Lenny Bruce is Not Afraid

On February 4, 1961, Lenny Bruce performed before a full house at a midnight show at Carnegie Hall. Outside that cold night, a blizzard was blowing through the city, and there was also something powerful going on inside.

The Carnegie Hall Performance

Although Lenny Bruce’s career had been slowly building, the performance at Carnegie Hall launched him further into a career of breaking comedy and language barriers that would bring fame, legal troubles, and ultimately his death on August 3, 1966.

Below is the beginning of his performance at Carnegie Hall.

Persecution and Death

Before the end of the year, Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity for one of his performances. Although he was acquitted in that case, police officers in other cities began monitoring him more closely.

Here is part 2 (and you may continue listening to the concert on YouTube):

The close scrutiny led to other similar arrests and arrests for drug possession. In 1964 after a performance in New York, Bruce was again charged with obscenity. This time, he was sentenced to four months in a workhouse.

While out on bail during the appeals in 1966, he died of an accidental overdose. Phil Spector said it was an “overdose of police.”

Five years after Lenny Bruce’s death, a similar story would be repeated. Another star would face an indecency conviction, dying while the appeal was pending from an apparent death by drugs: Jim Morrison, who died in exile in Paris on July 3, 1971.

It would be almost 50 years after Bruce’s death before New York Gov. George Pataki pardoned Bruce in 2003.

Lenny Bruce’s Influence

Lenny Bruce influenced many performers who came after him. Richard Pryor said, “Lenny changed my life,” noting that “[i]t was him who said comedy wasn’t about telling jokes – it was about telling the truth.”

George Carlin has often discussed how Lenny Bruce was his hero. One may see the Bruce connection to Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bruce also has been mentioned in a number of songs, including R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce” from his Shot of Love album:

They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had.

A bio-pic about Lenny Bruce was made in 1974 starring Dustin Hoffman, who gives an excellent performance. Lenny, which was directed by Bob Fosse and was based on a Broadway play by Julian Barry, appears to be out of print on DVD, but you may watch it streaming on Netflix.

Although Lenny leaves out some background about Bruce’s tragic life, the movie is a good introduction to Bruce.  And Hoffman presents what Bruce’s “shocking” performances were like.

It amazes me that Lenny Bruce was constantly harassed and faced prison for using words we hear all the time today. But I still remember seeing the Dustin Hoffman movie when I was a kid when we first got cable in our house.

I had never heard anyone speak like that. My education on movie profanity would continue with Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon. But Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce was quite eye-opening. Many of Bruce’s intelligent points about censorship have stayed with me throughout my life. So, thank you Lenny and Dustin (and Richard Pryor and George Carlin).

Bonus Website: The Official Lenny Bruce website, approved by his daughter, also sponsors a link to donate to Lenny’s House, a non-profit charity for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

Bonus Quote and Movie Reference : One of the Lenny Bruce quotes on the website is: “Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers, will allow you to satirize it which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.” In one of Woody Allen’s best movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors, a character played by Alan Alda says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Allen was a supporter of Bruce and even signed a petition on Bruce’s behalf after an arrest, so I wonder if the line was inspired by Bruce?

What do you think about Lenny Bruce and his influence? Leave a comment.

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    Black History Month: Dr. Cornel West on Late Late Show

    For the start of Black History Month, Craig Ferguson welcomed philosopher Dr. Cornel West on The Late Late Show. I happened to have the show on, and as it progressed, I wondered, “Am I really seeing this intelligent conversation on a late night talk show?”

    Besides musical guest George Clinton, the only guest on the show was Dr. West. Ferguson began by noting that just for that night, the show would proceed without some of its sillier elements, like his usual robot sidekick, Geoff Peterson (who is actually more of a commentary on late night sidekicks). Ferguson and Dr. West discussed various topics including race, music, Huckleberry Finn, slavery, and U.S. citizenship. It was an intelligent conversation about important issues with a little humor thrown in for good measure. And I probably learned more from it than any of the arguments and debates featured on most cable news channels. Linda Holmes at NPR also wrote about this “extraordinary conversation.”

    A clip from the interview with Dr. West on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is here:

    Did you see the show? What did you think? Leave a comment.

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    Happy Groundhog Day!

    Pennsylvania Polka by Frankie Yankovic Pennsylvania Polka by Frankie Yankovic (press play button to play)

    Happy Groundhog Day. This year is Punxsutawney Phil’s 125th prognositcation, and he has predicted an early spring here in the U.S. One benefit of the storm hitting the eastern U.S. this morning is that it created cloudy skies, because if the groundhog saw his shadow, we would get six more weeks of winter.

    Even though the official website claims Phil has been the same groundhog all those years, I am not sure I believe them. According to historical markers around Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, German immigrants began observing the day as early as 1886. The tradition arose out of a European custom to predict winter’s length by the weather on the ancient Christian holiday of Candlemas.

    I cannot think of Groundhog Day without thinking of the wonderful movie with the same name. One of the most surprising discoveries about Groundhog Day (1993) the movie, courtesy the DVD commentary, is that Bill Murray and Director-Actor Harold Ramis had a big falling out during the movie and are no longer friends. Apparently, Murray wanted to make a more serious movie while Ramis wanted the movie to be more of a comedy. That disagreement provided a lot of growing tension during the filming of the movie. Last I heard, they still do not speak to each other.

    The separation is sad — not only because the two created good work in this movie, Stripes and Ghostbusters — but that the division is so contrary to the theme of the excellent Groundhog Day. One of the lessons of the movie is that the best cure for the existential crises and the miseries in your own life is to forget yourself and concentrate on doing good for others. So it is unfortunate that in creating a wonderful movie with such a beautiful theme that the two strong creative forces involved in the movie are no longer friends.

