Animator Jeff Hale was best known for creating beautiful, classic shorts for Sesame Street—perhaps most famously, those infectious counting pinball segments that continue to run today, still making an indelible impression on so many young minds. His death in February at the age of 92 has also sparked interest in some of his lesser known work, particularly the 1971 cult classic short, “Thank You Mask Man,” featuring voice work from no other than Lenny Bruce.
The decidedly not-for-kids cartoon came about through one of Hale’s studio partners John Magnuson, who was a close friend of Bruce. Lifting some recorded audio from a 1962-ish vintage bit about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Hale tells a story of altruism and accolades—a perfectly cynical Lenny Bruce take on heroes and their motivations. “Thank You Mask Man” tanked. The scheduled debut at the San Francisco International Film Festival was cancelled without explanation, and Magnuson believed the Academy Awards blackballed it. Regardless, the cartoon gained a following on late night 80s TV program, Night Flight, and now stands out as one of the more daring moments in animation history.
A lot of water went under the countercultural bridge between 1969, when Douglas Music released the posthumous anthology of Lenny Bruce’s “dirtiest” work What I Was Arrested For: The Performance That Got Lenny Bruce Busted and 1975 when the album was rereleased by Casablanca Records. The sort of material that got Lenny Bruce arrested repeatedly for obscenity in the 1960s seemed almost—I said almost—tame when compared to what George Carlin, Richard Pryor and other comics who came after him were getting away with at the time.
At first the title might be confused with the actual recordings made on the nights when the cops physically pulled Lenny off the stage or arrested him right afterwards, but what one hears on the short album is instead a well-chosen selection of “Dirty Lenny,” the stuff that caused the police departments and district attorneys to pay attention to him in the first place. The album includes his beat poem about hearing his parents fucking “‘To Is a Preposition; Come Is a Verb”; a description of a conversation he had with his agent about performing in a gay nightclub in San Francisco; his lampooning of the “classy” immorality of Las Vegas,“Tits and Ass”; and “A White White Woman Or A Black Black Woman,” Bruce’s wonderfully skillful skewering of racism where he compares the charms of Lena Horne to matronly national anthem singer Kate Smith and asks a theoretical Klansman to choose one of them to marry.
Among the very first words Bruce speaks on the album are “I’m going to piss on you…”
What I Was Arrested For is a really good place to start for a Lenny Bruce neophyte. Today much of his often topical material would be incomprehensible to anyone without a deep knowledge of American history from the Eisenhower through the Johnson administrations, but the recordings to be found here do not fall into that trap and have aged particularly well.
BUT... as controversial as some of this stuff was/is, it’s not the actual recordings of the busted shows themselves (indeed Bruce refers to the busts in the What I Was Arrested For, so that much is obvious).
What a gift to comedy and First Amendment history!
(Bruce attorney) Al Bendich was a good friend of KPFA, and so we often did the recordings [of Bruce’s shows so that they would be documented in case of a bust]. From these we extracted for broadcast a few routines that would not land us in a courtroom along with their author. Twice I was the one who lugged the Ampex over to the Off Broadway. The last time, we all met up in a back alley before the show. It was March, and Lenny was shivering in a long dark overcoat. I vividly remember a face as ravaged as the death mask which, within a couple of years, it would become.
Jack Nessel writes, “I remember talking with him on the steps outside a club one late night between shows. Acting strangely, as if he were imparting a dangerous secret, he gave me a tape he said would prove some kind of conspiracy. I couldn’t wait to play it. Of course it was blank.”
Below, George Carlin tells the story of getting busted himself at Lenny Bruce’s Gate of Horn gig in Chicago, 1962 for getting lippy with a cop:
As regular readers of this blog know, I am a massive Mothers of Invention fan and also a huge Lenny Bruce aficionado. I’ve got a painting of the original Mothers above my desk as I type this and several pieces of rare Lenny Bruce memorabilia on the bookshelves behind me.
What is “this” you ask? Why it’s a short live recording of Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, who were—on June 24th and 25th,1966—the opening act for Lenny Bruce at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. This is a record of one of those nights.
Zappa later wrote of meeting the great comedian (who he named-checked on the cover of Freak Out in the “These People Have Contributed Materially In Many Ways To Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them” list of his influences and heroes.)
“I had seen Lenny Bruce a number of times at Canter’s Deli, where he used to sit in a front booth with Phil Spector and eat knockwurst. I didn’t really talk with him until we opened for him at the Fillmore West in 1966. I met him in the lobby between sets and asked him to sign my draft card. He said no – he didn’t want to touch it.”
The YouTube poster claims the recording to be from a soundboard source and it does sound pretty good once it gets going. Certainly it’s one of the earliest live Mothers recordings in circulation (and news to me). It starts off with “Plastic People,” then goes into “Toads Of The Short Forest” and “I’m Not Satisfied” before the group launches into the sea shanty “Handsome Cabin Boy” and turn it into a guitar rave-up of epic proportions with Zappa’s axe making a noise that was probably quite novel sounding to the ears of those in attendance.
