The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce
36:43 min • Fantasy Records • 1959
Lenny Bruce is an American comedy icon, a man who fought the law tooth and nail for the right to perform his “dirty act” and died at the age of forty in 1966 from a heroin overdose. He paved the way for the likes of Lewis Black and George Carlin, breaking comedy from its vaudeville roots and into a new realm of social commentary.
Yet before his high profile busts began to take their toll, Lenny was cranking out albums and packing comedy clubs with his edgy material. His second album The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce remains a landmark in American stand up records.
Opening with the eight-minute ‘Non Skeddo Flies Again’, a satirical take on airline travel, centers around a plane falling apart in the air and the crew figuring out what to do to keep people happy and keep their airline in good public image. As the plane nears disaster, the crew decides the only way to lighten the load is to have people jump out, the crew member puts it this way, “Good evening everyone, I got a surprise, it’s jumping time! C’mon, what’s the matter? Nobody ever asked you to jump out of a plane before?” They finally decide to have the little kid who drew all over the walls to be the one to jump out and the bit closes with the mother freaking out at the prospect.
Lenny further spins tragic circumstances with ‘The Kid in the Well’, pointing out that when a kid gets stuck in a well the entire country keeps a vigil, seeing themselves in the tragedy; meanwhile the newspapers continue to run stories about racial discrimination and bigotry. Lenny masterfully shows the interest in soft news at the expense of hard stories, getting into the routine of a doctor trying to come up with a new disease to keep the people in panic and keep the newspapers selling.
The corporate world gets a good reaming in ‘Adolf Hitler and the MCA’, turning the rise of the Third Reich into a massive marketing scheme, blaming the fall of the Kaiser on poor PR spin and lack of public interest. The “dictator types” are put through an audition to see which one has the moxie to take over the government, and they are told the same thing told to all entertainers since time began: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you, we’ll contact your agents.” They finally see something in Hitler, noticing his bad artwork, finding him on the “extreme right” of all the other candidates, finding his face to be something you’d see on an album cover. Taking the young man, they remake his image, giving him a stage name, “Hitler”, liking the way it sounds like a “hit” with the people and the symmetry of his first name and last stage name. Putting him in the right clothes, the right stage name and a good backing section, they unleash their creation onto Germany, a perfect product of manipulation by corporations.
‘Ike, Sherm, and Nick’ is really the only bit that sounds dated to contemporary audiences. A satirical stab at President Eisenhower, it’s Lenny’s only straight-up political bit on the LP. But even as dated as the characters are, he nails something still relevant today, how to cover up a political scandal. Nixon (Eisenhower’s VP) is fed 12-year-old Scotch and threatened with Federal time, while they need Ike to find someone to feed to the dogs. Convinced that Nixon has to go to jail, they throw him under the bus.
‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ is the most avant-garde bit on the LP, a parody of jazz poetry, Lenny goes through the tale of a man wanting to marry his horse, backed by a jazz trio. Telling his tale of woe:
I’m paranoid and sublimated,
In love with a horse that ain’t been spaded,
Tragic scene, please let me be.
The Klan threatens the relationship, leaving a burning cross in their yard, saying they wouldn’t stand for mixed marriage. Rhythmic and irreverent, it’s one of the strongest segments.
The album closes with the nearly ten minute ‘Religions, Inc.’, transforming the supposed sacredness of organized religion into nothing but a money-raking popularity contest. On Madison Avenue, the board convenes and begins discussing their prospects; Billy Graham is patting himself on the back, talking about how far he’s come since he started his hustle back in the 30’s. Catholicism and Pentecostals are up in popularity, with Judaism taking a strong third. Introducing their newest star, a crazed snake-handler with the voice of a carny barker, talking about how tonight is “thrill night!”, saying that this is the biggest thrill he’s had of his career, talking to the prestigious members of Religions, Inc. instead of shilling his bullshit to the crowds of rednecks that he’s accustomed to. Making his pitch, he convinces the board that he’s religion’s newest star and will bring in untold millions for the group.
It’s strange to think of this album as “sick” or even “shocking”. The language isn’t that coarse, and is only peppered with an occasional “hell” or “goddamn”. But what truly shocked audiences in the ’50s wasn’t the language, it was the targets of Lenny’s bits. Here’s a man poking fun at tragedy, political corruption, sexual deviance and religion. These were subjects that were rarely discussed in a serious manner in public, let alone made fun of on a nightclub stage.
Despite this record being over fifty years old, the subjects remain relevant today and Lenny’s biting satire reaches across half a century to still make listeners laugh in 2013.