Lenny Bruce: “Two Five Letter Words:” an exhibit at the Museum of Movie and Television in Los Angeles

Long before there was John Stewart and Comedy Central, long before David Letterman gritted his gap-toothed smile on CBS, Lenny Bruce held comedic sway as the nation’s satirist of record. But unlike John Stewart, or even edgier comedians like Chris Rock and Margaret Cho, Lenny Bruce during his heyday was considered a transgressing presence upon the American comedic stage, rather than a popular mainstay of talk shows and popular entertainment. Today, comedians of strong words and even stronger personalities are common. But before Bruce, much of American comedy was decidedly non-abrasive. Even the Marx Brother’s cutting humor was more intended in silliness, than to have an explicit cultural or social bite to it.

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Bruce, as the Museum’s exhibition presentation of “Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce” shows, was openly eviscerating, even when presented on mainstream television in a way that was shocking to 1950’s audiences. But comedy is a living and contemporary art, very much of its moment in historical and performance time — thus the main style of the exhibit is that of film, rather than of photographs, recordings, or text. This renders difficult, however, to fully appreciate Bruce’s monologues in their full historical and social context, because Bruce’s humor was so often topical, and dependent upon his reactions from his audience members and participants, as in a live performance, and so openly in reaction to the mores and political moods and headlines of his day.

The screening series featured all of Bruce’s existing television appearances including several rare performances. It runs at the Museum in Los Angeles, and concurrently at the Museum’s sister branch in New York City, from November 5, 2004 to January 9, 2005. Bruce fans, because of the obscurity of some of the pieces, were no doubt entranced by the rarity of the footage, and parts of the work that had not been shown, according to the Museum’s companion internet site, since they were first performed so many years ago. (Official Website, 2004)

But those gazers who were not well acquainted with Bruce’s previous work might be a bit taken aback, not by the content of his sarcasm, but by the style of his humor, which makes use of a kind of improvisational, bebop hipster persona. This was popular when Bruce was at the height of his fame, perhaps, and connected him to the larger Beat Culture of alternative adolescent America, through the verbal rather than musical medium of comedy. But to a 20th century student of contemporary culture, what all of the fuss was about regarding Bruce’s obscenity and why his humor seemed so astringent to modern America, remains obscure, when, according to the Internet World Wide Web Press release from the museum, he was “the era’s hippest, most daring provocateur.” It states that Lenny Bruce “knew full well the boundaries of the public arena, but broke them anyway. He skewered the moral and political hypocrisy of postwar America with a subversive quality that forever changed the tenets of comedy and free speech.” (Official website, 2004)

The most shocking ‘bit’ is, according to the site, is Bruce’s 1956 appearance on the “Tonight Show,” then hosted by Steve Allen, where Bruce was introduced as the “most shocking comedian of our time,” and “performed the famous airplane glue bit, along with a piece on how having a tattoo would prevent him from being buried in a Jewish cemetery (which, incidentally, it did seven years later).” However, the build up from Allen falls short when this is actually seen in performance, and the reaction of the audience when this piece was seen was decidedly mixed, with only a few obligatory titters in the ‘right places.’

Ultimately, Lenny Bruce was brought to court because of his alleged obscenity. This is difficult to believe in an age such as ours that valorizes comedians who attempt to cross the lines of good taste, rather than denigrates them. The cultural significance of Bruce may be the way that his legacy enabled comedy to become a mainstream aspect of American cultural commentary, and not mere diverting entertainment for the masses. By making use of a jazz-like style too, Bruce ultimately integrated comedy into the emerging cultural fabric of the nation, although this fact becomes clearer only after doing independent research on the subject, through such texts as The Trials of Lenny Bruce, the fall and rise of an American Icon.

As the title of this book suggests, Bruce first experienced a fall in the esteem of the eyes of the public, because of the criticism heaped upon his head, due to his prosecution. However, later the comedian’s legacy paved the way for even more cutting edge comedians such as Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. The great Black comics of Bruce’s era, whose style, many critics noted, Bruce consciously mimicked in white form made it seem almost as if Bruce was the ‘Elvis’ of comedy, the white artist doing black material, in a body that still — for a time — enabled America to feel comfortable and racially isolated from the ghetto, yet still in touch with its rhythms, patterns, sexuality, and humor.

It might have been helpful to conceptualize the museum’s exhibit of Bruce in a more historical context by contrasting Bruce’s monologues with contemporary monologues of other comedians of the period, rather than simply including ominous commentary by introducers of the comedian about how shocking his words were. This invariably raises expectations, only to dash them when the comedian’s words prove insufficiently shocking. It also might be more helpful to provide a filmed commentary and contrast about Bruce’s legacy, not simply regarding Pryor and Gregory, but also about legal matters regarding censorship of artists, and how far comedy has extended its reach into modern America’s entertainment and political venues today. But ultimately, the segments function mainly as a museum piece, a frozen replica of the past, rather than a commentary on Bruce’s legacy or Bruce’s America — and one does at very least gain the sense that Lenny Bruce would never have been wished to have been regarded as a museum piece during his day, or in ages in the future.

Works Cited

Collins, Ronald and David Skover. The Trials of Lenny Bruce, the fall and rise of an American Icon, 2004.

“Two five letter words: Lenny Bruce.” The Museum of Television and Radio. Press Release. Official Website of Museum 2004. http://www.mtr.org/welcome.htm [15 November 2004]