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Being Lenny Bruce

Photo by Ted SoquiOn February 4, 1961, things were going pretty well for Lenny Bruce. In the midst of a blizzard that had shut down much of New York City, 2,000 adoring fans showed up at Carnegie Hall for Lenny’s midnight show. Their reward was what would come to be widely known as one of standup comedy’s greatest live performances. As Albert Goldman described it in the subsequent record’s liner notes, “It catches Lenny with his head clear and bursting with ideas, his tongue fast as a badman’s six-shooter and all his many moods and humors coming in and out of focus like the colors of a lightshow. That was the Lenny Bruce experience . . .” But not everyone liked the Lenny Bruce experience, especially when he got into criticizing the hypocrisy of organized religion in such bits as “Christ and Moses” and “Religions Inc.” (“For the first time in 12 years, Catholicism is up nine points! Joo-dism is up 15! The Big P, the Pentecostal, is finally starting to move . . .”) Seven short months after Carnegie Hall, some of Lenny’s more well-connected, aristocratic detractors began to fight back against the threat of Lenny’s satire. He was staying in Philadelphia when he came down with chills and a fever. Having suffered a bad staph infection not long before, Lenny didn’t want to take any chances. He checked in at a local hospital, got examined, diagnosed and sent on his way. After filling the prescriptions he’d been given, Bruce returned to his hotel. Twelve hours later, police officers broke down the door and arrested him for possession of the drugs he’d just bought. The charges didn’t stick, of course — he had his prescriptions — but a few days later, Lenny announced, on camera, to a television reporter, that one of the officers had offered to drop all charges in exchange for a large sum of cash. Phone calls were made from Philadelphia to San Francisco. A few nights later, Lenny was arrested for obscenity — for saying cocksucker — at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop. He was found not guilty. Then, more arrests for obscenity in Chicago and New York. And in L.A., for saying schmuck at the Troubadour. Schmuck, for Christ’s sake! And it went on and on, for the remainder of his short life.As his longtime friend Paul Krassner put it, “They would arrest him for obscenity, but it was really a cover for arresting him for blasphemy.” Just a guess: Most of us have heard of Lenny Bruce, but few have actually heard or seen the evidence of his genius. And as we’ve now been most unfortunately invited to share front-row seats at the spectacle of a United States ruled by champions of fear, ignorance and spiteful misinterpretations of parable, a refresher course might be in order; Lenny Bruce’s words are perhaps more powerful now than when he first spoke them. You might, for starts, seek out Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware, last year’s heroic 7.6-hour audio-CD release, handsomely bound in an informative 80-page hardback book. After you’ve memorized that, watch The Lenny Bruce Performance Film — his second-to-last live show, at San Francisco’s Basin Street West in 1965 — recently released on DVD. Or perhaps a live rendition might make things clearer. Lenny Bruce: In His Own Words, a one-man show starring Jason Fisher, is running at the M-Bar in Hollywood through mid-December before departing on a 2006 tour. The show was co-written, co-produced and co-directed by Alan Sacks and Joan Worth, whose late husband, Marvin Worth, was Lenny’s former manager and dear friend. (Mr. Worth also produced the 1974 biopic, Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman.)On a slow Sunday afternoon at a quiet restaurant across Third Street from Cedars-Sinai, Sacks, Worth and Fisher reveal the origin of their sinister plans to spread subversive good will through entertainment.“Joan and I hadn’t spoken in a while,” says Sacks. “And then about two years ago, she called me and asked me what I was doing now. I was producing Disney Channel movies. So she said, ‘Well, do you want to do something with Lenny Bruce?’ And, well, how could I not want to do something with Lenny Bruce? Joan had an idea about doing an animated television series, which is still a great idea.”“In the Thank You, Mask Man style?” I ask. (John Magnuson’s Thank You, Mask Man, a magnificently realized animated short synced to one of Bruce’s live “Lone Ranger & Tonto” bits, is included on the new Performance Film DVD.)“Yeah! Yeah!” says Sacks. “And we got some great drawings. We got the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and we have . . . uh . . .”“Hitler,” says Worth.“Hitler,” says Sacks. “And Christ and Moses. Anyway, Joan and I started to develop a television series based on Lenny’s material — and we’re still doing that — but then we came up with the idea of putting out a one-man show. The timing was so right, with what’s going on. You know, the lack of information that we get from the government, the hypocrisy . . . Lenny’s material could’ve been written yesterday. So we went through all of his material and determined what we wanted to use, and had a lot of different incarnations of what to put together for the play. Then we went on a search for Lenny Bruce.”It took about a year to find their man: Jason Fisher, a young actor who didn’t know all that much about Lenny.“I’d never seen him,” says Fisher. “I hadn’t seen anything, I hadn’t listened to anything. I knew what he looked like, and my dad dug him. And I knew he was incredibly smart, and verbal. And that if you really, really, really got down to it, he kind of didn’t give a shit. You know? Not in a poser kind of way, but in a way where, by virtue of what you say, you’re showing us that you really don’t care what people think of your ideas. But it’s not like he doesn’t want to entertain, because he does. He’s not not an entertainer. He is that kid who’s 7 years old, jumping up and down trying to be seen. He is that guy, too. So when I kept coming back to it, I just saw a person there. I didn’t see an icon, I saw a guy who I kind of understood.”Fisher’s understanding shows. On opening night, he pounds out an impressive set of some of Bruce’s finest and most incisive work — “Religions Inc.,” “Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight?,” “Hitler and MCA,” “Christ and Moses,” “How the Law Got Started (Eat, Sleep & Crap),” and on and on — without resorting to impersonation. No easy task, that, as even minus the words’ meanings, Lenny’s delivery was a form of jazz, his rhythms similar at times to the horn of Charlie Parker, and at others to the prose of Jack Kerouac. But where Kerouac would isolate himself and meticulously reconstruct his stream-of-consciousness on silent pieces of paper, Bruce lived his stream out loud, onstage, in real time, among us. The man lacked not in balls or in thought.Fisher, meanwhile, is apparently being rewarded for his efforts in less-than-traditional ways. “We have him cloistered away in Park Labrea,” says Sacks. “He has no friends, he’s not driving, and we have him thinking about nothing but Lenny Bruce all day long. We pick him up in the afternoon, he comes to the theater, we rehearse for three hours, he does the show for Joan and me, we talk about it constantly — it’s like we’re producing a record.” “So then,” I venture a guess, “you take it to Broadway, where you perform every night through 2008, and then you kill yourself?”“Yes,” Fisher replies. “That’s right.”“And then,” Sacks adds, “Joan and I produce the movie.”“And the documentary,” I suggest. “About Jason’s rise to stardom.”“We’ve got that already,” says Sacks. “That’s all locked up.” Jason Fisher performs Lenny Bruce: In His Own Words every Saturday at 10 p.m. at the M-Bar’s Uncabaret, 1253 N. Vine St., Hollywood; through December 17. Call (323) 993-3305.