by Charles Marowitz
June 28, 2010
Kringas, Damian: Lenny Bruce: 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones,
Guerilla Press Division, NSW Australia, 2010, ISBN:
978-0-9806161-3-2, Paperback: 172 pages.
Damian Kringas's Lenny Bruce: 13 Days in Sydney is a detailed record
of Bruce's disastrous, pathetic, and outrageous two-week visit to
Australia in l962 that can be read either as a social indictment of
Aussies or a willful exercise in comedic masochism. Either way, it
makes for a brisk and detailed reconstruction of Lenny Bruce's last
days in a country that was (and maybe still is) several decades
behind the times.
Viciously denounced by the Australian press on his first night,
denied an alternative performance space after being kicked out of his
contracted venue, maligned by outraged conservatives for obscenity
and labeled a druggie, a purveyor of smut, an anti-Christ and a
pariah, it was a gig that undoubtedly shortened his life span. One
year after his ignominious return to America, his Australian venue
Aarons was demolished and two years later, Bruce, perched on a toilet
bowl with a needle emptied of morphine in his arm, was dead and
almost instantaneously the legend of Lenny Bruce the comic martyr was created.
The book provides a detailed, day-by-day account of the comedian's
stint in Sydney and defines the gap that existed between the
ground-breaking comedian and the uptight Aussie public, which had
never before been exposed to a mixture of obscenities and a comedian
who didn't simply tell jokes but lost himself in free-wheeling
comedic soliloquies which probed human hypocrisy and unsettled the
comfort of burghers looking for a few easy laughs.
The book appears to suggest that Lenny's "dirty language" was the
main element that alienated his audience, but what was brazen and
brilliant about Bruce was his insight into the nature of
relationships, the hypocrisy with which one class assailed another,
and the camouflage people used with one another to conceal passions,
frustrations, and human shortcomings. The obscenities were simply
part of his showbiz vernacular and since they were all recognized
terms in regular use, it seemed fatuous to the comedian not to employ them.
The same wayward but utterly original stand-up routines that enthused
critics such as Kenneth Tynan and Richard Neville and reviewers in
British publications like The Observer, The New Statesmen, and The
Guardian and in sophisticated comedy clubs like Peter Cook's The
Establishment, ran smack into a brick wall in Sydney. Of course, the
fuzz intruded and clapped him into handcuffs -- and of course,
moralistic matrons took umbrage at hearing words such as "fuck" and
"cocksucker" applied to anecdotes about contemporary relationships,
but that's what made Bruce special; he not only revealed the
hypocrisies of language and sex, he exulted in revealing them. In
l962, a performer like Lenny Bruce going into the staid heartland of
a country like Australia was like a man throwing a hand grenade into
a church social. It not only enraged the public, it also depressed
the performer who could not comprehend that there were certain
linguistic customs that could not be broached among adults.
We often hear that it was Bruce's groundbreaking comedy that opened
the doors for comedians such as Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, George
Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black, etc., but when one replays the
early Bruce vinyl records, it becomes clear that none of them had the
breadth of subject matter that Bruce mustered during a relatively
short span of commercial prominence. Lenny was the leader of the
flock when there virtually wasn't any flock. He built the bridge that
linked the uptight 1950s to the Let-It-All-Hang-Out '60s. After his
death, the torch was passed to George Carlin, a more
intellectually-gifted comedian who acknowledged the debt he owed to
Bruce. Whereas Lenny used profanity as part of his acceptance of an
established American vocabulary, Carlin employed semantics, drawing
attention to the hypocrisy of avoiding words that were part of the
common vernacular; words we all use privately but avoid in public.
Today, "bad taste" is de rigueur in the stand-ups of artists such as
Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, and Robin Williams, but the residue of
Bruce's influence clings to virtually all of them.
Krinkas's day-by-day, blow-by-blow, defeat-by-defeat chronicle of
Lenny's aborted Australian gig reads like an horrific indictment of
Australian culture when compared with the greater emancipation that
was going on in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and London.
Confronted with Bruce, the Aussies believed themselves to be in the
embrace of a python and did everything they could to wriggle out of
its deadly clutches -- while, at the same time, audiences in America
were "coming of age" in the l960s and the more perceptive of these
were already fitting the crown on Lenny's tousled-troubled head.
The last legally-obsessed days of Lenny Bruce's life will forever be
a shame in America. There's a rumor that he took that last shot of
morphine in order to escape the legal vise in which he felt entrapped
and to quench the fear of no longer being able to make a living
telling it like it was. If that is so, who can blame him for checking
out before the righteous squares devoured him.
History is littered with martyrs -- usually soldiers, statesmen and
religicos. Surely, a small patch of burial ground can be reserved for
Leonard Alfred Schneider.
(A more personal account of the author's relationship with Lenny
Bruce can be found in Stage Dust: A Critic's Cultural Scrapbook From
The 1990s, published by The Scarecrow Press, Inc.)