THANK YOU, MASK-MAN THE TRAGI-COMEDY OF LENNY BRUCE
1st June 2020
An American icon, is the best way to describe the man. Not Lenny Bruce. He is more like an anti-icon, like the anti-hero in a novel. We will return to the comedian who killed himself with heroin, was arrested in equal measure for drug use and profanity, and whose nickname for himself in his stage show was ‘Superjew’. No, the symbol of cultural America I refer to is The Lone Ranger.
Lenny Bruce called his comedic scenarios ‘bits’, and one of the most famous is Thank You, Mask Man, in which Bruce lampoons the world-famous hero cowboy. Admonished by one of the townsfolk for never accepting a ‘thankyou’ after his heroics, kimosabe reasons he does not have time, then takes to the idea, then demands a book of thankyous and is offered a prize by way of gratitude. He chooses Tonto the Indian. Bruce takes both voices…
TOWNSMAN: Why you want Tonto?
LONE RANGER: To perform an unnatural act.
TOWNSMAN: Aaaargh! The Mask Man’s a fag! The Fag Man! I bet you got mascaree [sic] under that mask!
LONE RANGER: I’m not a fag! But I read a lot about it, a lot of exposés, I wanted to try it once to see how bad it was. Tell you what! Give me the horse too!
TOWNSMAN: What the hell you want that horse for?
LONE RANGER: For the act!
In the current form of an unshockable cultural atmosphere, it is hard to imagine how many taboos Bruce broke with bits like this. And a conundrum is that if Lenny played a Manhattan or London venue now – unthinkable – with his spray-fire use of ‘cocksuckers’, ‘queers’, and ‘spades’, the trouble would stem from the derogatory language used to describe minorities and victim groups. When Bruce was playing sophisticated 1950s American restaurants and clubs in New York and San Francisco, any walkouts, and the attention of the police, would have been because Bruce reminded the audience those minorities even existed. But, as is often the case with humour deemed ‘racist’, when Lennie bounded onstage to a multi-racial crowd and opened with, ‘are there any n*****s here tonight?’, it was the black crowd that laughed loudest.
And this was not just the in-your-entitled-face barbs of Don Rickles or the later audience rabbit-punches which became a speciality of Bill Hicks. Bruce aimed at wider targets than the punters, and while he was noticed in the right ways, he also garnered all the wrong type of attention. This wise-cracking Jew was working in a society which, to quote Albert Goldman in his brilliant, swings-like-jazz biography, Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce!...
‘…more than any society since Ancient Rome has taken show business as the symbol of its national values’.
A New Yorker born in 1925, Bruce joined the Navy and saw active service – modern ‘comedians’ take note – and returned to New York from sea to claw his way up the career ladder of stand-up comedy, although there was far more to his talents. He wrote early screenplays alongside his burlesque club work, and even became something of a legal expert in his later life, when the court cases began to pile up for obscenity charges.
Bruce married Honey Harlow, an Arkansas stripper, in 1951, and the couple evolved a double act in which Honey kept her clothes on. Their marriage produced daughter Kitty in 1955. Lenny and Honey shared more than showbiz ambition, however, and their drug habits caused the kind of relationship problems that are a free gift with hard narcotics.
Lenny’s big break came in 1957, when club owner and promoter Ann Dee saw his act and loved the rough edges, the nerve of the puckish Bruce, and the risks he took in the cultural climate. Herb Caen in San Francisco was a raconteur and word-maestro (he invented the word ‘Beatnik’) who also took to Bruce, being of the opinion, according to Goldman, that Lenny Bruce was ‘not so much “sick” as the anatomist of a sick world’.
Nowadays, ‘sick’ has metamorphosed into ‘politically incorrect’ in a world where the gross is lionised and the merest hint of celebrity deviation from an approved, Orwellian glossary is career suicide, albeit assisted suicide. The police may be hard to summon these days for burglary, say, but there is an investigative committee of SJWs, Muslim leaders, academics, journalists and other linemen - and women - prowling the cultural alleyways like security guards with mastiffs and night-sticks, just looking for the wrong word. Bruce calling a woman talking loudly at a table during his act a hooker would now be a professional hazard for showing disrespect to sex-workers. When Lenny took that risk, it was disrespect to a lady that spooked the horses. Values change, but the core concept of cultural regulation remains.
