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, No. 22 (Spring, 1989), pp. 92-114 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/466522 Accessed: 30/09/2010 04:38
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Lenny Bruce: and Hyperrealism the Death of JewishTragicHumor
I credit the motion picture industry as the strongest environmental factor in molding the children of my day. a Andy Hardy:whistling;a brownpompadour; green lawn; a fatherwhose severestpunishmentwas takingyour car away for the weekend. Baxter was a doctor.All priestslooked like Pat O'Brien. Warner of The superintendent my school lookedlike Spencer Tracy,andtheprincipal looked like VincentPrice. I was surprisedyears laterto discover they were Spencer Tracy and Vincent Price. I went to Hollywood High, folks. Lana Turnersat at the next desk, RolandYoung was the English teacherand Joan Crawfordtaughtgeneralscience. "She's got a fabulousbody, but she never takes thatshop apronoff." Actually,I went to public school in North Bellmore, Long Island, for eight years, up until the fifth grade.I rememberthe routineof milk at 10:15 and nappingon thedesk-I hatedthe smell of thatdesk-I alwaysused to dribble on the initials.And how enigmaticthose well-preserved carvingswere to me: BOOK YOU. (Bruce, 1966:9)
Traveling Humor: Shtetl to Stand-up Comedy The production of humor is both specific to particular social structures and is transmitted across them. Humor in the second sense is a form of "traveling theory," to adapt Edward Said's phrase, and bears all the advantages and problems of its global itinerary. The "liberation" of humor from its anguished, productive context may become a trap of its own when projected into another context. Jokes cracked in Ireland or Bratislava may reinforce the migrant's sense of transition when adapted in New York by new immigrants, but may be a straightjacket when forced on their children, who are likely to want to tell different jokes appropriate to other contexts. This essay is therefore about travelling humor, but not about whether the humor "wears well" when it travels, (an argument which depends on the comparative juxtapositions of values being constant in different contexts) but with how the humor is transmitted from one value-system to another. Lenny Bruce was an American raconteur, comedian, aphorist, whose performances on and off the stage gained some notoriety in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bruce was brought up in Long Island. His
grandparents had migrated at some point from Central Europe to England, and, then, when Bruce's father, Mickey Schneider,was onefrom the army and-a-halfyears old, to the U.S.A. After demobilization Bruce's mother, in 1945, Mickey trained himself as a physiotherapist. Sadie, tried, and failed to make it on the stage. They got divorcedafter a few years. Neither of them, at any stage of their lives, were part of seems to a Jewish religious community, though Bruce's grandmother Yiddishand Ashkenazytraditionsto in have been important transmitting her family. And yet it was Lenny Schneider(alias Bruce) who presented the clearest case of traveling Jewish humor and its fate in North roots of Jewish humor, America.By going back to the CentralEuropean and its migrationto the Europeancities and to North America,I intend to show the problemsof travelinghumor. Much of the joke-telling in Ireland, Wales, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, and Kentucky seem to display similar patterns. There are There are the jokes about the mean-spirited, frugal, the penny-pinchers. jokes against people with split values, jokes against people deemed to be of lower or higher intellectualstatuses which are essentially racist, jokes against the clergy, jokes which expose particularforms of infidelity, jokes against those who are incompetentin their jobs, and so on. These jokes are transposablefrom situation to situation not only but because the people were transported, because they were transported to essentiallysimilar socioeconomicsituations.Such humor"wearswell" because it travels from one situation to another situation which are similar.What folkloristsare concernedwith is to spell characteristically out the nuances of the variationsof the transmigration. Most humor, after a while, does not wear well. (Anyone heard a New Yorkjoke recently?Or a great Hungarian good Welsh Patagonian bred one?) But humordoes travel: this essay is concernedwith exploring the implications of Jewish humor traveling from the Central Europeanshtetl to the United States, and I am taking this route because case the Jews, like the Blacks and the Irish, providea well-documented to migrate and therefore, against their personal of a culture forced wishes, compelled to examine their culture and their humorin entirely new contexts. inform what I have to say. One is experiential,hisTwo trajectories torical, practical. The history of world Jewry for the past 100 years, has to be re-statednot in terms of its past althoughwell-documented, and culturalheritage but in terms of what it is becoming. The North Americanconfidence in infinite progressand growth must be treatedas in a set of values that have to be deconstructed terms of how they values. There may be and apparent between living structures distinguish a past ("The World We Have Lost," "Worldof Our Fathers")which Jews live now, but that impact continues to affect how contemporary can only be tracedthroughartifact(letters, words, images) and as facts of memory inscribed on the everyday. It is in the practice of the
everyday that these artifacts come alive. But because the artifacts have an impact we must be able to trace them against the overwhelming presence of the other images with which they have to contend. Lenny Bruce suggested this problem in an aside on the problem of the Jewish "god": is for of Now,thereason, perhaps, my irreverence thatI haveno knowledge the BeforeI wasbom thegod the god,because Jewslost theirgod.Really. wasgoingaway. Because havea godyouhaveto knowsomething to about the as him,andas a childI didn't speak samelanguage theJewish god. To have a god you have to love him andknow abouthim as kids early instruction-and didn't I knowwhat looked he like.Ourgodhasno mother, no father, manger thefive andten,on cerealboxesandon television no in his shows.TheJewish what's face?Moses?Ah,he'sa friend god's: of god his He "Idunno. Moses,he's,I dunno, uncle,I dunno..." hasno true identity. Is he a strong God?Aretherelittlestories? there Are Bibletalesabout god, thatonegod,ourfacelessgod?(Bruce, 1967: 45) The second trajectory, couched in the language of what is often called postmodernism argues that, since the early 1960s, both Western and Eastern societies have experienced a complete breakdown in values which is exemplified in three ways: the production of knowledge for its own (or Life's) sake, the dichotomy between law as a central all-pervasive control and the counter-thrust of demands that everything must be tolerated, and, thirdly, the awareness (sketched by Baudrillard and MacLuhan) that we live in a world where the representation of the real takes over from the real itself. The two trajectories intertwine, (though rarely in the work of those who espouse them). The first takes history seriously as sequence but as a sequence that has to be read backward. The second (although its pessimism/despair about the present forces us to confront the past as something that was lived) compells us to reexamine a present which is more than simply read. The tension between reading and living, practice and theory, are central to both exercises. And that tension is surely revealed in the moment we call humor. Here we invariably recall moments in the past in order to give meaning to the present. Alternatively we project the present onto a past which we want to highlight for our own purposes. The "living" moment of humor, if it is spoken, is the voice of the storyteller, the raconteur who becomes the voices of those he wants to project into this present. The "dead" moment is the retelling of an old story in a way that will make sense to the other living moment. Something of encoding and decoding takes place here,2 with parody and satire lying at the point of intersection. Even if the humour is not spoken, it is the inflection of the spoken and unspoken, the story retold in another context that gives it its decoded sense, where the "audience" becomes both the deconstructor of the message and the encoder of the new one. Performance art, especially in theater, music and comedy is such a situation where the storyteller, caught between the literature of
