No doubt Lenny Bruce would have laughed with at least a tinge of bitterness if -- like millions of Americans -- he picked up a newspaper the day before Christmas 2003 and read that he'd been "pardoned" by the governor of New York for an obscenity conviction.
In their own time, people who are stubbornly ahead of it usually get a lot more grief than accolades. And decades later -- in this case, 39 years after Bruce's bust for a nightclub performance and 37 years after his death -- the belated praise from on high is predictably insufferable.
The New York Times lead sentence on Dec. 24 called Bruce "the potty-mouthed wit who turned stand-up comedy into social commentary." Actually, far from being "potty-mouthed" in an emblematic way, Lenny Bruce was a Fool in the Shakespearean sense, jousting with a society dominated by various aspiring Lears -- and quite a few Elmer Gantrys.
Most people who can remember Lenny Bruce have their favorite moments. I think of when he took the opportunity, on a network TV show, to "play" a dollar bill as a percussion device, snapping it in front of the microphone. Or his bits, taped and then captured on record albums, satirizing the entrepreneurial zeal of evangelical moralists. He anticipated the unctuous likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and, yes, George W. Bush.
Lenny Bruce lampooned hypocrisy, yet he avoided the earnest fervor that dulls the teeth of much would-be biting humor. Bruce may have occasionally lapsed into sermonizing, but he was not pious. The 1974 movie "Lenny" strayed when actor Dustin Hoffman wasn't quite able to portray Bruce's righteousness without preceding it with the hyphenated "self."
Bruce was a consummate mimic who spent many hours fiddling with tape from his on-stage routines. As an instrument of enormous versatility, his voice was orchestral in scope.
Protracted struggles with judicial repression for saying "bad" words made him obsessed with absurdities in law books. For Bruce, legalistic labyrinths culminated in August 1966 with a morphine overdose, two months short of his 40th birthday.
We ought to note that his last two years spanned from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through a period of rapid military escalation in Vietnam, with U.S. troop deployments mounting into the hundreds of thousands.
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On a noncommercial radio station about 30 years ago, while the war was still raging, I used to air an obscure record that featured some of Bruce's final performance. He did a bit he'd presented many times before, reciting (with a thick German accent) a poem by the radically humanistic Trappist monk Thomas Merton -- a meditation on the high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.
Here are words I've often remembered over the course of three decades:
"My defense: I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day's effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?"
Such questions are still too hot for mainstream media to handle. We may congratulate ourselves on how risque the words and images are now, in mass media, but the lasting power of Lenny Bruce's caustic humor has nothing to do with four-letter words. Today, naughty language and sexual images are big media sellers. The tacit taboos are in other realms of expression.
Though it wasn't then the propaganda mantra that it has recently become, President Johnson referred to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Vietnam as "terrorists." These days, President Bush is fond of applying the "terrorist" label to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Naturally, as one of the home-front politicos eager to boost the latest war, New York's Gov. George Pataki could not resist combining the announcement of his pardon for Bruce with a plug for the sanctification of present-day militarism under the guise of combating terrorism. "Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties," Pataki declared, "and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror."
But the question that Lenny Bruce kept voicing from the stage, meanwhile, still hangs in the air: "Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?"