The law watched Lenny Bruce like the famous gimlet-eyed American Eagle. ‘Being hassled by the cops’ today often means that the police have had the impertinence actually to arrest someone for committing a crime. For Bruce, harassment was very real, and the more repressive side of American law enforcement seemed more interested in Lennie’s language than his stash of syringes and droppers. Despite there having been no complaints from the public, who were too busy laughing at Lenny’s conceptual clowning to tell tales, police officers in uniform and plain-clothes became fixtures at Bruce’s later shows.
And the police got their man, both in the way the deep state – such as it was then - throttled his career, and with the obscenity charges that made a lawyer out of Lenny. The police had the advantage that they could always bust Bruce for heroin to bring him in and shut him down. In the end, Lenny slaughtered so many sacred cows the abattoir staff came for him. His bit about Jackie Kennedy ridiculed the notion that JFK’s wife exited the car in which her husband’s head was blown off, as shown in the famous Zapruder film, and was dragged across the chromium by a secret service man, because she wanted to fetch help. She was actually, Lenny told hand-across-mouth audiences, ‘hauling ass to save her ass’.
Despite the lawfare of his later career, a paradox for a comedian so willing to walk to the edge of decorum and beyond was that Bruce was surprisingly anxious about being disliked on a moral plane. Once criminal proceedings began to swamp him, and he began his legal studies in earnest, he would write to judges imploring them not to judge him morally. It is inconceivable, for example, that Bruce would have left an insulting message on an old man’s answering machine, as Russell Brand – a man as funny as a backed-up toilet – notoriously did alongside oafish fop Jonathan Ross. But then imagine Brand making Bruce’s bit about Adolf Eichmann work today; Und we made zem into soap…
As so oftens happens to the great comedians, the comic mask had the down-turned smile of tragedy on the reverse. Bruce’s crippling drug habit is hard to read about. The track-marks, embolisms and sores of the hardened junkie, Bruce’s bloated and punctured corpse laying in a Hollywood bathroom in 1966, and the constant desperate search for the hit to go with the laughs, got him both collared and killed. When Bruce visited England for a tour, a bemused Peter Cook ended up in a London cab with the American, scouring the city’s underbelly, helping the touring stand-up look for heroin. Bruce was later deported from the UK.
In the hotel room where his heroin-soaked dead body was found, the last line he ever wrote was in a notepad on the desk, but it was not humorous, except maybe to Lenny Bruce. ‘Conspiracy to interfere with the Fourth Amendment const…’. Bruce’s squalid death had another epitaph, however, one which illustrates the moral climate in which modern, money-grubbing America operated then and operates now. It could easily have been one of Bruce’s sketches. But it was a business pitch which sums up the times.
Phil Spector, a great friend of Lenny’s, was taking the comedian’s death badly, and had an assistant named Danny Davis. Shortly after the tragedy, Davis was approached by a police lieutenant with an envelope full of photographs of the ruined cadaver that had been Lenny Bruce. As Albert Goldman recounts;
‘”I thought you might like to see these”, said the officer. “They could make one helluva album cover! The price is five thousand dollars”. Danny shrugged and picked up the phone. When he got Phil, he said, “There’s a police lieutenant here with pictures of Lenny’s body… He wants five thousand dollars for them. What should I do?” The snarling voice on the other end of the wire barked, “Buy ‘em!”’
Larvatus prodeo, writes Nietzsche. I advance wearing my mask. Lenny Bruce had all the tears a clown could have, but he shared them with a humour so dark it lit up the sky. He wore both masks, tragedy and comedy.
Thank you, mask man.
Mark Gullick is a philosophy PhD from London, England, who went on holiday to Costa Rica four years ago and forgot to go home. He now works there as a musician. His debut novel, Cherub Valley, is available as an ebook here'.