memory and the practice of seeing and hearing, becomes himself a problem. Who is this guy up there? Why is he saying this to us now? Lenny Bruce stands at the apex of this conflict between ourselves wanting a "show" and not knowing why this "show" should go on, Changing Contexts: the Urbaniziation and Secularization of Jewish Humor The reading of this particular trajectory of Jewish humor begins with the shtetl, and the moment when Jews in Eastern Europe were congregated in small farming communities in an area roughly bordered by the Danube to the south, the Vistula and the Baltic to the north, the Oder to the west, and the Dnieper and the Dvina to the east. They were a society of farmers, craftsmen, itinerant musicians and rabbis.Their language was Yiddish, a German patois spoken with a Hebraic/Slavic inflection. An urban strata-led to some extent by professionals who had migrated to the cities-soon declared themselves independent of rabbinical control, which had provided the central oppositional focus of those who lived in the shtetl. Not only did a sophisticated bourgeoisie emerge in such cities as Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, but so did a militant working class and an intellectual Marxist movement which sought to overthrow the existing regimes. Pre-American European Jewishness therefore split into two strands: the beleagured rural enclaves of the shtetl and the bourgeois/proletarian radicalism of the cities. shtetl Jews preserved the Torah, Hebrew and rigid ritual; urban Jews tried to universalize the Jewish experience. After 1914 the divisions became even more marked. As E. J. Hobsbawm has written of himself and the interwar generation of radical Jewish intellectuals: since and a Wedidnotmake commitment against bourgeois society capitalism, rather no chosea future than to seemed be onitslastlegs.Wesimply it patently but revolution ina negative ina not revolution. itmeant But which meant future, rather no world. a than sense: newworld positive In the shtetl, peasants temporarily became workers' heroes, claiming a place above the intellectuals, but the shtetl itself was physically constraining, "crisscrossed with ditches and drains. Time and events flowed away in them along with the rainwater. The ditches were spanned by small wooden bridges, almost like litter planks, like poor Jewish biers" (Neuroschel, 1979: 465). It is important for our purposes to sketch two interrelated forms of Jewish humor. It is commonplace to say that Jewish humor is born of hardship, that it is "laughter through tears," that it is "philosophical," that it is "wistful" (Ausbel, 1967: 21-5). And it is commonplace to see that the central feature of much humour is not about very distant strangers, but about close neighbors who are slightly strange versions of ourselves. But it is equally important to recognize different styles of humor, and especially, for my purposes, to distinguish between "car-
nivalesque" humour and "jokes." The first depends for most of its effect on parodic storytelling, the second on structured situations and probably a set of fairly universal rules (at least in Western society), of which the Jewish is a unique variant. I will explain what I mean by this. In his study of Rabelais, the Russian cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized the importance of understanding humor as an aspect of popular opposition: a Alltheactsof thedrama world of were before chorus the of history performed we understand drama the Without as this hearing chorus cannot laughing people. a whole.. notevery of had But for period history Rabelais Coryphaeus. Though heledthepopular chorus onlyonetime, Renaissance,sofully clearly of the he and of revealed peculiar difficult the and that language thelaughing people hiswork shedsits lighton thefolkculture humour of to belonging other (Bakhtin, ages 1984: 474). The central features of this laughter consisted of the centrality of the language of the marketplace, the importance of popular festivals, of eating, of the images of the grotesque, of the significance of the anthropomorphic and the metamorphic. The strategy that was employed was parodic, a parody which owed itself in part to popular caricatures of dominant Catholic literature and ritual, but in part to the transposition of texts from the "sacred" language (Latin) to the "vulgar" (French, German, or English). As Bakhtin argued, in parodic discourse styles,two "languages" intra-lingual) two came (both and extent crossed eachother: language are with the together to a certain being the of that (for parodied example language theheroic poem)andthelanguage familiar conversational the (low language, parodies prosaic language, language of therealistic "normal" as genres, language, "healthy" literary language the author theparody of conceived Thissecond it). parodying language, against whose the is and does background parody constructed perceived, notif it is strict enter suchintotheparody as but in itself, is invisibly parody present it (Bakhtin, 1981:75). In examining shtetl literature only one step removed from the carnivalesque-Hebrew as the sacred text provides the parodied language and Yiddish the parodying. Hebrew, until the founding of the state of Israel, was a vigorous part of Jewish intellectual life, in particular in the Eastern European countries. It was, however, not the language of the people, but the language of the dominant segment of the male community, transmitted, like Latin, almost exclusively by texts and ritual. Women were not required to speak it and, as Gershom Scholem puts it, "that spark of vitality which comes to language from women was lacking, and this lack was very much in evidence" (1976: 94). Books for women were written in Yiddish, for men in Hebrew, including often the parodies of the sacred texts. Hebrew was therefore a male literary language, Yiddish was female and popular. Over and above this was Gentile culture and Gentile languages-German, Russian, Polish-which provided something of a frame from within which the Jewish dialogue
took place. There was no dialogue with Gentile culture, even if there were Jewish voices clamoring for dialogue (see Scholem, 1976: 61-92). But Gentile culture interpenetrated the Jewish: Yiddish provided the lingua franca of this interpenetration. The stories of the shtetl display the popular negotiation of the people between the highly literate forms of Hebrew law and theology on the one side and practical everyday realities on the other. In Bakhtinian terms, then, the popular laughter of the Jewish people expresses in parodic form self-affirmation against both the hyper-rigidity of Hebraic law and the exterminating or assimilating tendencies of Gentile culture. It is to this counter-tradition (not in the transmitted culture of the Hebrew texts and rituals) that we must look if we want to understand anything of Jewish popular culture and, in particular, of its political humor. To sketch the ingredients of this culture involves assembling the following constituent parts: the strategic significance of the traveller, the cabbalistic motif of the golem, the intersubjective humour of failure and incompetence, frequently involving anthropomorphism (see in particular the stories of Sholom Aleichem), the production of androgynous heroes, the creation of superhuman wandering prophets (Baal Shem and Elijah), and the existence of parodic texts and popularized Yiddish versions of sacred texts (of which the Tsene Rene or the 'Women's Bible' was the most influential). All of these were invariably centered on the marketplace, in the domestic feast or home, and in the social networks in the shtetl. Carivalesque Yiddish humour flowered in Central Europe during the latter part of the nineteenth century up to the First World War and was transplanted to some extent to New York during the same period, where it continued in an urban form until the outbreak of the second World War. It is crisis-the pogroms in Russia and Poland, the First World War and migration-that, as with Rabelais in the Renaissance, sharpens the carivalesque, giving it a satirical edge, and turning the commonsensical everyday reality of the shtetl into a vantage-point for viewing the outside world. Within the shtetl this produces the short stories, plays, and novels of Sholom Aleichem, Mendelele Moicher Sforim, I. L. Peretz, Isaac Meier Dick, Avrom Reyzen, and David Bergelson. Paralleling this development was the secularization of shtetl humor, which must be seen in relation to the great secular political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries communism, socialism, nazism, and Zionism which in turn can be seen as urban adaptations to the crisis of capitalism and, in the latter case, of the Jewish Diaspora. The hyper-narrativecomponents of the shtetl carnivalesque as well as its social locus and religious contexts were lost to this process of secularization. Some continuity can nonetheless be seen in the stories of Isaac Babel, who quite deliberately rejects patriarchal Talmudic Judaism, shuns the ghetto (he came from Odessa, far from the shtetl) and sees himself as a man of action, especially of military action, and yet who
forces himself to come to terms with the 'aura' of religion which he finds in the shtetl when he encounters it as a maternal, spiritual Yiddish force. The twin forces of the feral revolutionary man (who replaces the patriarchal intellectual tzaddick) and the dying maternalism of the shtetl are incapable of producing laughter. As an old man puts it in the story Gedali:
You But thePoles,kindsir,shootbecausetheywerethecounterrevolution. shoot But meansjoy. Andjoy becauseyou are the Revolution. surelythe Revolution does not like orphans thehouse.Goodmen do good deeds.TheRevolution in is the good deed of good men. But good men do not kill. So it is badpeople who we aremakingtheRevolution...here are,all of us learned people,fallingon our faces and crying out in a loud voice: "woe unto us, where is the joy-giving Resolution? (Babel 1961:62).
