The Dirty Thoughts of Lenny Bruce

by Sleeveless Brian

For all the commotion that Lenny Bruce caused in his day, he is certainly little remembered. Or at least he is remembered for the wrong reasons.

Ask a person what Lenny Bruce is famous for, if he or she knows who he was at all, they're likely to remember only his frequent arrests for obscenity. Talking dirty.

But looking at his time, the late fifties and early sixties, there were standup comics with a much "dirtier" repertoire than Lenny Bruce's. Redd Foxx, for example, had much more obscenity and sexual content in his act. Even Moms Mabley, an old lady, was far "dirtier" than Bruce.

Why was it that Lenny Bruce was harassed and frequently arrested? I suspect it was because in addition to a few lewd words and thoughts in his routine, he attacked American hypocrisy.

To be sure, in addition to liberal use of obscenities, Mr. Bruce also deflated icons. In one of Lenny's many court cases, a prosecutor complained to the judge, with a straight face, that Mr. Bruce referred to several comicbook superheroes as "faggots" and "dykes." One of my favorite bits has Lenny doing the Lone Ranger as an old Jew (Bruce himself was Jewish) and revealing to the world that Tonto is actually his concubine.

Decades before political correctness, Lenny Bruce was pointing out the absurdity of this wasp hero in the hillbilly-filled old West running around with a faithful sexless Indian companion. Bruce, unlike today's self-appointed social critics, used humor to make this point very effectively.

But to me, Bruce was at his most effective and most brilliant when he pointed to the ways we use words-- or not using words-- and social niceties to hide the problems and hypocrisies in our society. In what is probably his most famous bit, he underlaid his monologue with a character, an imaginary audience member:

"The reason I don't get hung up with, well, say, integration, is that by the time Bob Newhart is integrated, I'm bigoted. And anyway, Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin are geniuses, the battle's won. By the way, are there any niggers here tonight?

(Outraged whisper) "What did he say? ´Are there any niggers here tonight?' Jesus Christ! Does he have to get that low for laughs? Wow! Have I ever talked about the schwarzes when the schwarzes had gone home? Or spoken about the Moulonjohns when they'd left? Or placated some Southerner by absence of voice when he ranted and raved about nigger nigger nigger?"

Are there any niggers here tonight? I know that one nigger who works here, I see him back there. Oh, there's two niggers, customers, and, ah, aha! Between those two niggers sits one kike-- man, thank God for the kike! Uh, two kikes. That's two kikes, and three niggers, and one spic. One spic-- two, three spics. One mick. One mick, one spic, one hick, thick, funcky, spunky boogey. And there's another kike. Three kikes. Three kikes, one guinea, one greaseball. Three greaseballs, two guineas. Two guineas, one hunky funky lace-curtain Irish mick. That mick spic hunky funky boogey. Two guineas plus three greaseballs and four boogies makes usually three spics. Minus two Yid spic Polack funky spunky Polacks.

AUCTIONEER: Five more niggers! Five more niggers!

GAMBLER: I pass with six niggers and eight micks and four spics.

The point? That the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, "Tonight I'd like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,: and he yelled "nig- gerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggergigger" at every nigger he saw, "boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey,nig-gerniggerniggernigger" till nigger didn't mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning-- you'd never make any four-year-old "nigger" cry when he came home from school.

Screw "Negro!" Oh, it's so good to say, "Nigger!" Boy!

"Hello, Mr. Nigger, how're you?"

In a brilliant leap, Bruce was attacking a couple of our fallacies at once. First, the pleasant liberal notion that by eliminating unpleasant racial and ethnic references from our vocabulary that we're eliminating bigotry. Worse, by casting these words beyond the linguistic pale, we're creating forbidden fruit, giving these awful words added punch, undermining the very intent of setting them proscribing their use.

