Swinging With The First Amendment

By Max Gross

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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‘I’m going to tell you the dirtiest word you’ve ever heard on stage,” comedian Lenny Bruce used to begin one of his nightclub routines. “It is just disgusting. … It’s a four-letter word, starts with an ‘s’ and ends with a ‘t.’”

After begging the audience not to tell his mother that he would actually dare to utter something so vile in public — pausing for effect — he delivered the word with all its bite: “Snot.”

Nothing quite so funny (or disgusting) came up at Stand-Up New York’s “Tribute to Lenny Bruce” earlier this month, where about a dozen comedians came to celebrate the fact that 39 years after he was convicted for obscenity, the great mandarin of filthy comedy was finally pardoned by Governor George Pataki. But enough blissful profanity and scatological imagery made its way into the club that one felt Bruce would have been comfortable. Another four-letter word beginning with an “s” and ending with a “t” was casually tossed around by virtually every performer. And the “s” word’s heavyweight cousins — “f” words and “c” words — also were liberally sprinkled throughout the monologues that night.

The moment Pataki’s pardon — the first posthumous pardon in New York’s history — was announced in December, Stand-Up New York owner Cary Hoffman and general manager Nick Cimato began scrambling for rowdy, irreverent, profane comedians who were influenced by him. (They are now considering making Bruce-inspired showcases a monthly event.)

But despite the stable of first-rate performers and the scores of fans who braved the freezing temperatures to attend the tribute, filling the venue to capacity, nobody was there out of any first-hand loyalty to Bruce.

Before he began introducing comedians, master of ceremonies Frank Vignola asked the crowd — almost all of whom were in their 20s and 30s — if anyone had ever seen Bruce before. Not a single audience member raised a hand.

Likewise, none of the comedians who graced the stage, some of whom were well into middle age, had seen Bruce either.

“You would have to be 58 years old to have seen Lenny Bruce” perform his act, Sam Greenfield, one of the performers, told the Forward. “He died 37 years ago — and you would have to be 21 to get into a club” where he performed.

“I wasn’t there so much because of [Bruce’s] greatness,” said Greenfield, who was one of the older comedians to perform at the tribute, and who had heard Bruce’s routines only on albums and archival footage. “I was there because of what they did to him; it’s never that far away” for other comedians, he said, referring to the merciless hounding that Bruce endured at the hands of police and conservative groups.

According to Vignola, all the comedians on the bill had been influenced by Bruce to some extent.

For some, the tribute was simply a chance to trot out their standard material. Judy Gold expounded on motherhood. Judah Friedlander came onstage in a pair of aviator glasses and a scruffy T-shirt and spoke in a drawl about his athletic misadventures. Demitri Martin delivered surreal, soft-spoken, Steven Wright-like jokes.

Other performers came closer to capturing Bruce’s edgy tone: Jim Norton talked about being invited to host an awards ceremony for the porn industry, and even an ingenious reporter would struggle to paraphrase in a family newspaper the sexual debauchery Norton experienced. Lewis Black summoned up the political conviction in Bruce’s comedy, inveighing against conservatives in bubbling anger that could barely be contained by jokes about President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The tribute also tackled what is arguably Bruce’s most important legacy: the comedy of race. Bruce began one of his most famous routines by asking, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” Some would argue Bruce’s intention was to strip the word of its shock value; others would say he was mischievously making his liberal (white) audience nervous in the presence of such a powerful word.

Al Lubel trotted out the “n” word during the tribute performance.

The slightly crumpled, middle-aged, olive-skinned comedian with a shaggy mop of dark hair and a low voice began a routine about living in a predominantly black neighborhood and coming home late one night on the subway near a trio of rowdy black teenagers. “They kept saying the ‘n’ word,” Lubel said.

Lubel confessed his own anxiety about hearing the “n” word — how he couldn’t stop thinking of the word, and his nervousness about uttering it out loud. He finally decided to combat his anxiety by facing the issue head-on. He turned to the trio. “I said, ‘I’m a nigger,’” Lubel said fervently. “‘I’m a nigger!’” Confused, the three teens looked at one another. One declared: “That nigger’s crazy!”

The smattering of black people in the audience laughed.

Comedian Lisa Lampanelli, who lobbied for Bruce’s pardon, got the biggest laughs of the evening for being by far the most offensive.

In a New Jersey accent liberally dappled with Brooklynese, Lampanelli proceeded to insult her audience in just about every stereotype imaginable a la Don Rickles or Andrew Dice Clay (another — unfortunate — legacy of Bruce).

She designated one audience member a “faggot,” and dubbed a black man “Tyrone.” She admonished an Indian member of the audience for not bathing, and belittled Jews for certain underwhelming aspects of their genitalia.

“She got by far the most laughs,” one audience member said after the show. The blacks, Jews and Indians whom she insulted laughed the hardest.

For the Bruce faithful, the offensiveness was not an issue. Bruce “pushed the envelope like Howard Stern and [Don] Imus push the envelope today,” Greenfield said. “Or like [Rush] Limbaugh pushed the envelope for drug-addicted, conservative talk-show hosts.”

Greenfield was certain that Bruce knew his audiences could handle it. “It’s supposed to be a nightclub — it’s not a day club,” he said. “It’s supposed to be like that.”

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