A jest breaks no bones.—Samuel Johnson, 1781
“Are you a sick comic?”
“Why do they call you a sick comic?”
“Do you mind being called a sick comic?” It is impossible to label me. I develop, on the average, four minutes of new material a night, constantly growing and changing my point of view; I am heinously guilty of the paradoxes I assail in our society.
The reason for the label sick comic is the lack of creativity among journalists and critics. There is a comedy actor from England with a definite Chaplinesque quality. “Mr. Guinness, do you mind being called a Chaplinesque comic?” There is a comedian by the name of Peter Sellers who has a definite Guinnessesque quality. “Mr. Sellers, why do they say you have a Guinnessesque quality?”
The motivation of the interviewer is not to get a terse, accurate answer, but rather to write an interesting, slanted article within the boundaries of the editorial outlook of his particular publication, so that he will be given the wherewithal to make the payment on his MG. Therefore this writer prostitutes his integrity by asking questions, the answers to which he already has, much like a cook who follows a recipe and mixes the ingredients properly.
Concomitant with the sick comic label is the carbon cry, “What happened to the healthy comedian who just got up there and showed everybody a good time and didn’t preach, didn’t have to resort to knocking religion, mocking physical handicaps and telling dirty toilet jokes?”
Yes, what did happen to the wholesome trauma of the 1930s and 1940s the honeymoon jokes, concerned not only with what they did but also with how many times they did it; the distorted wedding-night tales, supported visually by the trite vacationland postcards of an elephant with his trunk searching through the opening of a pup tent, and a woman’s head straining out the other end, hysterically screaming, “George!” whatever happened to all this wholesomeness?
A Caricature Group, by John Hamilton Mortimer, c. 1766. Yale Center for British Art.
What happened to the healthy comedian who at least had good taste?…Ask the comedians who used to do the harelip jokes, or the moron jokes—“The moron who went to the orphans’ picnic,” etc.—the healthy comedians who told good-natured jokes that found Pat and Abie and Rastus outside of St. Peter’s gate all listening to those angels harping in stereotype.
Whatever happened to Joe E. Lewis? His contribution to comedy consisted of returning Bacchus to his godlike pose with an implicit social message: “If you’re going to be a swinger and fun to be with, always have a glass of booze in your hand; even if you don’t become part swinger, you’re sure to end up with part liver.”
Whatever happened to Henny Youngman? He involved himself with a nightly psychodrama named Sally, or sometimes Laura. She possessed features not sexually but economically stimulating. Mr. Youngman’s Uglivac crossfiled and classified diabolic deformities definitively. “Her nose was so big that every time she sneezed…” “She was so bowlegged that every time…” “One leg was shorter than the other…” And Mr. Youngman’s mutant reaped financial harvest for him. Other comedians followed suit with Cockeyed Jennies, et al., until the Ugly Girl routines became classics. I assume this fondness for atrophy gave the nightclub patron a sense of well-being.
And whatever happened to Jerry Lewis? His neorealistic impression of the Japanese male captured all the subtleties of the Japanese physiognomy. The bucktoothed malocclusion was caricatured to surrealistic proportions until the teeth matched the blades that extended from Ben-Hur’s chariot. Highlighting the absence of the iris with Coke-bottle-thick lenses, this satire has added to the fanatical devotion which Japanese students have for the United States. Just ask Eisenhower.
Whatever happened to Milton Berle? He brought transvestitism to championship bowling and upset a hardcore culture of dykes that control the field. From Charlie’s Aunt and Some Like it Hot and Milton Berle, the pervert has been taken out of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and made into a sometimes-fun fag. Berle never lost his sense of duty to the public, though. Although he gave homosexuals a peek out of the damp cellar of unfavorable public opinion, he didn’t go all the way; he left a stigma of menace on his fag—“I sweah I’w kiw you.”
I was labeled a “sicknik” by Time magazine, whose editorial policy still finds humor in a person’s physical shortcomings: “Shelly Berman has a face like a hastily sculptured hamburger.” The healthy comic would never offend…unless you happen to be fat, bald, skinny, deaf, or blind. The proxy vote from purgatory has not yet been counted.