Where is the resolution? "O the rotted Talmuds of my childhood! O the dense melancholy of memories!" and "All is mortal. Only the mother is destined for immortality. And when the mother is no longer living, she leaves a memory which none has dared to sully. The memory of the mother nourishes in us a compassion that is like the ocean, and the measureless ocean feeds the rivers that dissect the universe" (Ibid., 33). What Babel represented in his own writing-the rotted patriarchal Talmud of the urban middle class with its strings of social failures, the cossack-driven revolutionary (Trotsky was its leader, and in his name Babel died), and the folk memory of the dying shtetl mother-were the conflicting images that the Jews carried out of Central and Eastern Europe to North America and to Israel. If the Cossack image was ultimately to dominate Israel, the conflicting memories of the Talmudic patriarchy and shtetl maternal populism became the contending ones in North America. Accompanying this transmission of the shtetl culture as simulacrum was the politicization and fragmentation of shtetl humor into joke, that is, into situationally located satire that depends less on its narrative and storytelling force and more on its persistence in exploring the tension between popular agonies and political incompetence/terror. There are two kinds of joke which are peculiarly Jewish and which in a sense give a Jewish framework to the others. The first is one which imposes the oral on the literary. The following is a classic example:
Standingon Lenin'sTomb in the Red Square,Stalin was acknowledgingthe of acclamations themasses. Suddenlyhe raisedhis handsto silence thecrowd. he "Comrades!" cried."Amost historicevent! A telegramof congratulations from Leon Trotsky!" The crowd could hardlybelieve its ears.It waited in hushed anticipation. "JosephStalin,"read Stalin. 'The Kremlin.Moscow. You were right and I was wrong. You are the trueheir of Lenin.I should apologise. Trotsky." A roareruptedfrom the crowd. But in the frontrow a little Jewish tailorgesturedfranticallyto Stalin. "Psst!"he cried. "ComradeStalin!" Stalinleaned over to hear whathe had to say.
"Such a message! But you read it withoutthe right feeling." Stalinonce againraisedhis handsto still the excited crowd."Comradesl" he announced."Hereis a simple worker,a Communist,who says thatI did not read Trotsky'smessage with the right feeling. I ask that workerto come up onto the podiumhimself to readTrotsky'stelegram." The tailorjumpedup onto the podium and took the telegraminto his hands. He read: "JosephStalin.The Kremlin.Moscow." Then he clearedhis throatand sang out: "Youwere right and I was wrong? Youare the trueheir of Lenin?I should apologize?"
The second Jewish joke structuretransposestwo social situationsin order to diminish the significance of whichever one that seems most This is demonstrated anotherTrotskyjoke: important. by
Lev Davidovitch Bronstein has long since left his native town. News arrives that Lev has changed his name to Trotsky, and renounced the faith of his father.Old Brontein is furious, and immediately disowns his son. Yearsgo by. Then, in 1917, the Bolshevik revolutiontakes place. All the local worthies gathertogetherin old Bronstein'shouse, fully awarethatthe callow Lev Davidovitchhas become the mightyLeon Trotsky. They urgeold Bronsteinto visit his son in Moscow. Finally,the old man agrees.He packs a few bags, catchesa train,andmakes his way to the Kremlin. Two strapping young Red Guardspreventhim fromentering. he "I am the fatherof Leon Trotsky," says. After checking his papers,they take him to a Lieutenant,and from therehe is passed on to a Captain,a Colonel and, finally, a very important General. The Generalleads him througha suite of offices, across a magnificenthall, corridorandup to a massive silver-studded door. along a wide, red-carpeted The Generaltaps deferentially,and waits. On a commandfrom within, he respectfullyushersold Bronsteinthrough. There is Leon Trotsky, sitting at a desk in an enormous room. He is simultaneouslyholding conversationsin four languages on four different telephones. He recommends a General Strike in New York, organises an insurrection LatinAmerica,provokes the collapse of the Bank of France, in and encouragesa protegeChinese warlordto seize Manchuria. At the same time, diplomatsand aides whisper in his ear,rushingoff in all directionsaftera few wordsfromhim. In the meanwhileTrotskyhas seen his fatherenterthe room, and beckonshim forward. Finally,he concludeshis business,rushesup to his fatherandthrowshis arms roundhim. Then he takes him by the arm,and leads him from the room. As they hurrythrougha hall, a dozen diplomatsjump to theirfeet, anddoff their to tophatsin Trotsky'sdirection.Trotskyvaguelymotionsthemto return their seats. They pass on througha large drawingroom. A score of Generalsspringup, salute andclick theirheels. In the corridors,the guardspresent arms,the civilians bow deeply and the stewardsstandstiffly to attention. They enterthe garden.At last they can have a quiet chat together. "Businessprettygood, huh?"murmersthe old man. "Mustn'tgrumble," repliesTrotsky.
Bruce Lenny "And you'retheBoss?" I here." "Seeforyourself. give theorders to you?" "Sothebusiness belongs "Yes." of the business As theyproceed through grounds the Kremlin, discussing soldieraftersoldiercomesto attention and andswapping reminiscences, and salutes. in direction, strolls past. Trotsky gestures their a Suddenly comeacross littlemanin a wheelchair, they beingpushed a by nurse. his with throws heelstogether a resounding click,and Immediately Trotsky slautes stiffly. Thefigure thewheelchair waves in in absent-mindedly twofingers Trotsky's but frozenin positionuntilthe wheelchair remains has direction, Trotsky trundled of sightround comer. out a "Who that?" oldBronstein amazement. was in asks 'ThatwasLenin. partner." My "But saidyou weretheboss!" you "SoI am,father, heholdsthepatent." but and (Benton Loomes, 1976).
In both of these jokes an element of storytelling is retained and in both the parodic remains paramount. Both are also internal Jewish jokes in the sense that they draw on a specific cultural experience: the experience of oral storytelling/reading in the first, and commonsensical job expectations in the second. Finally, both jokes "flatten" pomposities by turning the situation inside-out, and retain that element of the dialogic which suggests a continued ambivalence of the situation. Lenny Bruce and the Art of the Carnivalesque: Final Journey of a Traveling Humor In studying Lenny Bruce I want to suggest in what ways, in an alien culture, these elements of Jewish political humor that traveled across the Atlantic burst into a vivid flame, then quickly burned themselves out. In Yiddish theater, those plays that could not be performed in Russia or Poland, died a rapid death in the 1930s, as its best (or luckiest) actors and directors were absorbed by Hollywood. By the early 1950s the dominant forces in Hollywood were largely Jewish and the performing forces of the Diaspora had turned away from Yiddish theater to the silver screen, as well as to music and stand-up comedy. Secularized storytelling continued to be developed not only in the great Jewish urban novel of Bellow, Roth, Mailer, but also in film, although, with the exception of Charles Chaplin, and, later, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, a non-Jewish emphasis on spectacle and "epic" dominated films during Bruce's period of cultural formation. This was also the time of HUAC and the paranoia of witch-hunts how familiar to those who had seei the entire Jewish Bolshevik parties of Europe eliminated! As played out in the motion picture and entertainment industry the McCarthy hearings redefined American democracy to allow Jew to rat on Jew and to collaborate with Gentiles in Red-baiting.