Mr. Bruce was obviously not advocating using the words in a hurtful way; he certainly abhorred the harm these words can cause. He was pointing out that the words were the symptom, not the cause; it was the thought behind the word that hurt, not the word itself. The day the hatred is gone from the hearts is the day the word is meaningless-- the day we're looking for.

Lenny Bruce's words were tools, scalpels, even, for uncovering the hypo-crisy in our society. I recall in the movie Apocalypse Now, how Brando's character Colonel Kurtz, in one of his muttering radio diatribes, scoffs at the fact that soldiers were forbidden to paint profanities on the noses of the bombers they were using to drop napalm on human beings with, because the words were obscene. Such was the case with Lenny Bruce. His "dirty" words were nothing compared to the obscene society he was up against. Cops were sent to bust him for saying "cocksucker," while undoubtedly, less than a mile a way from the theatre, someone was going to bed hungry because of a political and economic system that was a cocksucker.

Elisa Stafford

Ever since Delillo's introduction and preliminary build up of Nick Shay I have continued to be puzzled by Nick's determination, his obsessive effort, to name and define the objects that compose his world. "I used to say to the kids. I used to hold up an object and say, The little ridged section at the bottom of the toothpaste tube. This is called the crimp." "I used to say when they were small. I told them more than once. This is the washer, this is the packing, this is the sprout." What is Nick's reasoning or motivation for acting in such a manner?

In chapter 5 my interest again resurfaced and my questioning was somewhat answered with the dialogue between Nick and a father at the Jesuit school in their attempts to label the parts of a "plain everyday clerical shoe". "Were doing the physics of language." In this scene we learn that Nick began on his long journey of self discovery through objects in his earlier days at the Jesuits school, after he had served time for killing a man. "Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge."

This scene and it's respective behavior reminded me of the older Stillman in Paul Auster's "City of Glass". Who believes "If we can't name a common object, How can we speak of things that truly concern us?" "When things were whole our words could express them. But things have broken apart, and our words have not adopted." Shay, similar to Stillman "collects" and observes everyday objects, other peoples garbage if you will. He recycles them according to his own unique set of circumstances and standards which results in the creation of a new language. One he can understand and begin to see himself within. This new language allows the characters to escape their previous experiences, forget the past, or redefine it.

These two characters and their similar struggle to find themselves in a fragmented society also reminded me of the preacher in the Manx Martin sections who also discusses how history is found in the most common of places, it is just hidden. How history if we just open our eyes and mind is there waiting for us to discover and explore. He uses the example of a pyramid on an American dollar bill. "What in god's name is it doing on there". The preacher suggests that it traces the roots of American civilization. Who would think to look here?

In connection to the above thoughts I also believe this is why Nick, Marvin, Charlie, and others chase down and believe they have come to possess the BT homerun ball. "It's an object with a history." They think by simply owning the ball they will also get the history that comes with it. It will help them understand not only their individual pasts but the whole of societies as well. They diffuse the experiences associated with ball into their own. In this sense the history of the ball and it's connections lends itself to the history of individuals. People come to understand themselves by maintaining and understanding their surroundings, the objects around them. By learning the history of objects the characters become more in focus with themselves and society.

Lynette Erbe

Chess and baseball pit team against team, an Us. vs Them mentality which is mentioned throughout the book. This mindframe is similar to that of the nation and individuals in much of the 1950's and early 1960's. The threat of the atomic bomb, possibilities of war, etc, were looming in America's consciousness. Who exactly was the enemy? United States vs. U.S.S.R or the state vs. individuals was still to be decided.

In chapter 6 Delillo once again introduces the theme of games but somewhat in a different respect. Bronzini, Matt's chess mentor, is awestrucked with the neighborhood kids and the games they play in the streets and back alleys. Kids themselves "have no history, no future." They have no sense of time. They live for the here and now, the present is their only concern. The result Delillo seems to suggest is their stark sense of reality. Perhaps this is the fault or trouble with Delillo's primary characters. They are too preoccupied even obsessed with the past, sometimes as in the case of Klara even the future. This passage also remarks on how children adapt. They make do with what they have, often recycling garbage into toys or devices. Again Delillo's primary characters are just the opposite. They think in terms of absence and therefore are unable to understand and complete themselves or their lives.

