Before he became the Dreyfus of the nightclubs, the comedian Lenny Bruce often officiated as Lord High Chancellor of show business. In a typical sketch, “The Tribunal,” Bruce arraigns before an imaginary court the most famous entertainers in show business. He orders them to divulge the amount of their weekly earnings and then to demonstrate talents equal to such enormous salaries. The stars are all found guilty of fraud. Minor offenders are let off with light sentences. Frankie Laine’s wig is burned; Sophie Tucker’s sweat-stained gowns are confiscated. But when the court comes to the case of the man called “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” Sammy Davis, Jr., the magistrate shows no mercy. “Mr. Junior” is explaining how he earns $40,000 a week mimicking Jerry Lewis (“Hey Dean, I gotta booboo”) when the outraged judge breaks in, “Strip him of his Jewish star, his stocking cap, his religious statue of Elizabeth Taylor—30 years in Biloxi!”
Lenny Bruce’s scornful caricature of Sammy Davis, Jr., is intended to epitomize dozens of famous performers whose success is wholly out of proportion to their talents and whose moral pretensions are absurd in view of their private lives. Davis is an especially inviting target because he commands one of the highest salaries in the night-club business for one of the most routine acts. His singing is nondescript, a mixture of the styles of at least half a dozen other performers, including his hero, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Eckstein, Billy Daniels, Tony Bennett, and Anthony Newley. His dancing combines familiar routines from vaudeville and musicals; his comedy derives from Jerry Lewis (as does his Catskill tumler’s stage presence); and even his “impressions,” the strongest part of his act, are for the most part borrowed from a handful of relatively obscure Broadway comics. Only his versatility, his energy, his fanatical desire to please, are wholly Davis’s own.
In another performer this all-inclusive embrace of the going thing might simply indicate a lack of talent, but in the case of Sammy Davis, Jr., it means something more. One notes, for example, that in all his work there is not a single expression of that racial identity (still potent in performers as different as Ray Charles and Dick Gregory) that has traditionally given the Negro entertainer his power. Thus Davis seems to be refusing the label “Negro entertainer”; he is taking his “color” from his professional milieu rather than from his ethnic origin. He might even be called the first “colorless” Negro performer; for like Diahanne Carroll and Bill Cosby, later embodiments of the same idea, what Sammy Davis, Jr., offers his audience above everything else is the opportunity to “prove” that they can respond to a Negro without consciousness of his race.
Yet his prosperous middle-class audiences are torn by conflicting feelings about this highly successful Negro. For some of them Sammy Davis, Jr., is the butt of a considerable number of defamatory and obscene jokes, some turning on his physical defects, others on his conversion to Judaism, and still others on his marriage to a white woman. These jokes seem to suggest another, antagonistic side to the public’s reaction to Davis: The little black boy, blind in one eye, has managed to sneak under the fence into the big white mansion.
This image of the maimed intruder—suitably glamorized—is the view that Sammy Davis, Jr., holds of himself. His autobiography, Yes I Can, is a testament to his relentless determination to become a star—one who could hurdle the barriers erected against Negroes. To achieve this goal, he learned to perform with virtuosity all the material his audiences had been accustomed to associate with famous white performers. Having achieved success, he crashed every gate that had once been closed against him. Yet the least valuable parts of Yes I Can are those in which Davis speaks of his life as a Negro. The forms of intolerance from which he especially suffers are not those that afflict most Negroes, nor even successful Negroes: They are the embarrassments of a Negro “star” bent on being just like his white colleagues. What he most often complains about is exclusion from supper clubs and hotels, crank letters, the difficulty of buying a house in fashionable white neighborhoods, and various social prohibitions, especially the taboo against sleeping with white women. Davis himself knows that these are not the real frontiers of the racial revolution. The most savage insults he suffered were not at El Morocco, but at basic training camp in the U.S. Army. But the Army was for Davis only an accidental collision with reality; in other respects, he has lived in the fantasy world of Show Biz—perhaps one of the few real sanctuaries in America for ethnic minorities.