    Maybe it was because of that sharp creative tension that they were able to make such a perfect movie. The film walks an exact line, never straying too far either way toward light-hearted comedy or seriousness. As the movie nears its conclusion, you understand what Phil Connors meant when he explained in Groundhog Day, “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

    May the rest of your winter be without animosity and be full of warm hearths and hearts.

    Bonus Video that’s a Doozy: In a fan video, Stephen Tobolowsky, i.e., Ned Ryerson, discussed how mad Bill Murray was during the scenes where he had to repeatedly step in the deep puddle of water in the cold weather. Unfortunately, that fan video is no longer available, but here is another interview with Tobolowsky about the movie and the famous scene.


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    Our Great Recession & “The Company Men”

    Works of art must struggle to be able to say something about major historical events close in time to the events. While the events are occurring, we lack perspective, so movies often fail to give us much insight into our own time periods.

    For example, although the United States was involved in escalations in Viet Nam since at least the early 1960s, the first great Viet Nam War movie was 1978’s The Deer Hunter (and to some extent Coming Home from the same year), which came out about three years after the fall of Saigon. Apocalypse Now (1979) came out a year later, but most other excellent movies about the period came another decade later: Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). One of the few movies we remember that was released during the war was The Green Berets (1968), a movie that has a much different perspective than the later movies.

    Similarly, we have not yet seen great movies about the events of September 11, 2001. There are capable movies, like World Trade Center (2006) and United 93 (2006), but those movies do not give us much new perspective on the events. My favorite movie about 9/11 is not really about 9/11. Spike Lee’s beautiful 25th Hour (2002) is about a man in his last day before he has to report to prison. But the film is set in New York not long after the 9/11 attacks and does an outstanding job of showing indirectly what New York was like in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

    A few movies have had some success showing their own time period. Best Years of Our Lives (1946), while not above criticism, does seem to fairly reflect the lives of American men and their families when the men returned after World War II. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) shows the terror and suffering of the Depression while that economic crisis was still ongoing. But such movies are an exception.

    The Company Men (2010), like 2009’s Up in the Air, attempts to show America during the current recession. The film’s perspective is through the eyes of three men struggling after their corporate employer lays them off in massive downsizing. The movie features some excellent actors, including Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Kevin Costner — who has a small role but almost steals the movie in every scene where he appears. The movie shows how the layoffs impact the men because, like many of us in the modern world, their identities are connected to their jobs. So, they struggle to find meaning in their unemployed states, while also struggling to deal with bills and family relationships.

    One may criticize the movie for focusing on high-level corporate workers instead of the many working class women and men who have lost their jobs in the last several years. The movie wants us to feel sorry for Ben Affleck’s character because he has to sell his Porsche after getting laid off, making us wonder if the film-makers are that disconnected to the suffering of most people during this recession. But the Porsche-selling serves a purpose in showing how the character tries to hold onto the various status trappings even as the rest of his world falls apart. Also, I suspect that part of the reason for focusing on corporate workers was to show them directly interacting with the corporate owners who are making the decisions. But there is something too simplistic about the movie to focus on the bosses being evil caricatures, while the other main characters have somewhat predictable story arcs.

    Still, the drama is entertaining, and one must give the movie credit for attempting to show some of the human costs of the Great Recession. Although movies about current historical events often fail, we need help in processing the meanings behind those events. While relative failures like The Company Men, The Green Berets, and United 93 are not going to be remembered as great movies about their respective time periods, I am glad these movies were made and that I saw them. In many ways, they make way for the great movies to come by testing the waters and raising the questions that will be addressed later.

    A great movie has yet to be made about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, but there have been many more attempts on those subjects than has been made about the Great Recession. And each movie about the wars start to tell us a little more about those events and about ourselves. And because those wars have been around longer than the current recession, there are some good movies on that topic, such as The Hurt Locker (2009) and In the Valley of Elah (2007). So keep trying Hollywood. You will get it.

    Conclusion? The Company Men is an entertaining movie. Although it is not a great movie and is somewhat predictable, the high quality acting and realistic story about current events is worthwhile viewing.

    What do you think of these movies? Leave a comment?

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    A Pop Culture Tribute to the End of the Terror Color Levels

    Starting last Thursday, the U.S. Homeland Security Department began phasing out the color-coded terror-threat system that was created after September 11, 2001. The system will end completely by April 26, 2011. The national level has been at yellow (elevated) since 2006, with air flights being at orange (high risk).

    Hopefully, in the future, anyone born after today will not know anything about this system. For posterity, here is a popular culture explanation of the meaning behind all of the colors:

    * Red: severe risk: When we are at this level, it is like the days when we thought the communists were taking over and were going to attack. Panic time. (The movie Reds, starring Warren Beatty.)

    * Orange: high risk: This level is like being locked in prison. You cannot go anywhere.  (“Orange Blossom Special” at San Quentin, by Johnny Cash.)

    * Yellow: Elevated – significant risk: When you are at this level, it is a little bit better than being in prison, as you may leave your room, but you still cannot go out. It is like being in a submarine.  (“Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles.) 

    * Blue: Guarded – general risk: It’s better than the options above, but you’re still a little sad.  (“Blue” by the Jayhawks.)

    * Low (green): low risk: This is a happy level, like living with puppets. But it’s not easy to get this green level.  (“It’s Not Easy Being Green,” by Kermit the Frog.)

    In all seriousness, I recommend the movie and the songs above. But if you only watch one, check out “Blue” by the Jayhawks. It is a great song with an introduction by a very young Jon Stewart.

    Here’s to hoping we never hear anything more about terror levels again.

    Will you miss the terror colors? Leave a comment.