Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
April 6, 1960, Vol. V, No. 24
Lenny Bruce and the Aging Hipsters
By Nat Hentoff
Although New York in several respects is hipper than Montgomery, Alabama, or Los Angeles, it’s an egregiously square town in other areas. The way, for example, comedians are reviewed by the official trade and general press. To the daily papers and Variety, the standards of excellence are of a generation and more ago. Nightclub humor, according to them, must be judged by the criteria set by such stale, predictable, mechanical wits as Milton Berle, Joey Adams (part-time Congressional candidate), Henny Youngman, and Jack E. Leonard. A few reviewers are just barely beginning to think about considering accepting Mort Sahl — on approval — as kosher.
But when the most radically original, creative, and vital comic (to use the term very broadly indeed) comes to town, he is attacked by the local bores with a barrage of viciousness usually reserved for people who won’t obey air-raid alarms.
As Variety said, during Lenny Bruce’s recent siege at the Blue Angel, “for the first time within memory, some N.Y. dailies really let out all the stops on an act. This is contrary to general custom which is to praise a show or let it off easily, even if it is not so good.”
Gene Knight (Jim O’Connor), the Lee Mortimer of the Journal-American, complained bitterly at the “insulting way in which he ridiculed races and creeds. Nor was there any excuse for his foul language near the end of his much-too-long act.” the same Knight reviewed “The Connection” for that paper with equal insight: “…it is studded with vile language not necessary to the action – if any. And I don’t mean profanity; I mean four-letter words.”
Years ago one might have expected some degree of professional reviewing intelligence in Variety; but that trade paper has long been edited by the pretentious, prolix, and remarkably obtuse Abel Green. The decline of the paper (its music section particularly has become a poor joke) must stem from Green’s inability in other areas in addition to reviewing. Green himself went to execute Bruce: “…The ugliest of phrases applying to minorities are interjected for no good purpose…The same ill-taste applies in the resurrection of long-dead phrases as applied to the curious brand of Semitic humor that Bruce indulges in…He is undisciplined and unfunny. Some of his comedy attempts would be best put to autobiographical use.”
I might be able to understand – though not really – why anyone with a knowledge of the major tensions of our time would not find Bruce funny; but I cannot understand how Green, O’Connor, and the other hacks fail completely to comprehend what he is saying. Bruce is not only completely straight on prejudice, but he is the only comedian with the imagination and guts to skewer the multiply subtle bigotries of our urban civilization, particularly as they exist among what he terms “first-plateau liberals.” Compared to Bruce, Mort Sahl is a cross between Stuart Symington and Karl Mundt. There’s little point in paraphrasing his act here. Next best to seeing him next time he’s in New York is his new album, “Togetherness” or “I Am Not a Nut, Elect Me” (Fantasy 7007). My point, however, is that Green, O’Connor, and the others are so out of contact with the realities of 1960 that they’ve closed their minds to the point that they don’t even know why Bruce makes them so uncomfortable. He makes them squirm because he is the most effective Geiger counter for hypocrisies of any American comedian of this generation.
[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.]