One other possible underlying meaning with games could be their unifying nature. We discussed this earlier in the semester when we read Delillo's prologue. All walks of life come to see and are represented by Delillo at the infamous game in 1951 at the Polo Grounds. The games these children were playing also drew people from all "spectrums of the rainbow".

Lynette Erbe

"Matty had has head at the base of the cloakoom door nearest his desk. He liked to duck and cover. There was a sense of acting in unison that he found satisfying. It was not so different really from opening and shutting the cloakroom doors with two of his classmates or reciting mass answers to Sister's questions from the catechism. He felt the comfort of numbers. He felt snug and safe here on the floor, positioned more or less identically with the others. ...he felt an odd belonging in the duck-and-cover. It was a community of look-alikes and do-alikes, heads down, elbows tucked, fannies in the air."

In the context of the above quote we found out Matty was like Andy Warhol's Superstars, Henry in Goodfellas and various other individuals of his time, in that he only felt comfortable, that he could be himself, in the presence of others similar to him.

This is because of the times, there was no longer a collective vision in American society. A crack in American ideology was developing and fragmenting all aspects of the traditional way of life. The nation and individuals themselves were in a state of disarray. People were looking for others who shared their ideas, this is why they joined groups. It gave them a sense of belonging and united them with others. Matty's need to belong probably stems not only from the times but because of his disturbed family life. His father's disappearance early in his childhood forever left him, his brother Nick, and his mother Rosemary without the traditional family and it's normal way of life. As a result Matty never felt part of the larger group, he never fit in. In almost every aspect of Sister Edgar's class the children acted collectively, there was no separation or distinction between individuals.

Lynette Erbe

Throughout this course we have obtained our sense of the Italian American community from only the perspective of Martin Scorsese (home videos and the film Goodfellas). Don Delillo's "Underworld" builds upon and expands many of the prevalent themes we have discussed. While the Shay family (Nick, Matt, Rosemary, and Jimmy) is untraditional in almost every aspect of the Italian American way of life Scorcese presents, it is through their shortcomings that we come to a see a shared vision between Scorcese and Delillo, of what tradition is and means to Italians.

The following quote taken from chapter 6 of "Underworld" demostrates the importance of family and food in Italian American's way of life. Sadly however this quote is taken from the section where Rosemary is discussing how her husband's disappearance affected her and her life, even in the present. As she walks up the stairs to her apartment and smells the "meat sauce simmering in a big pot with sausage...the savor had an irony that was painful." It reminds her of the painful past and that which she does not have and never will, a family.

"She heard the women talk about making gravy, speaking to a husband or child, and Rosemary understood the significance of this. It meant, Don't you dare come home late. It meant, This is serious so pay attention. It was a special summons, a call to family duty. The pleasure, yes, of familiar food, the whole history of food, the history of eating, the garlicky smack and tang. But there was also a duty, a requirement. The family requires the presence of every member tonight. Because the family was an art to these people and the dinner table was the place it found expression."

We can further sense the importance of family in the Italian community in Rosemary's admission that she conceals her husband's disappearance to family, friends, coworkers, etc,. As "Goodfellas" explained and Delillo also remarks for a husband to walk out on his family was the unthinkable Italian crime. One that didn't even have a name. Rosemary was ashamed, angry, and tense. her husband's disappearance forever changes her life. In an attempt to forget, Rosemary changes her name to Rose. The meaning behind a name also seems to be another one of Delillo's million themes.