The "text" of life rapidly became showbiz, and showbiz became indistinguishable from life. Writes Baudrillard: "It is thus that for guilt, anguish and death there can be substituted the total joy of the signs of guilt, despair, violence and death" (1983: 148). Or Benjamin, "Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. It's self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order" (1970: 244). This hyperreality is the locus of Lenny Bruce's humor. His world is bounded by simulacra, by showbiz, and his use of parody is designed to return hyperreality back toward a contemplation of the real. The butts of his humor were those people who, like Ronald Reagan, took the simulation of the real as reality itself. Bruce also felt that his targets should not be "dead." the on If on of Here's thing comedy. I weretodo a satire theassassinationJohn Foster it taste." Dulles, wouldshock They'd 'Thatit is in heinous say, people. Because fresh. that's mycontention that it's what is: satire tragedy is And Why? the will time,thepublic, reviewers allowyouto plustime.Yougiveit enough whenyou thinkabout AndI know, it. satirize Whichis rather it. ridiculous 500 on from someone doa satire Adolf will Hitler, today, maybe probably years and will evenshowing asa hero, everyone laugh. him 1976:116). (Bruce, Bruce's own most notorious "satire" involved Hitler. The satire, however, was not directed at Hitler himself but at Hollywood. In Bruce's skit, a group of impressarios call up "central casting" to see if they can find the "dictator type." And after allowing three actors to do their Hitler impressions they discover the "schlob in the white uniform who is painting the wall." They sign him up, get together a rhythm section with some "tunes from Leonard Bernstein" and give him an "armband" ("something lucky the squares will dig") which has not been done "since Attila the Hun." This skit highlights the Jewish media cynicism demonstrated in Hollywood blockbuster movies. The point of Hollywood is to be as sensational as possible. Bruce's point is not to turn Hitler into a hero, but to show how the media industry can use even the most horrendous stories purely for the sake of making money. The fact that the directors, actors, and musicians are Jewish is central because the satire is about the loss of the Jewish soul when it is transposed to a world where the community lacks roots, when the purpose of life has become purely superficial, and when the hyperreal has replaced the existential. In another skit, "Religion Inc.," Bruce locates the major religious figures in a business convention. The spokesmen include H. A. Allen, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Rabbi Steven Weiss, and the Pope (by phone from the Vatican). The parody (switching a religious rally into a business convention) involves cutting out the apparent religious valuesystems of the august body and replacing them with commercial ones. Mostof Nice Goodevening,gentlemen. to see so manyboysheahtonight. ta seenin manyyeuhs.Ahjus wastawkin leaders haven't ah yew religious
Billi this afthnoon.Ah said, "Billi yew come a lawng way, sweetie, lawng way."Who woulda thawtback in'3 1-wew were hustlinbaby pitturesthen, an shingles an siding. We'reswingin, yew know we didn'tknow whatthehell we doin. The c.c. camps were stahtinamove, yeah. Ah didn'tknow mahself, yew know.An'jus lahkthat!we cameon it, yew know?The GideonBible...an Bop! an heah we were. Hah! Ah, the greyaphheah tells the stawry.That's aboutit. Faw the fust time in twelve yeuhs, Catholicismis up nine points. Judaismis up fifteen. The Big P., the Pentecostal, is stahtinamove, finally, and ah...(aside) yew faggot! You'rea Jehova'sWitness!Got thatfive and ten franchiseweah trynabreak up. Now, gentlemen,we got mistuhNecktyuh,from ourreligiousnovelty house in Chicago,who's got a beautifulselluh-the gen-yew-ineJewish-star-luckycross-cigarette-lighter combined; an we got the kiss-me-in-the-dahk mezuzah;an the wawk-me-tawk-me camel; an these wunnerfullil cock-tail napkins with some helluva sayings theah-"Anuthuh mahtinifaw Muthuh Cabrini"-an some prettyfah out things (Bruce, 1967: 61-2).
In another skit he compares the Catholic church to Big Business: I'vebeenreally interested Catholicism I figured what is.It'slike, in it out lately.
there'smorechurchesandpeoplethatworkfor the churchthanI thinkthereare courthousesand judges. So actually,what it is, Catholicismis like Howard and Johnson,andwhattheyhave arethesefranchises they give all thesepeople different franchises thecountries theyhaveone government, whenyou in but and Johnson franchise canapplyit tothegeography-whatever's buytheHoward you cool forthatarea-and thenyou, you know,pay thebread themainoffice.And to Whichis cool. But it is definitely standard. you have to,you know,keep a certain a government itself' (Ibid.: 54) by
In fact in all his skits on religion Bruce reintroduces the idea of the carivalesque as an ethical stand against the logic of organized religion. The satire via parody is not an occasion for merely making fun of the Catholic or any other religious organization: it is a self-critical attempt to establish whether there are alternative values to the practices of the religious five bodies and their spokesmen. "Everyday people are straying away from the church and going back to God." "My concept? You can't do anything with anybody's body to make it dirty to me. Six people, eight people, one person you can only do one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty. [Caryl] Chessman was dirty" (Ibid.: 288). At the center of Bruce's satire is the idea of an earthy commonsense opposed to institutional moral fabrication, but an opposition registered in the self-reflective ambiguity of the comedian himself. This self-reflexivity can be seen in many of Bruce's asides, in his use of parody which is essentially a self-questioning genre, conscious of its own reversibility. The use of Yiddish expressions throughout Bruce's performances can be seen as an important element of this parodic self. The Yiddish is used not to make Bruce's humor "Jewish," but rather to validate Bruce's claim to be ironic about Jews, an important stance if the Jewish experience is to be universalized, stripped of its interiority and made public. Bruce's so-called "ethnic" jokes are just that: the at-
tempt to strip away the interior props with their pomposities and hypocricies so that the public relationships between people, either individually or collectively, can be made manifest. This seems to involve three interrelated techniques: (i) The first is to strip away the inherent physical biases of Jewish selfdefence starting from an autobiographical position. For example: I got thistatooin Malta, theMediterranean,1942.So my aunt, in in looksat
it, you know, and there's a thing, you know-Orthodox Jews, you can't be buriedin a Jewishcemeterywith a tatoo.That'sthe truth.You have to go out of the worldjust the way you came in, with no changes-which certainly,the Rabbi,I dunnohow that figures in there;they keep philosophizingand say, "It'snot ours to question."So she sees this, you know, so she looks I dunno what it was, I was washing so she looks, you know, she goes "Vaghhhh! Vaghhhh!" It's a Jewishseagull"Lookvat you did!" Yougot auntswho talkthatway,like parakeets"Hah!Hah!Lenny!Vatyou did! You ruinedyour arm!Vy'd you do that?You can'tbe buriedin a Jewishcemetery." I said, "So what are you buggin me? They'll cut this armoff, they'll bury it in a Gentile cemetery.Don't nudge me any more." Shewasreallyweird.Youknow,themolewithhairinit,herbreath alwayssmelled fromonionrolls,you know? "Don'tkiss me. Mema,I don'tlike to kiss people.Lemmealone"(Ibid.: 37-8).
