. But this is not a little cocktail place. Here is a very chic club for middle-aged people who live on Sutton Place and come by after the show to drink a Scotch and Perrier and see a couple of French or English acts, something witty, clever, sophisticated. Lenny Bruce is different. He’s with obscenities and fast talking and inside humour and hostility. People will be offended. There’ll be walkouts.”

 

In an age made tiresome by the offence industry, we find it difficult to understand what offence genuinely meant for early baby-boomer America. If Bruce played a London comedy club tonight with his bits about ‘queers’ and ‘cocksuckers’ and ‘spades’, any walkouts would represent a criticism of derogatory language used about minorities. When Bruce was playing to sophisticated 1950s wine-and-diners, any walkouts would be because Bruce had reminded them that those minorities even existed. And this reminder had to come from a wise-cracking, irreverent Jew. It could not have come from any other quarter of American society, a society which, Goldman writes, “more than any society since Ancient Rome has taken show business as the symbol of its national values.”

Bruce was controversial in a way we can’t imagine. The police attended his shows despite receiving no complaints from the public. He was routinely arrested and harassed. He ended his life obsessed with the law, reading constantly and becoming conversant with obscenity precedent.

Now that the chattering classes are unshockable outside the strict cordon sanitaire they have thrown around the minorities – ethnic, sexual, religious, gender-based – there could not be a Lenny Bruce. Instead, we have Russell Brand.

It seems significant that 1950s America had Lenny Bruce and we have Russell Brand. Another famous ex-junkie, Brand is not hassled in the street by vengeful cops looking to bust a bigmouth in the news. Instead, he is lionised and pawed over at government committees on drug abuse, staunchly defending the idea that addiction is a medical condition and not a lifestyle choice. He clashed with Peter Hitchens over this and, while for me Hitchens won the argument at a stroll, Brand employed all his childish cultural prestidigitation to twit Hitchens and claim a victory for hip. But Russell Brand is not hip. He is a deeply unfunny multi-millionaire. Lenny Bruce was trying to rustle up cash to score even when he’d made it. Also, Bruce was surprisingly anxious about being disliked on a moral plane. He wrote to trial judges imploring them not to judge him morally. It is a certainty, for me, that Lenny Bruce would not have left the salacious messages on an old man’s tape machine, as Brand and Jonathan Ross did. But Brand could not perform a piece based on Adolf Eichmann – chilling, genius - and make it work. Und we made them into soap…

The other main theme of the book is Bruce’s crippling drug habit, and this is truly shocking even in our jaded times. Bruce was a phenomenal junkie who could have given Johnny Thunders a run for his money. He would shoot anything, and these are the sections of the book – and there are many of them – that are hardest to take. The topography of the junkie, all puncture marks, embolisms and sores, is dwelt on. If there is such a thing as a ‘war on drugs’, the book’s sections on Bruce and his habit ought to be included as a deterrent. Eventually, and inevitably, it killed him, and Goldman is firmly on the side of the conspiracy theorists concerning Bruce’s corpse, bloated and punctured in his Hollywood bathroom. The setting, said Bruce’s friends, was all wrong for a Lenny shoot ‘em up, too organised, missing chaos. A police officer at the scene is said to have shown friends of Bruce photographs of the corpse. “I thought you might like to see these. They could make one helluva album cover.”

My own introduction to Lenny Bruce came seven years ago when I chanced across The Trials of Lennie Bruce by Ronald Collins and David Skover. In the back sleeve of this book – drier than Goldman and Schiller but no less informative – was tucked a free CD, narrated by Nat Hentoff, which featured snippets of Bruce live. It was the first time I had heard Bruce, and so my introduction to Thank You Mask Man, one of the most famous bits by the self-titled ‘Superjew’.

In this skit, the grateful townspeople demand to know why The Lone Ranger never waits around for a ‘thankyou’ after he has saved them. Kimosabe reasons that he would have neither the time nor the inclination to save them at all if he spent all day receiving gratitude. However, for them, he tries it, and is soon obsessed.

 

“'Thankyou Mask Man.' Mmm, I like that. I’m going to get a book. I’ll put it in the Thankyou Mask Man book. Now, I’m going down to the mailbox to see if the Thankyou Mask Man man has been today.”

 

An increasingly crazed Lone Ranger is then offered a range of prizes, chooses Tonto, and turns out to be gay. It’s iconoclastic in a time when that was still possible and, more importantly, it is very funny. It is refreshing in an age when everyone is funny, and yet no one makes me laugh. Goodbye, Lenny Bruce.

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