Kringas, Damian: Lenny Bruce: 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones, Guerilla Press Division, NSW Australia, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9806161-3-2, Paperback: 172 pages.
(Swans - June 28, 2010) Damian Kringas's Lenny Bruce: 13 Days in Sydney is a detailed record of Bruce's disastrous, pathetic, and outrageous two-week visit to Australia in l962 that can be read either as a social indictment of Aussies or a willful exercise in comedic masochism. Either way, it makes for a brisk and detailed reconstruction of Lenny Bruce's last days in a country that was (and maybe still is) several decades behind the times.
Viciously denounced by the Australian press on his first night, denied an alternative performance space after being kicked out of his contracted venue, maligned by outraged conservatives for obscenity and labeled a druggie, a purveyor of smut, an anti-Christ and a pariah, it was a gig that undoubtedly shortened his life span. One year after his ignominious return to America, his Australian venue Aarons was demolished and two years later, Bruce, perched on a toilet bowl with a needle emptied of morphine in his arm, was dead and almost instantaneously the legend of Lenny Bruce the comic martyr was created.
The book provides a detailed, day-by-day account of the comedian's stint in Sydney and defines the gap that existed between the ground-breaking comedian and the uptight Aussie public, which had never before been exposed to a mixture of obscenities and a comedian who didn't simply tell jokes but lost himself in free-wheeling comedic soliloquies which probed human hypocrisy and unsettled the comfort of burghers looking for a few easy laughs.
The book appears to suggest that Lenny's "dirty language" was the main element that alienated his audience, but what was brazen and brilliant about Bruce was his insight into the nature of relationships, the hypocrisy with which one class assailed another, and the camouflage people used with one another to conceal passions, frustrations, and human shortcomings. The obscenities were simply part of his showbiz vernacular and since they were all recognized terms in regular use, it seemed fatuous to the comedian not to employ them.
The same wayward but utterly original stand-up routines that enthused critics such as Kenneth Tynan and Richard Neville and reviewers in British publications like The Observer, The New Statesmen, and The Guardian and in sophisticated comedy clubs like Peter Cook's The Establishment, ran smack into a brick wall in Sydney. Of course, the fuzz intruded and clapped him into handcuffs -- and of course, moralistic matrons took umbrage at hearing words such as "fuck" and "cocksucker" applied to anecdotes about contemporary relationships, but that's what made Bruce special; he not only revealed the hypocrisies of language and sex, he exulted in revealing them. In l962, a performer like Lenny Bruce going into the staid heartland of a country like Australia was like a man throwing a hand grenade into a church social. It not only enraged the public, it also depressed the performer who could not comprehend that there were certain linguistic customs that could not be broached among adults.
We often hear that it was Bruce's groundbreaking comedy that opened the doors for comedians such as Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black, etc., but when one replays the early Bruce vinyl records, it becomes clear that none of them had the breadth of subject matter that Bruce mustered during a relatively short span of commercial prominence. Lenny was the leader of the flock when there virtually wasn't any flock. He built the bridge that linked the uptight 1950s to the Let-It-All-Hang-Out '60s. After his death, the torch was passed to George Carlin, a more intellectually-gifted comedian who acknowledged the debt he owed to Bruce. Whereas Lenny used profanity as part of his acceptance of an established American vocabulary, Carlin employed semantics, drawing attention to the hypocrisy of avoiding words that were part of the common vernacular; words we all use privately but avoid in public. Today, "bad taste" is de rigueur in the stand-ups of artists such as Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, and Robin Williams, but the residue of Bruce's influence clings to virtually all of them.
Krinkas's day-by-day, blow-by-blow, defeat-by-defeat chronicle of Lenny's aborted Australian gig reads like an horrific indictment of Australian culture when compared with the greater emancipation that was going on in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and London. Confronted with Bruce, the Aussies believed themselves to be in the embrace of a python and did everything they could to wriggle out of its deadly clutches -- while, at the same time, audiences in America were "coming of age" in the l960s and the more perceptive of these were already fitting the crown on Lenny's tousled-troubled head.
The last legally-obsessed days of Lenny Bruce's life will forever be a shame in America. There's a rumor that he took that last shot of morphine in order to escape the legal vise in which he felt entrapped and to quench the fear of no longer being able to make a living telling it like it was. If that is so, who can blame him for checking out before the righteous squares devoured him.
History is littered with martyrs -- usually soldiers, statesmen and religicos. Surely, a small patch of burial ground can be reserved for Leonard Alfred Schneider.
(A more personal account of the author's relationship with Lenny Bruce can be found in Stage Dust: A Critic's Cultural Scrapbook From The 1990s, published by The Scarecrow Press, Inc.)
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