(ii) The second is to put all race relations in historical context. For example:
Did you ever think about minority groups? You know who was the most persecutedgroupever? In my generation,the Irish.The Irish got schpritzed andschpritzedandschpritzed.It's a subtlepersecution,but it's there,and the most vicious. When a Jew says a schickais a goy, he doesn'tmean the Greek. That's it. You agree.When the Italiansays "ManageIrlandesi!" WhentheNegrosays 'That Paddymotherfucker!" Now that'sthe that'sit, Jim.It'stheIrish.Zing,zing,zing,continually schpritzed. worstkindof persecution-when it's unspoken. like this: It's [Whisper]"They'removing in. They're moving in. They're moving in." Who saidthat? American The Indians. Indian:"OhChrist!The white people are moving in-you let in one white family, and the whole neighbohoodwill be white. abouttherealfifthcolumn-the Seminoles? How come they'renot worried The American Indianis waiting,just waitingto turnon us (Ibid.:27-8).
(iii) Finally, Bruce re-creates ethnicity in a public, familiar setting of everyday relations. The best-known version of this is known as "How to Relax Colored People at Parties":
Now, the partyis swinging, and the humoremanatesfrom the now-becoming-obscure white person's concept of "JustHow Do You Relax Colored And in the bit I play the white guy: People at Parties?" White man [rasping,aggressivevoice]: Oh, boy, what a hell of a party,eh? Yeah,I'm enjoyingmyself, havinga wonderful Negro [clear,well-educated]: time. White:I really stuffedmyself, boy, andI'm pissed to the ears,too, on top of it. Oh, boy...Beforeyou drinkyou should take a tablespoonof olive oil. Negro: Is thatright? White:Thass the best... Negro: Oh. White:I didn'tget your name. Negro: Miller. White:Miller,my name is Mr.Anderson. Negro: Mr.Anderson,glad to know you. White:Pleasureto know you indeed, sir. [Pause.Neitherknowswhatto say next.] White:You know, thatJoe Louis was a hell of a fighter. Negro: Yeah,you can say that again.Joe Louis was a hell of a fighter. White:What a man, boy. Negro: Yeah,got rightin there,right out. White:He's a creditto yourrace. Don't you ever forgetthat,you sonofagun. Negro: Well, thankyou very much. White:Thass awright,perfectly awright. [Pause] White:Well, here's to HenryArmstrong. Negro: Yeah,here's to HenryArmstrong. White:Awright... [Pause] White:You know, I did all the construction here, you know? Negro: Oh, you did? White:I did all except the painting,and these Hebes [whispers]you're not Jewish areyou? Negro: No. man. I'm not. White:You know whatI mean? Negro: Yeah,I understand. White:Someone calls me a SheeneyI'll knockem righton theirass...Iwanna tell you sometin. I don't care what the hell a guy is so long as they keep in theirplace, you know? Negro: Right. White:So anyway,I tells all theseMochs-Jewish people, you know-I say, I'm gonna put up the lath. You know how they talk you know, "Vuttchou You doink, dahlink?" know?I'll tell you some Aby-and-Becky jokes later.So anyway,theysay, "Vuttchoudoinkvit de paint," know?That'sChineseyou I do all thedialects.And, ah, thentheypick out thiscolor- themselves-isn't thata crappycolor for ya? Negro: No, I don't thinkso. I thinkthat'svery interesting,how they use the Dufy blue with so many otherpastels. White:That sounds like alottaCommiehorseshitto me-Du-fee blue. Negro: Yeah, that'swhatit is, a Dufy blue. White:Whatthehellissat?
Negro: Some Frenchpainterderivedthatcolor.Idunno. White:Yeah?Du-fee blue! I like that.That'sprettygood. Du-fee blue. You didn'tlearnthatin thebackof thebus, you sonofagun!You'reawrightlDu-fee blue. How 'boutthat.Youknow,you're a whiteJew,you'reO.K. You'rereally a good guy, Negro:Thankyou, thankyou. [Pause] White:Well, here's to StephenFetcher. Negro: Yeah,here's to StephenFetcher. [Pause] White:I guess you know alottapeople in the show business, eh? Negro: Yeah,I've met quite a few in my travels. White:Aaaah,I'm bad on names, what the hell is that,aaaaah... You know Aunt Jemimah? Negro: No, I don't know Aunt Jemimah.I'm sorry,I don't know her. White:That guy on the on the Creamof Wheatbox? Negro: No, I don't know him either. [Pause] White:Well, here's to Paul Robinson. Negro: Yeah,here's to Paul Robinson. White:Yeah,boy .... You get anythingto eat yet? Negro: No, I'm kinda hungry.I wish a had a sandwichor something. White:I haven't got any fried chicken or watermelon,ahhh ... raisins, or rice, whateveryou people eat, but, aaahhh, we'll get sometin up for you there...You know sometin, you're awright,you know that?And I'm a good guy too-you see whatI just did? I touchedya. Yeah! You're awright.Come over here. I like you, you sonofagun, you're awright. Negro: Well, thankyou... White:I'd like to have you over the house. Negro: Well, thankyou very much. I'd like to come over. White:Wouldjalike that? Negro: Umhum. White:It'll be darksoon, aaah... I mean, what the hell, you know, aaahhh... You gotta be carefulthey'reall movin' in ...you know? I mean, what the hell, I read some jerk over the paper,The HowardStar, there, they'rejus bein smart,you know thatfirst,theIndianswere here, then when the white people came they said "Oh Christthe white people are moving in," you know, and they're gonna be all over, you know-but that'sdangerous,thatkinda talk, you know? [Pause] White:Here's to all coloredpeople. Negro: O.K. White: Awright... Now, I wanya to comover the house, but I gotta tell ya somtin cause I know you people get touchy once in awhile. Negro: Oh, umhum? White:Yeah, ahhh,I gotta sister,ya see? Negro: Yeah? White:Well now cummere.[whispers]You wouldn't wannaJew doin it to your sister,wouldja? Negro: It doesn't make any differenceto me, just as long as he's a nice guy.
White: Whattayou,on weed or somtin? Look, nobody wants a Sheeney plowin' theirsister, an I don't want no coon doin' it to my sister.What the hell, thatmakessense. Youcan come over my house if you promiseyou don't do it to my sister.Promise? Negro: O.K. White:Awright. Negro: Here's to the Mau Mau. White:Awright(Ibid.:20-9).
In this sequential development Jew ultimately becomes Black, but note that in the final skit Jew equals Black, but with the self-critical awareness that this may not be quite true (that Black and Jew may sit uneasily together in any minority relationship: "You wouldn't want no Jew doing it to your sister"). The hyperreality of Hollywood, the hyperreality of the cocktail circuit, and the hyperreality of organized religion are, of course, part of the same thing: lives which are fabricated by a simulation of the real, which are distanced from the real by stereotypes, which, when once accepted, take on a mythological life of their own. The myths are sustained not only by their own momentum but also by the various interests which they serve. To pierce through these myths and the institutions that perpetuate them Bruce examined their effects on two subjects: language and the body, both of which, as with Rabelais, are closely interrelated. For example, he used sexual stereotypes about the Black male to highlight the dilemma of the Jewish American male who is concerned about his body and his sexuality as he confronts the "animal" Black male: I White: heard guysgot a wangon ya, ya sonofagun, you yal do I'm at No, Negro: I couldn't that. justplaying guitar thisparty. White: Let'ssee that of tarpaper roll Whatthehell, whipit outthere. just you got there, yeah? johnny, showit..(Ibid.: No, 221). Negro: I, uh,I couldn't Alternatively, the Jewish male compares Jewish women with Gentile women:
It'sthekindof thing,like-shicksas-. Well,it'snotthat Jewishchicksarelushes, arenot attractive, it'sjust thatpink-nippled, but freckled, goyishapunm--that is I mustache, knowshe's got it. That'sall.It'senough.And a mole withthehairin have.O.K.?(Ibid.: it. It'sjust a cookingthingthepharaohs 221).