Lynette Erbe

The Polo Grounds was the location of two of the most momentous plays in baseball history. In 1951, the Giants hosted their rivals the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of a three game playoff for the National League pennant. With the giants down 4-2 in the ninth, Bobby Thompson hit a three-run homer off of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca to give New York the victory. Three years later, the Giants returned to the World Series, gaining their first title in 21 years. In the eighth inning of game one, Willie Mays caught the ball over his shoulder. He then made an amazing throw, which kept the Indian base runners from scoring, thus keeping a 2-2 tie. The tie was broken in the tenth inning, when the Giants Dusty Rhodes hit a three-run home run to give the Giants a 5-2 victory. They went on to win the series in four. After the Giant`s and Dodgers both left New York following the 1957 season, New York was left without National League baseball. That situation was changed in 1962 when the Mets came to New York. They played their first two seasons at the Polo Grounds, losing 120 games in their inaugural campaign. After the Mets left for the newly constructed Shea Stadium in Queens in 1964, the same wrecking ball that torn down Ebbets Field destroyed the Polo Grounds. An apartment complex now occupies the location, and a youth baseball field named in honor of Willie Mays.

Amy Eichenwald

"In the late '50s and early 60s, while most stand-up comics were reciting jokes on such subjects as mothers-in-law, (Lenny) Bruce was exploring the satirical implications of nuclear testing, racism, illegal drugs, homophobia, back-alley abortions and the death penalty. He wanted only to talk on stage with the same freedom he exercised in his living room. But he ended up visiting the FBI headquarters in San Francisco to complain that there was a conspiracy between the courts of New York and California to violate his rights," Paul Krassner wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Bruce's goal was to get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds. Bruce once said that the, "comedian gets paid, so his first loyalty is to the club owner, and he must make money for the owner." Eventually he changed his attitude, believing that he became a "symbol" rather than a "performer," and thus stopped trying for a laugh and started working on a message that aggravated so many.

Lenny was arrested 15 times in two years. The police played an important role in monitoring entertainment. (In New York in the 1950s,Wakefield writes about the power of police and their capability of forbidding performers from performing because of misdemeanors related to drugs and alcohol.)

Lenny Bruce served as a pioneer of free comedic speech, setting precedent for future young performers.

Amy Eichenwald

Father Paulus-Nick Shay Confession, Minnesota, 1955

"One of the things we want to do here is to produce serious men. What sort of phenomenon is this? Not easy to say. Someone, who in the end, who develops a certain depth, a spacious quality, say, that's a form of respect for other ways of thinking and believing. Let us unnarrow the basic human tubing. And let us help a young man toward an ethical strength that makes him decisive, that shows him precisely who he is, Shay, and how he is meant to address the world"

"My own life, I confess--yes, why not, you'll hear my confesson, Shay. Who better than you. Took me all these years to understand that I'm not a serious man. Too much irony, too much vanity, too little what--I don't know, a lot of things. And no rage, you see. Or a small ingrown toenail rage, a puny frustration. Eventually you get to know these things. Do you act out of principle? or do you devise self-justifying reasons for your bad behavior? This is my confession, not yours, so you're not required to come up with answers. Not yet anyway. Eventually, yes. You'll know in your heart how well you've met the calling to be a man."

Myron Lounsbury

Father Paulus to Nick Shay, Minnesota, 1955

"Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You'd be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from."

"This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs--a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?

"I don't know."

"A last."

"My head is breaking apart."

Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren't important, we wouldn't use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it," he said.

"Quotidian." "An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace."

Myron Lounsbury

Although the majority of DeLilloÔs novel deals with the impact of technology, as well as the threat of communism and nuclear war, I am surprised that he failed to mention the October 4, 1957 launching of the Soviet artifical satellite, Sputnik I,into space. This event, "reeled Americans into shock." The Soviet Union, a country they deemed technologically inferior, beat them in the space wars. This fear was heightened when the Soviets launched a second satillite, Sputnik II, one month later. The impact of the Soviet launch was two-fold. It not only gave the Soviets the edge in space travel, but with their new technology, created the opportunity to devlop more sophesicated weaponery. In addition, the lauch sparked a national obsession in both countryÔs to become the first one to lauch a man into space.

Sarah Doran

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