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Lenny Lives!

New CDs spotlight Bruce's comedic genius

By Greg Cahill

He was a dangerously funny man. Before his death from a morphine overdose in 1966 at the age of 40, standup comedian Lenny Bruce shook the foundation of American society, emerging from the sleazy L.A. strip joints to fly in the face of '50s white-bread culture and the political witch hunts of the McCarthy era. He has continued to cast a long shadow, influencing the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eric Bogosian and, more recently, such shock comics as Sam Kinison and Howard Stern.

"I never heard anything like him before," Pryor recently told Mojo magazine, "and I remember thinking, 'If this is comedy, then what the fuck am I doing?'"

Yet for years, few comedy fans had a chance to hear Bruce's biting (often foul-mouthed) humor or his stinging satire firsthand, since his comedy albums were out of print until 1992. Except for the handful of comedy bits reprised in Bruce's raffish autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, and those included in Bob Fosse's excellent 1974 film Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, Bruce fans were out of luck.

Now a pair of outstanding reissues, including an extensive new box set, are primed to introduce Bruce--the brash Jewish hipster with jazz-inflected rhythms and a switchblade tongue--to the South Park generation.

The expanded reissue of Bruce's 1972 Fantasy Records album Thank You Masked Man, due in October, offers several previously unreleased tracks and includes a CD-Rom version of John Magnuson's clever animated film of the same name. And Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware (Shout! Factory), a remarkable six-disc collection set release this week, gathers such popular tracks as "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties" and "To Is a Preposition, Come Is a Verb," along with concert bootlegs, and rare and previously unreleased recordings, including those documenting Bruce's courtroom battles for onstage obscenity. The box set, which also has an 80-page booklet, was co-produced by Bruce's late manager Marvin Worth, Saturday Night Live music director Hal Willner and the comedian's daughter Kitty Bruce, 49, a former Warhol actress and onetime Fairfax resident.

"It's a collected masterwork of love," says Kitty, during a phone interview from her home outside Scranton, Penn. "My father had so much material."

The Shout! Factory project rescued some of those rare reel-to-reel tapes from almost certain oblivion: one set was stored in an open container just a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean; another was in the possession of actor and accused wife-killer Robert Blake.

In an essay in the liner notes, Kitty sheds light on her father's legal battles, pointing out that his "truths were based on our most coveted lies." Lenny felt it was his duty, she says, to jab an accusing finger at the hypocrisy he saw in what she calls "the Andy Hardy view" of American society. "He used to say, 'It's not what should be, it's what is," Kitty says. "He cut through all the lies we tell ourselves on a daily basis."

And he paid the ultimate price for his brutal honesty.

During a November 1964 performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, Lenny used more than 100 words deemed "obscene" by the state of New York. Undercover police in the audience that night later testified that Bruce had given an obscene performance.

He was convicted, and for the next 20 months played a cat-and-mouse game with police and prosecutors, continuing to push the boundaries of standup comedy while appealing his conviction on the grounds that it violated his right to free speech. But the case took its toll. Onstage, Bruce bored audiences with longwinded accounts of his legal fight as he mishandled his own appeal. Off stage, beset by legal and financial problems, he turned increasingly to drugs and alcohol.

At 40, he died of an overdose on a bathroom floor. His appeal was still pending.

"He fought hard and he paid with his life--he just would not bend or break," Kitty says. "The government could not shut him up because he believed in free speech and he believed in the right to due process."

Last December, Kitty and Bruce's ex-wife, Honey Bruce Friedman, joined two dozen civil rights lawyers and entertainers (including the Smothers Brothers and Robin Williams) in successfully petitioning New York Gov. George Pataki, a three-term Republican, to pardon Bruce for the 40-year-old obscenity conviction--the first posthumous pardon in New York history.

For Kitty Bruce, the pardon is a bittersweet victory.

"The harder he pushed, the harder they pulled him down. The harder he banged the doors open, the harder the authorities banged them shut," she says. "He was one man against a huge, powerful, grinding machine. But it's 2004, and he's still talking and people are still listening to what he has to say.

"So in the end, he really had the last word, didn't he?"

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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