Let’s say I’m working at the Crescendo on the coast. There’ll be Arlene Dahl with some New Wave writer from Algiers, and on the whole it’s a cooking kind of audience. But I’ll finish a show, and some guy will come up to me and say, “I—I’m a club owner, and I’d like you to work for me. It’s a beautiful club. You ever work in Milwaukee? Lots of people like you there, and you’ll really do great. You’ll kill ’em. You’ll have a lot of fun. Do you bowl?”
The only thing is, I know that in those clubs between Los Angeles and New York the people in the audience are a little older than me. The most I can say to people over fifty or fifty-five is, “Thank you, I’ve had enough to eat.”
I get to Milwaukee, and the first thing that frightens me to death is that they’ve got a six thirty dinner show…six-thirty in the afternoon and people go to a nightclub! It’s not even dark out yet. I don’t wanna go in the house—it’s not dark yet, man. If the dinner show is held up, it’s only because the Jell-O’s not hard.
The people look familiar, but I’ve never been to Milwaukee before. Then I realize—these are the Grayline Sightseeing Bus Tours before they leave—this is where they live. They’re like forty-year-old chicks with prom gowns on.
They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief. And there are walkouts, walkouts, every night, walkouts. The owner says to me, “Well, I never saw you do that religious bit…and those words you use!” The chef is confused—the desserts aren’t moving.
I go to the men’s room, and I see kids in there. Kids four years old, six years old. These kids are in awe of this men’s room. It’s the first time they’ve ever been in a place their mother isn’t allowed in. Not even for a minute. Not even to get something is she allowed in there.
And the kids stay in there for hours.
“Come out of there!”
“I’m going to come in and get you.”
“No, you’re not allowed in here, ’cause everybody’s doing, making wet in here.”
In between shows I’m a walker, and I’m getting nudgy and nervous. The owner decides to cushion me with his introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show, Lenny Bruce, who, incidentally, is an ex-GI and, uh, a hell of a good performer, folks, and a great kidder, know what I mean? It’s all a bunch of silliness up here, and he doesn’t mean what he says. He kids about the pope and about the Jewish religion, too, and the colored people and the white people—it’s all a silly, make-believe world. And he’s a hell of a nice guy, folks. He was at the Veterans’ Hospital today doing a show for the boys. And here he is—his mom’s out here tonight, too, she hasn’t seen him in a couple of years—she lives here in town…Now, a joke is a joke, right, folks? What the hell. I wish that you’d try to cooperate. And whoever has been sticking ice picks in the tires outside, he’s not funny. Now Lenny may kid about narcotics, homosexuality, and things like that…”
And he gets walkouts.
I get off the floor, and a waitress says to me, “Listen, there’s a couple, they want to meet you.” It’s a nice couple, about fifty years old. The guy asks me, “You from New York?”
“I recognized that accent.” And he’s looking at me, with a sort of searching hope in his eyes, and then he says, “Are you Jewish?”
“What are you doing in a place like this?”
He says, “Listen, I know you show people eat all that crap on the road…” (Of course. What did you eat tonight? Crap on the road.) And they invite me to have a nice dinner at their house the next day. He writes out the address, you know, with the ballpoint pen on the wet cocktail napkin.
That night I go to my hotel—I’m staying at the local show-business hotel; the other show people consist of two people, the guy who runs the movie projector and another guy who sells Capezio shoes—and I read a little, write a little. I finally get to sleep about seven o’clock in the morning.
The phone rings at nine o’clock.
“Hello, hello, hello, this is the Sheckners—the people from last night. We didn’t wake you up, did we?”
“No, I always get up at nine in the morning. I like to get up about ten hours before work so I can brush my teeth and get some coffee. It’s good you got me up. I probably would have overslept otherwise.”
“Listen, why we called you—we want to find out what you want to eat.”
Oh, anything. I’m not a fussy eater, really.”
I went over there that night, and I do eat anything—anything but what they had. Liver. And Brussels sprouts. That’s really a double threat.
And the conversation was on the level of, “Is it true about Liberace?”
That’s all I have to hear, then I really start to lay it on them: “Oh, yeah, they’re all queer out there in Hollywood. All of them. Rin Tin Tin’s a junkie."
Then they take you on a tour around the house. They bring you into the bedroom with the dumb dolls on the bed. And what the hell can you tell people when they walk you around in their house? “Yes, that’s a very lovely closet, that’s nice the way the towels are folded.” They have a piano, with the big lace doily on top, and the bowl of wax fruit. The main function of these pianos is to hold an eight-by-ten picture of the son in the army, saluting. “That’s Morty; he lost a lot of weight.”
The Zaparozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, by Ilya Repin, c. 1880. State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg.
The trouble is, in these towns—Milwaukee; Lima, Ohio—there’s nothing else to do, except look at stars. In the daytime, you go to the park to see the cannon, and you’ve had it.
One other thing—you can hang out at the Socony Gas Station between shows and get gravel in your shoes. Those night attendants really swing.
“Lemme see the grease rack go up again,” I say. “Can I try it?”
“No, you’ll break it.”
“Can I try on your black-leather bow tie?”
“No. Hey, Lenny, you wanna see a clean toilet? You been in a lot of service stations, right? Did you ever see one this immaculate?”
“Now don’t lie to me.”
“Would I lie to you about something like that?”
“I thought you’d like it, because I know you’ve seen everything in your travels—”
“It’s gorgeous. In fact, if anyone ever says to me, ‘Where is there a clean toilet, I’ve been searching forever,’ I’ll say, ‘Take 101 into 17 up through 50,’ and I’ll just send ’em right here.”
“You could eat off the floor, right Lenny?”
“You certainly could.”
“Want a sandwich?”
Then I start fooling around with his condom-vending machine.
“You sell many of these here?”
“I don’t know.”
“You fill up the thing here?”
“No, a guy comes around.”
“You wear condoms ever?”
“Do you wear them all the time?”
“Do you have one on now?”
“Well, what do you do if you have to tell some chick, ‘I’m going to put a condom on now’—it’s going to kill everything.”
I ask the gas-station attendant if I can put one on.
“Are you crazy or something?”
“No, I figure it’s something to do. We’ll both put condoms on. We’ll take a picture.”
“Now, get the hell out of here, you nut, you.”
I can’t help it, though. Condoms are so dumb. They’re sold for the prevention of love.
As far as chicks are concerned, these small towns are dead. The cab drivers ask you where to get laid. It’s really a hang-up. Every chick I meet, the first thing they hit me with is, “Look, I don’t know what kind of a girl you think I am, but I know you show people, you’ve got all those broads down in the dressing room, and they’re all ready for you, and I’m not gonna…”
“That’s a lie, there’s nobody down there!”
“Never mind, I know you get all you want.”
Big head, little wit.—French proverb,
That’s what everybody thinks, but there’s nobody in the dressing room. That’s why Frank Sinatra never gets any. It’s hip not to ball him. “Listen, now, they all ball him, I’m not gonna ball him.” And the poor schmuck really sings “Only the Lonely.”
It’s a real hang-up, being divorced when you’re on the road. Suppose it’s three o’clock in the morning: I’ve just done the last show, I meet a girl, and I like her, and suppose I have a record I’d like her to hear, or I just want to talk to her—there’s no lust, no carnal image there—but because where I live is a dirty word, I can’t say to her, “Would you come to my hotel?”
And every healthy comedian has given motel such a dirty connotation that I couldn’t ask my grandmother to go to a motel, say I wanted to give her a Gutenberg Bible at three in the morning.
The next day at two in the afternoon, when the Kiwanis Club meets there, then hotel is clean. But at three o’clock in the morning, Jim…Christ, where the hell can you live that’s clean? You can’t say hotel to a chick, so you try to think, what won’t offend? What is a clean word to society? What is a clean word that won’t offend any chick?
Trailer. That’s it, trailer.
“Will you come to my trailer?”
“All right, there’s nothing dirty about trailers. Trailers are hunting and fishing and Salem cigarettes. Yes, of course, I’ll come to your trailer. Where is it?”
“Inside my hotel room.”
Why can’t you just say, “I want to be with you and hug and kiss you.” No, it’s “Come up while I change my shirt.” Or coffee. “Let’s have a cup of coffee.”
In fifty years, coffee will be another dirty word.
© 1963, Playboy.
From How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in 1925, Bruce was dishonorably discharged from the Navy in 1946 after falsely claiming to possess homosexual urges. “A lot of people say to me, ‘Why did you kill Christ?’” he once said. “I dunno…It was one of those parties, got out of hand.” After he was arrested on charges of obscenity in 1964, Allen Ginsberg formed the Emergency Committee Against the Harassment of Lenny Bruce. The comedian was sentenced to four months in jail; he died two years later from a morphine overdose.