Leonard Schneider was a Depression child, born and raised on Long Island, which he described as a land filled with "screen doors to push your nose against, porches to hide under." Against such lonesome boredom his imagination ran amok with a cast of the Hollywood character actors who later populated his stage bits.
One day he stumbled upon his cousin having sex with a girl and could never decide whether he'd witnessed "...a clean act, a dirty act, a self-indulgent act, or an ecstatic act of pure religious procreation. With all the exposure I've had, I still can't tell you. You must interpret what went on in your own way—and, of course, you will." This instinct, to resist conclusions and accept that all opinions are subjective, must have come so naturally as to seem universal. Isn't that common sense? Sanity?
Not quite, as he'd learn repeatedly.
During World War II Leonard saw active duty in the Navy until a bawdy drag performance for the amusement of fellow sailors led to his discharge, beginning a lifelong spree of just-for-fun crimes against decency. Taking a cue from his mother, comedian and dancer Sally Marr, he became Lenny Bruce and began the slow trek from nervous purveyor of corny celebrity impressions to notorious taboo-poker with a very sharp schtick.
Along the way there were detour gigs: con man, Z movie screenwriter and strip show MC, all of it eventual fodder for his act, processed through an extraordinary ability to see life and people as they really are ... to instantly spot their sillier contradictions and have a laugh at it all.
His mumbles, digressions, hip patter and mysterious epiphanies ("DIG!") provided a flow that carried all that observation just as an improvising musician's style merges guttural slurs, blissful cadenzas and a swipe file of musical quotations.
"When I talk on the stage, people often have the impression that I make things up as I go along. This isn't true. I know a lot of things I want to say; I'm just not sure exactly when I will say them. I think one develops a style like that by talking to oneself. It's a form of thinking."
He thought and talked about a lot of things now largely forgotten, like Hubert's Museum and Moondog; a lot of themes now taken for granted, like ethical hypocrisy and calling a fuck a fuck; a lot of things that got him hounded and hated that seem utterly uncontroversial today, as well as a lot of things for which the new puritans would surely censure him at least as brutally and absolutely as his old tormentors did, particularly his bulls-eye comments on how to deal with racial epithets.
It goes without saying that we could use a Lenny Bruce today, and Dave Chappelle, good as he is, ain't it. Neither was the sneering Bill Hicks, who claimed Bruce-like censorship and suppression as his brand because he got cut from the Letterman show that time. Even Lenny's friend George Carlin eventually resorted to spitting bitter jeremiads off index cards. None of them, except Richard Pryor, approached the free-range intelligence, twitchy grace and oddly innocent vision Bruce brought to the stage.
Maybe his true successors were the "underground" cartoonists who emerged soon after his death... different medium (and different drugs), but the same acuity, fearlessness and merry raunch.
As ever, Lenny's eye is on us all in this rendering by Drew Friedman, portraitist and peer of legendary comics and comix legends alike. Surely Bruce's keen eye would find as much to mock in our time as it did 60 years ago when another friend of comics and comix, Paul Krassner, asked Lenny what influenced his work.
He replied with a rambling, ribald laundry list of things mundane and horrific, names from the front pages and funny papers, only to finally summarize: "It was an absurd question. I am influenced by every second of my waking hour."
— Sport Murphy