Finding Lenny Bruce’s Imprint on the Comedy World in Two Documentaries
It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
Lenny Bruce’s legacy is undeniable. He was a ground-breaker, a pioneer in truth-telling comedy, the first to break away from charming family entertainment to address the real social issues off the day, including race, sex, and drugs. Comedy would not be what it is today without him.
The 2011 documentary Looking for Lenny takes that as read. “Before Lenny Bruce, comics were really people who introduced strippers,” according to Mark Lonow, co-owner of The Improv. He was the first comic to be truly irreverent and shocking, and he suffered for it. “It’s the first guy through the breach that takes all the bullets,” as ex-Marine Rob Riggle put it.
In 1964, the famous obscenity case against Bruce dragged on for months in New York City courts. Undercover police officers would take notes during his sets, then arrest him as he got off stage. His attempts to fight the court system failed, and he was sentenced to four months in a workhouse.
Looking for Lenny veers in and out Bruce’s life to explore about how much society’s attitudes towards controversial speech has, or hasn’t, changed in the intervening years. The films premise is to use Bruce’s legacy to “examin[e] the present-day stranglehold on creative freedom.”
As such, it doesn’t provide a full picture of Bruce, and sometimes assumes a greater knowledge of him than I, for one, had going in. And its parallels with the modern world can seem to be a bit of a stretch. Bruce’s then-ground-breaking discussion of race in America are discussed in reference to the Michael Richards debacle, an unfortunate single incident that hardly seems a pivotal enough moment in comedy history to warrant such a comparison.
Another chunk is devoted to the scandal surrounding Don Imus’s unfortunate remarks, another odd choice, because who still cares about Don Imus? The film acknowledges the inherent difference of a broadcaster firing an unpopular employee versus the government prosecuting a performer, but the length of the discussion gives far too much weight to the idea that corporate America is just as dangerous a censor as the panel of judges who convicted Bruce.
Most of the original footage Looking for Lenny is taken from another documentary, Lenny Bruce Without Tears, which was made in 1972, just six years after Bruce died from a morphine overdose. That film is a more traditional biography, and works nicely as a companion piece to the newer doc.
Unlike Looking for Lenny, which has modern, quick editing, with short clips and endless talking heads, Without Tears shows extended clips of Bruce over the span of decade, including TV appearances and interviews. The awesomely beatnik voiceover provides just enough information while letting Bruce do most of the talking. Without question, the chance to watch long bits of his material is more valuable than hearing other people talk about his influence. Though not all of his material still holds up today, it’s clear to see, in his mannerisms, style, and inflection, how much his comedic persona is still felt on stage today.
It also allows longer interviews, including a beautiful tribute from a British critic, who described Bruce as having “one of the most bizarre imaginations that’s ever been let loose on a nightclub audience,” and that as a fan of Bruce’s, he is in the minority, as Bruce’s fans will always be. It also includes a late interview with Bruce, where he is bloated and high, unable to focus, and jumping up and down with ridiculous bits. It’s both heartbreaking and compelling, and well-worth watching in its entirety.
Watched together, Looking for Lenny and Lenny Bruce Without Tears provide both a picture of the man in his time, and his immense impact on the world decades after his passing. Perhaps addressing all of that is too big an ask of any one documentary, but if anyone deserves two, it was Lenny Bruce.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Together, yes. Looking for Lenny sometimes gets too involved in modern-day issues, and not every clip in Without Tears is a winner, but in concert, they complement one another very well.
What does it have to say about comedy? It’s not an exaggeration to say that modern comedy could not exist without Lenny Bruce, but many of the comics discuss how Bruce’s ideas have been bastardized. As Robert Klein says, his sacrifices “have been so ill-served in many ways by the kind of anything-goes profanity and vulgarity you see today.”
Is it funny? Hmmph. Ironically, neither film seems that concerned with proving how funny he was, and though a few of the clips are great, some are preachy, others too period-specific to make much sense now.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City.