AndElizabeth hais,boy,thatis a raretribe. Taylor-evenif I can'tsee the
The ambiguity of Jewish sexual identity is clearly the vantage-point from which Bruce evolves his search for the authentic body and authentic language. Isaac Babel's trinity of Yiddish mother, patriarchal "rotting talmuds," and the militaristic cossack contend with one another in Bruce's sexual imagery, but now given a specific American context. The cossack Jew is still a rather pathetic figure (the Israeli barely exists in Bruce's work) and is perhaps best summed up in his skit on Jack Ruby and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald:
Why Ruby did it. You see, when I was a kid I had tremendoushostility for Christiansmy age. The reason I had the hostility is that I had no balls for fighting, and they could duke. So I disliked them for it, but I admiredthem for it-it was a tremendousambivalenceall the time: admiringsomebody who could do that, you know, and then disliking them for it. Now the neighborhoodI came from there were a lot of Jews, so there was no big problemwith a balls-virilitycomplex. But Ruby came from Texas.They're really concered with "bawls"-they heads off! And shooting guns! got ninety-year-oldmen biting rattlesnakes' And a Jew in Texas is a tailor.So what went on in Ruby's mind, I'm sure is that "Well,if I kill the guy thatkilled thepresident,the Christians'llgo: 'Whew!What bawls he had, hey? We always thoughtthe Jews were chickenshit, but look at that!See, a Jew at the end, saved everybody!' kiss AndtheChristians'll himandhughimandthey'lllifthimon high.AJEWISH
WEST! OUT THE OF BILLY KID THE RODE
the But he didn'tknow thatwas just a fantasyfromhis grandmother, villain, telling him aboutthe Christianswho puncheverybody. Yeah.Eventheshotwas Jewish-the wayhe held thegun.It was a dopeyJewish way. He probably went "Nach!," too-that means 'There!" in Jewish.
Nach!(Ibid.: 48). With Bruce, the cossack is still an outside figure but one who is sanctified by the media and by the entire paraphernalia of politics, and who is one with the cowboy, the executioners, and the mass murderers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The image, however, is still there for the Jew who wishes to prove himself as macho man, as more than the victim of patriarchal law and matriarchal power. In dismissing it, however, Bruce is compelled to confront alternative definitions of sexuality. In terms of male sexuality, at least the Rabbi is a schtupper, which the priest is not, but the Black exudes sexuality, he is closer to the basics and lives his stereotype, has "a natural sense of rhythm," and has always lived in prison. The Black is close to the Jew: how did he come out so different? In 1952 Norman Mailer wrote an article for Dissent called "The White Negro" (though it properly should have been called "The Jewish White Male Negro") in which the Jewish male appropriation of Black language was explored (Mailer, 1961: 237-281). The essence of Mailer's argument was that a new Bohemian language was emerging which took its cues from Black jazz and blues. Bruce's metaphor for Bohemian man is very close to Mailer's, as indeed the search for a commonality between oppressed experiences is similar (though Bruce is ultimately less romantic about it because he feels compelled to expose the hyperreal images that are already appropriating the experiences). The Black jazz musician is the alternative to the Rabbi and therefore the language that he uses must be fused with the Rabbi's to create the basis of a common cultural stance. Most of the charges against Bruce for obscenity come from this deliberate fusion, except that most of the Rabbi's public language is derived from
the female Yiddish. Hence the problem with Jewish female sexuality: Jewish women are all potentially mothers or grandmothers. (As I overheard in the men's locker-room at the local Jewish community center: 1st Man: "Have you any grandchildren yet?" 2nd Man: "Feh! I hope not! I don't want to go to bed with a bube.") Beyond that, they "never know when their sons are faggots. They just miss it somehow. Out and out screaming queens-mothers are never hip" (Bruce, 1967: 214). In a classic twist the only real women are the goyish, goyish Irish and German. In his autobiography Bruce describes an early performance:
MaybeI could have my mothergo out andsay, "He'sreally a "greatguy"and everybody would believe her because a mother knows her son betterthan anyone. I saw a strange,silver, rathergrotesquelooking ball in frontof my nose. It was a microphone.I was onstage. "Goodevening, ladies and gentlemen-" "Bring on the broads!"cut me short. Oh, my God, a heckler! The angry requestcame fromone of two guys standingnearthebar;with themwere two Lerner-clad ladies with the let-out hems, brown-and-white spectatorpumps and whoopee socks, cloth coats with silver-fox collars that were a little too tight, and the final uniquetouch;lipstickon theirteeth. It shocked me into reality. I looked at my motherandI saw a helpless smile. Herson, herbaby thatshe nursedthroughchickenpox, workingas a maid to sustainthe both of us. Her child was in troubleand she couldn'thelp him. Ma, help me; thatboy hit me, Ma; gimme a quarter, I'm in trouble,Ma; Ma; I'm alone, help me, Ma... "Bringon the broads!" This timetherequestwas morepositive andenergetic.Thehecklermusthave sensed a weak,inexperienced prey.The two girls andthemanwithhim bathed in his reflected glory. His friendjoined him and they screamedin unison: "Bringon the broads!"Their lady friendsshriekedwith ecstasy. "I'd like to, but then you wouldn'thave any companyat the bar." My firstlaugh(Bruce,1966:38-39).