Davis, the son of a vaudeville dancer and a chorus girl who abandoned her child to go back to the “line,” was reared from birth in the insulated and tolerant world of show business, and probably this fact is more important than his being Negro. He had relatively little experience with racial prejudice until he entered the Army, and by that time his personality and ambitions were formed. Brought up in this limited world, Davis naturally aspired to be one of the most successful men in it. Always an idolator of the stars, a brash Broadway “hippie,” constantly “on,” constantly doing the “bits,” he identified with white America—or that part of it “the Business” represents. Even his conversion to Judaism can be understood as an act of conformity to his professional world.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the best parts of Yes I Can should concern not the problems of the Negro, but the powers and perils of stage life. Like many men who suddenly rise to stardom after years of poverty and hardship, Davis lived recklessly, throwing his money around. But he was a lonely spectator of his own success. He became increasingly bitter and angry, drank and gambled heavily, and then began to fear that he had lost the mysterious power to “touch” his audience. He threw himself into marriage with a Negro show girl, hoping that this would stabilize his life and redeem his now soiled reputation (particularly with the hostile Negro press). But marriage only deepened his despair, and finally made him attempt suicide. The story ends on a Hollywood note. Davis miraculously recovers, marries the Swedish film star, May Britt, and in the final “fade” stands with moist eyes over the hospital bed of his wife and newborn child.
Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People offers scattered glimpses of an entertainer whose life, though compounded of some of the same ingredients as Davis’s, has unfolded toward ruin as inevitably as Davis’s toward success. Unlike Sammy Davis, Jr., Lenny Bruce is a highly original performer. Yet Bruce’s present notoriety as a “dirty talking dope fiend” has as little to do with his talent as has Davis’s success with his Bruce is heatedly denounced or earnestly defended by people who have only slight acquaintance with his work. In fact, it is impossible to improve this acquaintance at first hand, because Bruce has been shut out of the clubs. He was convicted last winter in New York on charges of obscenity.
Bruce’s identification with a minority group is just as essential to his act as Sammy Davis’s is negligible. Though reared far from the ghetto in a predominantly gentile town on Long Island, Bruce has constantly emphasized his Jewishness. His act depends heavily on Yiddish expressions and “inside” jokes that before the current vogue of Yiddish slang could have meant little to audiences outside New York. But there was something hollow about Bruce’s Jewish identity: his favorite Yiddish phrases, for instance, were some times not only mispronounced but misused. Yet it is unlikely that his assimilated family could have provided him with an identity. Bruce’s exaggeration of his Jewishness, like Davis’s obliteration of his Negritude, helps him establish a bond with his audience. But there is perhaps a deeper personal significance in Bruce’s use of his Jewishness: The label provides a comprehensive metaphor for his loneliness and steadily deepening pain. Being Jewish, like being Negro, provides a convenient excuse for the antagonism aroused by unconventional behavior. At his sentencing last winter in New York, Bruce dismayed even his friends by publicly attributing his conviction to gentile intolerance of “Jewish” attitudes toward sex.
Lenny Bruce’s life, as one pieces it together from How to Talk Dirty, tells us how tenacious innocence and subsequent disillusionment gave rise to a satiric art which is unprecedented on the American stage in its violence and outrageous scatology. Bruce grew up during the worst years of the Depression, reared by his mother and his aunt (his father had deserted the family). Living on relief and stealing other kids’ lunches, he daydreamed in images derived from radio and movies:
I dreamed of living over a barn, seeing the stars through a crackedboard room, smelling the cows and horses as they snuggle and nuzzle in a shed below, seeing the steam come up from the hay in the stable on a frosty morning, sitting at a table rich with home-canned goods with seven other farm hands, eating home fries, pickled beets, fresh bacon, drinking raw milk, laughing, having company in the morning, having a family, eating and working and hanging out with the big guys, learning to use Bull Durham.
At sixteen he ran away and got a job on a farm, but he soon discovered that the farmer and his wife weren’t “Guy Kibbee and Fay Bainter.” The “fresh” eggs sold on the farm came from Texas (though Lenny smeared them with authentic chicken droppings), and when a nice rich lady from the city took the wide-eyed boy to town to buy him some new clothes, she stopped along the way to show him dirty pictures and examine him for “V.D.” Bruce’s capacity for disillusionment was enormous, and its intensity increased as he went through a hitch in the Navy and a marriage, happy at first but then disastrous, to a stripper named Honey (Bear) Harlow.
