Published October 1, 1998
The documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, written and directed by Robert B. Weide.is, I think, an opportunity missed. Bruce, who died of a drug overdose in 1966, was a genuinely funny man who has a genuine claim to be considered a hero of free speech in America. Weide and those he interviews for this documentary are certainly all disposed to look at him in this light, but they present him to us solely in terms of the mythology of the 1960s. He is seen merely as a precursor of the counterculture, and, safe upon his pedestal, he is left with nothing to say to our own time. Instead, he is intended merely to confirm us in our complacency and conceit of ourselves as superior to those pettifogging, uptight, humorless bureaucrats of the 1950s and early 1960s who hounded poor Lenny to his death. Thus at the very beginning of the film, Howard Solomon of the Café a Go Go, one of Bruce’s performing venues, tells us that “He never served any time; he never paid any fine. He only paid with his life.”
Well, OK. The oppressive, capitalist, racist, Christian, patriarchal establishment killed him. That and some extra strength heroin that he could not forbear to shoot into his veins as a palliative. But too little is made of Bruce’s relevance to us. For today, the threat to free speech comes more often from the left than from the right. The “politically correct” speech codes to be found on college campuses and elsewhere are our late-century equivalent of the antiquated city ordinances that Lenny so gleefully challenged with his four letter words. Moreover, even then Lenny was shocking in his political incorrectness. The film never directly addresses the paradox of its lionizing this progressive hero while recording without comment his comic and stunningly racist riff on an old novelty number called “Bake dat Chicken Pie.”
There is, it is true, a quotation from one of Bruce’s most famous routines, in which he uses racial epithets casually and comically in a kind of weird counting exercise involving a party in which the numbers keep shifting of “niggers” , “kikes” , “wops” , “guineas” , “spicks” , “micks” and other insulting terms. But it does not make clear or elaborate on the point of the exercise, which was to show how these dangerous words could be rendered harmless simply by repetition. I myself still don’t know if Bruce was right about this. His is a theory with which I admit to some degree of sympathy, but the fact that people laughed at examples like the one mentioned above suggests that the words were not really losing their power at all. It’s just that, as a kind of party trick, he learned to transform the kind of emotion they elicit from anger and hatred to more or less nervous and always edgy laughter.
So a small man (which Lenny was) can take a deadly insult from a bigger man and manage to make a joke out of it. But it was always a bit of an unlikely assumption that, in the mouths of people who lack Lenny’s comic abilities—to say nothing of his generosity of spirit—the incontinent use of racial epithets would ever turn into anything else than the hurtful and hateful words they started out as. Yet in another way the theory has proved spectacularly true, as the subsequent history of most of the obscenities he was busted for 40 years ago reveals. One of the best moments in the film comes in an interview with the assistant D.A. in New York, Richard Kuh, who is described as “Lenny’s Torquemada.” Kuh is still defending his actions in prosecuting Bruce for using obscene language in public, but in doing so he quite unconsciously uses some of the same language himself, implicitly acknowledging its loss of status as anything for people to be offended by.
It is not the obscenity but the vulgarity of such language which ought to concern us. But, partly because of the efforts of Bruce’s persecutors and partly because of idolaters like Weide, we have almost lost the ability to distinguish between the two.
But this film is a lot of fun at its most basic level, and worth going to see if only for its interviews with Lenny’s ex-wife, a former stripper called Hot Honey Harlow, and (especially) with his mother, Sallie Marr, who only died in 1997 (at the age of 91). The latter is interviewed in what must have been her late 80s as her dyed hair is being dressed at the beauty parlor and talks of having taken Lenny to a burlesque show at the age of 12. The mind boggles at the psychosocial implications of such a venture, but Sallie is only concerned to impress upon us the fact that Lenny, like Sallie herself, “grew up with no guilt.” She remarks on his cleverness in noticing at the burlesque show that there were only men present, apart from his mother and himself, and asking her why that was. “Would you believe it,” she says she told him: “they think it’s dirty, and that’s why this place is packed.”
How innocent such an attitude seems now, in the post-sexual revolution, post-feminist nineties chronicled in Happiness or Your Friends and Neighbors. It’s like the now-poignant routine, shown here, that Lenny did on the old Steve Allen show about kids in California sniffing airplane glue to get high. This was just a stray news report that no one could take seriously at the time and the television audience was in paroxysms of laughter at Lenny’s fantasy of a kid in a hobby shop trying to buy glue for sniffing. The routine was based on the seeming absurdity of the idea in the safe world of the late 1950s. To Bruce no less than to his audience it was merely comic. But even by the time that he himself died of a heroin overdose seven years later, it wouldn’t have been funny anymore. For just the briefest of moments we stop to wonder if there wasn’t, after all, some method to the madness of magistrates who would arrest a man for saying naughty words.