Bring on, and be distanced from, the broads; invoke and reject the mother. Get balled, but don't sleep or kiss with any of them; see them in Playboy; watch their bodies, talk them into the script. The woman as language, as vision or photograph, as they whom you want to touch it (but you may never touch their's; see the revealing skit on Eleanor Roosevelt's breasts in Ibid.: 239), masturbate in the bathroom over a Playboy centerfold as the woman waits for you in the bedroom. In his attempt to escape from the shtetl mother and the pompous, nervous father, Bruce escapes into the hyperreality that he castigates in religion, politics, and race relations. Bring on the broads! But Bruce's "broads" are an exposure in Playboy. It's better in "Viceroid," because "Viceroid" is the real. Fuck the image, over and over again. The kicks come from the busts (biological and legal), with the adrenalin flowing, and the deconstructing body. While trying to find the authentic sexual experience behind the commandeering presence of text, media, and the
mimetic presence of the hyperreal, Bruce became concerned with the necessity of using language that would shock, and with the show-biz world (his Talmud) that would validate the context of his satire. Parody came full circle. Take two different skits. The first, perhaps his best skit, tries to find the authentic behind the text by verbalizing a pure cross between Samuel Beckett and e. e. cummings. Toooooooo is a preposition Tois apreposition
is a verb! Tois a preposition, Come a verb. is Tois apreposition, intransitive. Come averbtheverb is To Come Tocome. I I adult and akidwhen thoughtwas life as these I'veheard twowords whole my Tooooo Commmme Tooooo
solo: It'sbeenlikea bigdrum in and [drums of rolling cymbalsflaringa crescendo excitement] Tocometocome,cometoocometoo,tocometocome um uh uhuhuhuhuhumum um um uh uh uhuh TO TO TOCOME! COME! COME! Didyoucome? Didyoucomegood? Didyoucomegood? Didyoucome? Good. Didyoucome? Good. To Come To
Didyoucomegood?didyoucomegooddidyoucomegood? Recitative: than anyone thewhole in better yousweetheart with world. I come with goddamn for I really come so good with you-after being married twenty-two so came goodwith I do you-but I come years-goddamnsure loveyou!I really I cause loveyouso much. don't That's I? tooquick, in else witheverybody I'mthebestballer the Do Goddamnit! youknowthat If But wholeworld? withyou,I'malways say apologizing. youjustwouldn't That's whatit is. come!" don'tsay,"Don't anything-just
Don't come in me don't comeinme don'tcomeinmemimme. Don't comeinmemimme mimme. Don't comeinmemimme mimme Don't comeinmemimme mimme Mimme. Comeinme Comeinme ComeinmecomeinmecomeinmeCOMEinme! Don't comeinmemimme don't comeinmeunless you want to kill me. Recitative: Because My sisterbled to deathin thebackof a taxicab,with a badcurettage. she had a babyin herbelly. She was a tramp-my fathersaid she was a tramp. That's why she bled to deathin the back of thattaxicab-cause she couldn't come home with a baby in her belly. A trampwith life in her stomach-so don't come in me, unless you want to kill me. I can't come, don't ask me! I can't comeCause you don't love me. I love you but I just can't come when I'm loaded! Causeyou don't love meThat's why you can't come. I love you! Will you get off my ass? I'm just loaded. I shouldn'tjuice and ball at the same time. Causeyou don't love me. I love you but I just can't come when I'm loaded! Now will you get off it Cause you don't love me. You wantme to tell you why?I'm gonnatell you the truth: Awright! Awright. Youknow why we neverhad any kids?CauseI can'tcome, causeit's DIRTY! All thatbullshitin the books,but it ain'tin thatSundaybook,becausethe good the peopledon'tcome.AndI'mgonnariseabovethephysical, carnal-don'tyou thinkI'm ashamedof coming?It's filthy and rotten.And I'm just sorrythey blamedit on you. That'swhy we neverhad anykids;but theyblamedit on you andkeptyou in bed withthosedumbtemperature charts. if you wantanykids So old you betterget a different man.But I suredo love you. But I just can'thelp it-intellectual awareness does me no good. I know its not dirtybut it is dirty. You know whatI mean?God damnit! Oh shit! Maybewe oughtaadoptsome kid fromsome bumwho can come (Ibid.:250-3).
The importance of this skit is that it shows the limits and the possibilities of language, as verbal and written. But often Bruce is consumed with playing word games to show how the verbally obscene is normal, and how the language of the "people" should be accepted as
the language of the establishment strategythat has become success(a ful: almost all of the words can be heard and viewed daily by anyone who has a VCR). But, if this is true, it is importantto establish the context within which the "people" will continue to speak, even after Bruce often appeals to "images"as his their words are appropriated. alternativeworld:
PaulMalloy,who'ssortof Christ concrete, got a thinggoing,it's in he's is And know, "Decent-Indecent"-you "What Good?" Goodis Godis Danny Thomas. I wantto showyousomepictures tramps. of So, nudie [Holding a pin-up up photo] Thisis anindecent The would Thesearebums. woman. Paul culture Malloy callthisladyindecent. no! Indecent? How can thatsweet,pink-nippled, Ohhh, Areyou kidding? God Are Indecent? blue-eyed, goyishapunimbe indecent? you kidding? man. lovethat I damn Malloy, Paul lady.Andshe'sreligious-see thebeads? That'show the sisterslook beforetheytakethe vows. Theytakeone last and it 287). picture, that's (Ibid.:
BeyondHyperreality The key to Bruce's art is him being trappedby the images, by the
simulacrum, and knowing it. Ultimately his message involves an attempt
at finding the world beyond those contrasting images and the sexual and social basis of any affirmation.The roots of that affirmation,with all their temporalmedia-boundconstraints,tie in the explorationof sensibilities between people of differentcultures, of puzzling out an identity where sexualityand sociability still owe somethingto a tragi-comic traditionwhich reaches back into Poland and Russia. It is a tradition Miller, tries to estabwhich, with Isaac Babel, Karl Kraus,and Jonathan the lish the universalism, secularismof Jewish humor.It is the moment of oral/parodiccarnival before both the discovery of humor in ethnic withdrawal (Jackie Mason,RichardPryor,Eddie Murphy)and the massBill of appropriation ethnicity ("Rhoda," Cosby). In between lies parody for its own sake (Mel Brooks, Monty Python).Lenny Bruce was not a he "manaheadof his time,"as many people have remarked: was a man precisely of his time. That time will never be reclaimed,but rethinking Bruce may act as a catalyst to examine this time, when the distinguishing mark of most public humor is its non-carnivalesquenature, its failure of political nerve. Bruce's denouement came in making public the White Negro's Bohemia, but unlike Oscar Wilde or Baudelaire before him, the alterpublicizingof Bohemiadid not make it romanticor a sought-after native. Rather,because his target was the media, the media turnedits gaze on Bruce and, with him, the whole of Bohemia,makingit tawdry. In trying to apprehend real throughthe hyperreal(becauseit seemed the to offer the only substitutefor Talmudicreadings that everyone might Jewish inshare), Bruce providedthe last snapshotof the carnivalesque