Disenchantment, however, could never erase the images of an ideal America he had taken from the movies; and so Bruce, who had gotten into show business as a burlesque house M.C., began to evoke on the stage a world of fantasy in which he and his audience could simultaneously revel in the dreams of childhood even while ridiculing and repudiating them. Bruce introduced the style of humor (later made familiar by Candy and other sources) that produces its near-hysterical effect by deliberately perpetrating outrage on the most innocent figures of American folklore. In one sketch, for instance, he tells how, when the Avon representative called at his house, he drugged her, stripped her, decked her out with galoshes and a moustache, raped her, and then wrote on her belly, “You were balled.” In another long and complicated routine, which he changes from one performance to another, he explains that the Lone Ranger’s bullets are really pellets of Ehrlich’s 606 (“That’s why he keeps his mouth tightly shut”) and that the Lone Ranger is a homosexual (“Bring Tonto here. I wish to commit an unnatural act. Wait a minute! Bring the horse too!”).
Bruce grew increasingly discontented with his audience’s refusal to be shocked and about three years ago he passed into the most interesting and notorious phase of his development. His “art” now depends, like that of the shaman in primitive society, on his ability to locate and expose the fears and resentments—the “demons”—that beset and torment his audience. Lacking the elaborate technique of a writer like Genet, Bruce goes about his exorcism in a direct and intuitive manner, by violating taboos or offering threats of violence or outrage. “How many niggers we got here tonight?” he may demand, or wave a chair over a patron’s head, or turn out the lights and announce that he is going to “piss” on the audience. Then, having laid his audience low by these shock tactics, Bruce resorts to other comic techniques to laugh this perilous stuff away.
Many examples of Bruce’s stage material have been embedded in this account of his life; in fact, the book, like his act, is a mosaic of loosely assembled comic sketches. But a straight transcription of his words does not do justice to his art, for like the jazz musician whose solo resists transcription, the comedian depends on a highly developed technique of delivery that includes vocal mimicry, sound effects, mime, and most important of all, timing. On stage Bruce creates a kind of poetry out of pungent colloquial phrases, sudden shifts of mood, and by revealing the rapid, nimble motion of his mind, which darts along invisible networks of association. But all this brilliance is sadly dimmed by his descent into print. Moreover, what made Bruce great as a performer was his ability to balance and interweave the naive and cynical sides of his personality. In his book, however, he has (perhaps unconsciously) suppressed his identity as a hipster. Never once do we catch a glimpse of the stooped, stiff-legged figure in the black raincoat who used to slouch onstage and confront the audience like a drunk eying a whore. Bruce’s literary persona is The Kid, a very ingratiating role, but a drastic simplification of the complex and fascinating character he projected from the night-club floor. How to Talk Dirty is entertaining to read but it also creates the distorted impression of a “simple” Lenny Bruce.
Another serious fault of the book is its failure to provide necessary information. After going on for pages about his idyllic marriage with Honey Harlow, Bruce suddenly announces the end of this six-year relationship in these words: “Eventually, Honey and I were to get divorced.” Almost as unsatisfactory is the account of Bruce’s half-dozen trials for obscenity and narcotics. Here again he has taken an easy but misleading way through the difficulties of exposition by merely printing excerpts from the trial transcripts. These snippets give no idea of the comedian’s problematic relation to the law, but they do convey Bruce’s own view that he is the victim of a nonsensical but sinister persecution.
Though he has won most of his cases, he appears in the process to have lost his mental balance. Reduced to poverty, undermined by ill-health, dangerously beset by strange accidents (like his fall from a hotel window last spring), Bruce now devotes himself like some mad Talmudist to the study of subtle strategies of legal defence. He may eventually win the right to take his revenge for our injured innocence, but in the process he may lose the harmony of mind necessary for his art. What both these lives seem to be saying is: Let a man just force the basic issues far enough and he is sure to end up either as a stereotype or a nut.
January 20, 1966