I do have a bedtime. Normally. Normally I’ll watch a late night talk show monologue and call it a night by 11 pm. Last night being Sunday, I was flipping through the channels looking for something else to cap off my weekend.
I happened upon “Lenny”, the Dustin Hoffman biopic of controversial 1950’s-60’s comic Lenny Bruce. For one reason or another his name had just come up the day before in conversation with my wife. I put the clicker down and was glued to the TV until the film ended at exactly midnight.
I am a proponent of free speech in all media. Granted, there are things that, just like anyone, I wish certain folks wouldn’t say. But they’ve got a right to say it. So free speech pioneers like Lenny Bruce are important to me.
You could say Bruce was a beat journalist of sorts. He was also a bit of a sociologist. To my knowledge Lenny Bruce did not tell “dirty jokes” for the sake of being “dirty.” If what he said bothered his audience he wanted them to think about why that was. Part of Bruce’s thing was that what makes dirty words dirty words was in the eye of the beholder.
In one scene in the movie, Hoffman as Bruce was on stage the night after being arrested for saying a certain word. He began this post-bail performance by greeting the many police officers in attendance, then conducted a focus group with audience members wherein he repeatedly used the word “blah” in place of what he was obviously talking about. And the police could not do a thing about it. At one point he remarked that this was “the filthiest show [he’d] ever done” demonstrating that it was not the word, but what was in the minds of the audience that was filthy.
And how do you censor that?
But it went deeper than that.
A second prominent theme in Bruce’s most controversial bits pointed out that we censor words, meanwhile our kids are watching people kill each other on TV and nobody says anything. This sentiment was echoed years later by John Lennon, another great pop-sociologist who noted “we live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”
Lenny Bruce went so far as to say that if it came down to a choice between a stag film and a dramatization of The Old Testament, he’d rather allow his kids to watch the stag film. The reason being that the first portrayed consenting adults, and the latter involved so much violence and bloodshed.
As I watched the film last night, the anniversary of Lennon’s death passed. I made a mental note that both of these men died at age forty, and that both were provocateurs in their own way to make people think about what was offensive. In 1967, a year after the comic died, Lennon chose Bruce as a member of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” collage, linking the two forever.