telligentsia. But, like any snapshot, it was pure simulacrum. Ultimately Bruce's work was wrapped in a Playboy centerfold. The experiential, historical, practical trajectory of Bruce's work is found in the identity conflicts (racial, political, sexual) and in the storytelling form of his humor. The tragic sense was there throughout, until, at the end, it became all-consuming. But it is this set of conflicts that give the cutting edge to his art, establishing a stance from which the postmodern could be encountered. The form he employed and the experiences that carried it through indicated a memory of the past that was more than artifact, and that brought with it all the contradictions of the past. But those contradictions had to contend with the sanitization of similar contradictions in the memories of millions of other Americans, behind which, in Umberto Eco's words, "the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred, the art museum is contaminated by the freak show, and falsehood is enjoyed in a situation of 'fullness,' of' horror vacui."' Bruce's attempt to go behind even this search for the real led him to an impasse. The personal experiences were real enough, but the inherited Jewish style, though providing the basis for an oppositional tragic sense, could not be translated into an American style without either becoming nostalgically ethnic or being absorbed into the hyperreal morass. Bruce tried to resist all of this, as the twitchiness of his interviews demonstrate, and as the self-destructiveness of his last two or three years underlined. But in the end the morass sucked him in, until, as Eco wrote of the wax museum at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, "it is hard to decide which side is reality and which is illusion" (Eco, 1987: 13). Bruce's dilemma is precisely the dilemma of Jews in North America (though now the feral cossacks in Israel create an extra dimension). The past is appropriated by haphazard contemplation of relics, language, memory which have somehow to be translated into the dominant language of America, a language of the hyperreal. (When Bruce satirized Reagan he was simply a media trade union chief.) Jewish memories are embedded in the Diaspora, selectively amnesic. The real Promised Land is Amerika, and its language is displayed in Disneyland/Hollywood/Wall Street. Lenny Bruce tried to develop a new Yiddish to contest that language. He failed because the old Yiddish was an inadequate basis for understanding the vibrancy behind the hyperreal, but also because he took the hyperreal as the only language that there was. The most vibrant comedy in America today is, of course, not on the David Letterman show, nor masterminded by Johnny Carson, nor Rodney Dangerfield, nor Garry Shandling. It is certainly not in the professional comedy/nightclub circuits. It is mainly by women-mostly Jewish or Black who take the locality in which they live, the superimposition of the media, and their interpersonal political experiences as the basis for creating an oppositional comic language. But this, of course, is
where we started. Lenny Bruce may have laid out the problem, but the new "Yiddish" humor will be female, in the absence of males who will do anything to be appropriated by the dominant culture. It will, of course, be a tragic and affirmative humor, as opposed to most current humor which is silly and socially complacent. NOTES is and beentragic. argument thatsinceHollywood, the humor always has 1. Jewish My the of of mesmerization Jewsby theirown imageson thethesilverscreen, direction the into which humor beento mergetheir has Americans, concerns thatof beingacceptable humor has overfromwhatever meansthattheideologyof American hyperrealism taken Brucewill between MasonandLennie Jewsmayhavehadbefore.A comparison Jackie devoidof thetragic, alsodevoid and is humour ethnichumour, makemy point.Mason's The Jewish sensewhichis not purelyethnic. mostpersistent of anygrounded, political has comics(MelBrooks, Miller(TheBodyIn Question to be the WoodyAllen,Jonathan But in the bestJewish jokeever)tryto preserve universal theparticular. theyareminority and beenabsorbed Hollywood theAmerican into has humor either tastes. Jewish mystique are whether matter Jews,Blacks Strokes, (doesit really Cosby,or"Rhoda" about Different has tolerance takenover). And Carsonor Of or Bulgarians? coursenot. Repressive the to Letterman? it's alltaped Well, presumably longbefore showis delivered thepublic, Brucewouldneverhave to makesurethatit staysup to dateforreruns. then,Lenny But, his show gotontotheLetterman unlesshe reallytrimmed sails. which to Bruce!! tried "expose" book 2. Albert Goldman's LadiesandGentlemen, Lenny and to bookson ElvisPresley John not like Bruceis, of course, his other Lennon, referred Goldman thetypical is of is in thetextof thispiece.Thatomission deliberate. product the whentheytryto bury that "'od-that-failed" journalists syndrome seemsto affectacademic themandwhichtheynow so vehemently that thosevoicesthatmadetheculture formed or account Lennon, Presley, Bruce of or than reject.Muchmoreinteresting Goldman's we Otherwise of account his own intellectual/social wouldbe Goldman's development. of Goldman themadassassin Lennon. and between is that must conclude there nodifference to with without to bothering havea conversation him. Theybothwanted killoff thefather and in of A serious him, placing hisperformances hisrelationship asocial biography Bruce, context we canallcometo terms that with,hasnotyet beenwritten. in from Fekete's John is 3. Thissetof categories derived ed., Culture," Fekete, "Vampire 1987:70-71. of 1985:84-99, andStuart 4. Fortwo versions thisprocess,see LindaHutcheon, Hall, in to addresses problem relation it who the 1980:128-138, though is Hutcheon specifically humor. who 5. Christie Daviesof Warwick jokes, studyof Irish University, hasmadea life-long of for at madethis observation a meetingof the BritishAssociation the Advancement workis to be 26 Science(TheIndependent, 1987).Hismoreconsidered London, August, But as Are UP, 1989). see alsoChris Peoples(Indiana in production, published Jokes about Davies. and by GregBenton Christie in of stories found Martin is 6. Auseful, interpretationtheBaal Shem though idiosyncratic,
Buber'sThe Legend of the Baal Shem.New York,Schoken, 1960. Powell andGeorgePaton,Humorand Society: Resistanceand Control,especially articles
but accounts on literature thisperiod themostpopular 7. Thereis a fairlycomprehensive NewYork: American New his areby Irving Library, Howe,notably World OurFathers, of New New York: American Libo HoweandKenneth (eds)HowWeLived, 1976andIrving 1979. Library,
8. Bruce has a bitterrecollectionof this periodin a short aside: "Yousee, I can alwaysrelateback to theology.Christforgave,and if you say then you'reChristians, youforgive.AndthenAlberMaltz,DaltonTrumbo, Ring writers-And I believein judiciallaw.If you Lardner who wereCommunist Jr., breakmy law,I wantyou to pay yourdues.And theydid,theydid a yearin the jointin '48;butthat's all-they spenttheirtime.Now if you wanttokeepstringing themout andnot forgivethem,you'repagans.But if you arepagans, I don't care,man,just be consistent.Say, 'We'renot Christians, we're gonna an ex-con, we're gonnalean on the flag andthe Bible, we're gonna persecute take those writers tomorrowand put them up against the wall and shoot them-' But Ronald Reaganhas to pull the trigger,no one else, my friend. You believe in a law, solid. But once the cat pays his dues, that'senough. Let him alone, man. 9. The first writerto note the connection was Jonathan Miller. See his articleon Bruce, "The Sick White Negro,"Partisan Review,XXI, 1 (Spring1963) BIBLIOGRAPHY NathanAusubel,ed. A Treasuryof Jewish Humor(New York:Paperback Library,1967). Babel, Isaac, Collected Stories, translated WalterMorison (Harmondsworth: by Penguin Books, 1961). MikhailBakhtin,The Dialogic Imagination(Austin,U. of Texas Press, 1981). MikhailBakhtin,Rabelais and His World(Bloomington:IndianaU.P. 1984). JeanBaudrillard, Simulations(New York:Semiotexte(s) 1983). WalterBenjamin,Illuminations(London:Jonathan Cape, 1970). Greg Benton andGrahamLoomes, (eds.) Big Red Joke Book (London:Pluto 1976). Lenny Bruce,How to TalkDirty and InfluencePeople (Chicago:Playboy Press, 1977). Lenny Bruce, ed. John Cohen The Essential LennyBruce (New York:BallantineBooks, 1967) MartinBuber,TheLegend of the Baal-Shem(New York:Shocken, 1960). UmbertoEco, Travelsin Hyperrealism(London,Picador,1987). JohnFekete, ed. LifeAfterModernism(Montreal: New WorldPerspectives,1987). Albert Goldman.Ladies and Gentlemen,Lennie Bruce!! (New York:BallantineBooks, 1974). StuartHall and Others,(eds.) Culture,Media,Language (London:Hutchinson,1980). J. Hobsbawm,Revolutionaries(London:Quartet Books, 1977). IrvingHowe, Worldof our Fathers (New York:New AmericanLibrary,1976). Irving Howe and KennethLibo (eds.) How WeLived (New York:New AmericanLibrary, 1979). LindaHutcheon,A Theoryof Parody (New York:Methuen,1985). NormanMailer,Advertisementfor Myself(London:AndreDeutsch 1961). Jonathan Miller, 'The Sick White Negro,"Partisan Review,XXI, 1, Spring1963. JachimNeugroscheled., The Shtetl (New York:G.P.Putnam,1979). ChrisPowell andGeorgeE. Patoneds., Humorin Society:ResistanceandControl(London: Macmillan,1988). Edward Said,TheWorld, Textandthe Critic(Cambridge W. the Mass.:Harvard U.P. 1983). Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism(New York: Schocken Books, 1969). GershomScholem, On Jews and Judaismin Crisis (New York:SchockenBooks, 1976).
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