Lenny Bruce, With His Shirt Off
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
June 15, 1961, Vol. VI, No. 34
A Change of Shirts with Lenny Bruce
By John Wilcock
In my opinion, Lenny Bruce is the most perceptive of today's satiric commentators, and he and his audience swing together in a rarely achieved harmony. Lenny just completed a $10,000 engagement at the Village Vanguard, and he's been staying at my place, on and off. I managed to persuade him to answer a batch of questions. He doesn't much care for interviews, so I fired the questions at him one night between shows, put some paper into my typewriter, and recorded his answers verbatim as he shouted them to me while changing his shirt and taking a shave.
How do you feel about working in night clubs?
Naturally the basic motivation of working is profit. A one-nighter pays me what I can make in a week doing 14 shows in seven days. But the whole thing is that I don't develop as much at a concert: I get lazy. Because of ego I want to always get applause. I want to make the waiters laugh. Sometimes I have fantasies in which a customer would say: "He's so clever and inventive," and the waiter would reply: "He's not so inventive. He made that up two weeks ago and he's been saying it every night since."
What topics still seem to shake up audiences the most?
I wish I could bring out a topic for you. If somebody in a group feels shocked he will not verbalize this because he knows he is in the minority.
In your act you occasionally say you'd like "to ball every chick in the room." How often do you get approached afterward by obviously willing girls?
Very seldom. I always run away.
Do you like being recognized on the street?
By pretty girls. Attractive people in general. In an aesthetic sense if you could graph me I'd be pretty shallow because I'm very concerned with the physical. First attraction is not intellectual, ever, with me.
What sort of things/people bug you the most? Apart from interviews?
Interviews upset me but don't bug me. Tonight I had a woman in the audience with hysterical laughter. As soon as I heard it I knew it would make the audience uncomfortable. I listen to the audience more than they listen to me. Sure enough, they heard it after the fourth or fifth time and the people around her began to get uncomfortable and it spread. Finally somebody told her to shut up and she started crying, which I knew would happen from the first. For humor to be effective the audience must be very relaxed, and anything that interferes with that relaxation bugs me. Anything loud upsets me. Loud laughter, loud applause. To me it projects humility. (Laughs) I'm frightened; that's what it is.
What topics get the most attentive response from your audience?
When I deal with subject matter that connects with their own experience. Something that directly involves them. Theology, paritcularly; if I talk about death in a philosophical or satirical manner. For example, I'm often tempted to talk to my mother frankly and say to her: "Ma, you're going to die, and as a favor I'd like you to allow me to say or do anything I want to about your body after death because I think it is archaic and horrendous the manner in which we relate death to our children. It's somber and macabre. I'd like your permission" -- I'd say to my mother -- so that if I'm on the road somewhere and the super in the building calls me at 4 in the morning, the conversation might go something like this:
Super: Mr. Bruce, this is Mr. Schindler. I hate to have this as a reason to call you, but your mother passed away. Lenny: I'm awfully sorry to hear that. Super: Yeah, it was a tough break. Lenny: What time is it there now? Super: 4 a.m. Lenny: Is it cold? It's so damn rainy and sleety here. Super: I don't know if you heard me or not, but I said your mother passed away. Lenny: I know. Super: So? Lenny: So what? Super: Er, well...What do you want to do with the body? Lenny: Well, what would you like to do with it? Super: I guess you're in shock. Lenny: No, I'm just answering your question in a logical, reasonable manner. And it seems rather sad, but the only thing really said about this call is that I've been living in your building now for nine years and this is the first time you've called me. You never called to say: "Lenny, the honeysuckle's in bloom, isn't it wonderful? to be alive; is the moon there as full and radiant as it is here?" The only time people give their fellow man respect is when he's stretched out. Super: I'm not interested in all that philosophy horse manure; I want to know what you want us to do with the body? Lenny: If the rent is paid to the 16th, let it stay there. And fill in a change-of-address card.
Is there a subject you wouldn't consider talking about in your act on the grounds of bad taste or anything else?
Yes. Subjects that would offend me because they are trite; that have been exploited too many times. Mother-in-law jokes.
Have you ever done any mother-in-law jokes?
Yes, if they are what I consider bizarre or different. For example, Time magazine beseeched Ralph Gleason to use his influence on me so the first-time question in his interview was: "What do you attribute your divorce to?" So I tried to think of the tritest area and I came up with: "My mother-in-law broke up my marriage." "Your mother-in-law?! What happened?" "One day my wife came home early from work and found us in bed together." "In bed together? With your own mother-in-law? Why that's...you're a pervert!" "Why?" I said. "It was her mother, not mine."
What percentage of your act changes from one show to the next?
Since I have a tremendous backlog, I could do a different show, an extremely different show, every night for about a week, but I wouldn't be creating anything new; I'd just be recalling bits I had already done. From the creative aspect, if I do two shows a night, at the end of the week I've created a new 15-minute bit.
What's a 15-minute bit worth on today's market?
Today? About $1500 - $2000.
How do you calculate that?
What comedy writers charge -- a television bit, stand-up spot for the Sullivan show, Jack Paar -- an 8-minute bit. The kind of a guy who's an actor-comedian -- performs well but does not create -- buys bits, does them until other, smaller actor-comedian types steal them or he's overexposed the bit. An 8-minute bit would cost roughly $750 - $1000.
What do you do on nights when you don't feel funny?
What do you do to get funny enough to do your act?
What I will do is bare my soul and through this cathartic method achieve humor.
What writers impress you the most, or have influenced you?
Evelyn Waugh, Terry Southern ("The Magic Christian"), and Henry Miller -- thanks to John Wilcock's extensive Tijuana library.
No. I love them - W.C. Fields, John Garfield, Jimmy Dean, whom I loved to madness, Eisenhower. But they haven't influenced me.
Do you have recurring dreams?
I have very strange dreams. I'm an egomaniac as it is, and then to have a dream like I had recently that smacked of excellent construction, a beginning, a them, and a sensible end...the dream: I shot somebody with a .22 rifle and killed him. I don't remember the killing; it seems somehow that as the dream faded in I was in court standing before the judge and he was sentencing me. And he gave me a choice of spending five years in the penitentiary with no chance of parole -- the full five years -- or be exiled to Alaska forever. And that's it. Is that strange? I don't know what Alaska even looked like. Those tall bears; in my dream they were standing up straight.
What's your answer to people who accuse you of being "sick?"
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but if you verbalize and talk dirty to me, I will not only get horny but be your friend for life.
What are some classic lines that you might have observed people use to make out with girls?
Well, there is make-out and there is trying to get out after you've made out. One classic that killed me was when I heard a girl say: "He wants to marry me but he can't get a divorce because he's Catholic and his wife's in an insane asylum." But making out? I think that the line "You're one of the few chicks I ever seen that I feel a strong attraction for but it's not physical" -- that always seems to be effective.
Lenny, do you have any final message for the world?
Yes. Girls who are celibate wouldn't be that way long if they could only sell a bit.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. John Wilcock is still going strong at ojaiorange.com]
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- As Islamophobic Rhetoric Gets Louder, NYC Muslims Fear for Their Mosques
Fri., Nov. 27, 6:30pm
Fri., Nov. 27, 7:00pm
Fri., Nov. 27, 7:30pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 12:00am
- Forget Big Chain Theaters — Watch Movies at These Cool NYC Spots Instead
- Rightbloggers: You Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee — But If You Do, Get Lost