How many stages of knowing Lenny Bruce are there? I count three.
First comes fawning, when you know just enough to be dangerous to yourself and others. The name carries so much weight that a person can be overwhelmed by the legend. His routines are far less available than Richard Pryor or George Carlin. If you start digging around in their careers, then you suddenly find yourself looking into the history of stand-up comedy. And there looms Lenny Bruce, the avatar of rebellious brilliance. A few snippets about his obscenity arrests, marriage to a stripper, and tragic death make him the perfect choice for a tattoo. At this stage, the fan has not ever heard Lenny Bruce.
Second comes disillusion. You listen to some old recordings. Is this the reason this guy is so important? What have people been telling me? I mean, it’s hard enough to follow most of those old comics, but this guy is boring. Are these jokes? Isn’t he supposed to be angry? I thought he started social commentary and stuff. I don’t know what mohair is and some of this sounds wrong. Time to visit the dermatologist about doing something with that tattoo. At this stage, Lenny Bruce fades into the deeper recesses of consciousness.
The third stage doesn’t happen for a while. Time has passed, but the name can still set off a little frisson. Someone near at hand has gotten hold of some Lenny Bruce. They want to hear it. You’ve been there. You don’t really want to see that crestfallen look on someone else’s face. On the other hand, it shouldn’t take too much of your time. After all, stage two lasted about five minutes for you.
This is funny. A little more life experience and little less longing allow the story to build for you, as was the comic’s intention. There’s the anger and social commentary. There’s the context.
Perhaps I’m extrapolating from personal experience. Except for the tattoo.
Lenny Bruce was funny. He was intelligent. I don’t know how much of his glow arises from half of society telling the other half that he was out of bounds. The problem arises when that becomes the context. Do we flock to the illicit because it is denied to us? Of course, we do. If the artist intended that as the end in itself, then we call them shock artists. I don’t believe Bruce intended to be a shock artist- he tried to communicate the best way that he could.
There’s the rub. We don’t forgive shock artists for a lack of substance. But we rarely defend those artists who cross the line at an inopportune moment. Later, we forgive ourselves our ignorance and make pilgrimages to their grave-site.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 165 more to go.
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