The MOI were but a five-piece at the time with Jimmy Carl Black on drums; Ray Collins on vocals; Roy Estrada on bass, Elliot Ingber on guitar and Frank Zappa on guitar and vocals.
The performance of “The Orange County Lumber Truck” that follows the “Handsome Cabin Boy” jam is not from the same show. I don’t see how it could be without Bunk Gardner, Don Preston, Motorhead Sherwood or Ian Underwood (who all seem to be present and accounted for by the sound of things). Which is not to say that it’s not absolutely amazeballs—because it most certainly is. I just don’t know what the provenance is.
And to keep the Frank Zappa/Lenny Bruce connection going, here’s The Berkeley Concert (recorded on December 12th of 1965) as originally released on Zappa and Herb Cohen’s Bizarre record label in 1969.
This wonderfully unexpected piece of counterculture history—Lenny Bruce speaking to UCLA students on February 9th, 1966—comes to us courtesy of the archives of the UCLA Communications Studies Department. It’s only been online for about a week.
This occasion would seem to have been intended to be some sort of an informal lunchtime talk from the way Bruce is so earnestly introduced, but he treats it like a stand-up gig. In fact, for the first half-hour, it’s pretty much a big chunk of the same material later released on The Berkeley Concert (recorded a few weeks prior, on December 12, 1965), but then, after an audience member asks if he’s ever taken LSD, Bruce rather candidly tells the story of smoking DMT and jumping out of a hotel window!
As the grandfather of gadfly stand-up, Lenny Bruce is unquestionably brilliant. But nothing so quickly puts genius in perspective like a failed attempt at another genre. Dance Hall Racket was Bruce’s first movie (and pretty much his last), and after sitting through the whole thing (I was mesmerized), I can see exactly why his talents never translated into a film career.
I actually found the film trying to look up Bruce’s wife, “Hot” Honey Harlow, who played the leading lady in this celluloid atrocity. Before meeting Lenny, Harlow was actually convicted of stealing cars & trying to steal from a candy machine (apparently it wasn’t quite as easy as stealing cars). After spending over a year in jail, she worked as a stripper, marrying Bruce in 1951. While he was determined to give her a respectable, clothed life, Harlow actually stripped for quite a few years after their marriage, and was still working as a stripper in ‘53, after this movie was released. Lenny emceed some of her shows, as his brand of comedy did pretty well in strip clubs. Though they had a tumultuous relationship, they managed to stay together until the late 50s.
So of course I had to see a movie with her in it! She’s a woman after my own heart! And yes, she does gratuitously take off her clothes in the movie (though only revealing her frumpy 1950s skivvies.)
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a truly terrible film, but hypnotically so. It’s bad on so many levels that it actually insulates Lenny Bruce from criticism. Though he wrote the screenplay and took the lead role, he simply can’t be blamed for the entirety of the film’s shortcomings; there are just too many of them. I mean yes, the acting is terrible and the writing is weak (I won’t bore you with the cliched “plot”), but also: the pacing is disorienting, the camera-work is half-assed, the sets are threadbare, and legendary B-movie director Phil Tucker appears to have given the actors no instruction, leaving them to move, stand, and speak with a cringe-inducing awkwardness.
There is ONE funny line in the entire film “What, so I killed somebody, that makes me a bad person?” But don’t let that stop you from watching the so-bad-that-it’s-just-terrible Dance Hall Racket.
Here’s Lenny Bruce’s original application for a New York Cabaret and Public Dance Hall employee identification card and the card itself from 1963. These cards were required by law in order to perform at clubs and venues. If you didn’t have one of these, you didn’t work.
What’s noteworthy here is where the application asks “Have you been arrested since issuance of the card you now hold?”
Bruce answered “Yes.”
The application then asks “If so, give full details.”
Bruce writes “For violation of obscenity laws in California.”
Unfortunately I can’t really make out the rest due to an ink smudge. But it appears he was only granted a 3 month temporary card until a hearing was held.
I found this on the Live Auctioneers website. These Smithsonian-level items were up for auction in 2006, but it looks like no one placed a bid?!
I was in drag the last time I did stand-up, about twenty-five-years ago, in a crowded bar at the Tron Theater, Glasgow. It was a return appearance, on a ‘gong night’ bill that included Craig Ferguson, who was starting out with his comic character Bing Hitler.
In some respects I was amazed to be asked back, and was certain my invitation had been a clerical error. The first time I’d tried to be Lenny McBruce and was full of misplaced energy that led me to telling the audience to ‘fuck off’, whilst reading a copy of the Sun, riffing on its headlines, horoscopes, interviews and adverts. I’d got as far as Princess Diana and Pete Sutcliffe jokes, when the howls of abuse proved too much, I was gonged quickly off.
Other gong nights had seen a generation of new and original talent: a duo called Victor and Barry - Alan Cumming and Forbes Mason - those erstwhile founders of the Kelvinside Young People’s Amateur Dramatic Art Society (KYPADAS), who performed camp musical numbers, in slick-backed hair and monogramed smoking jackets.
And then there was Jerry Sadowitz, who was incredible, and still is. His humor was unpredictable, relentless and much in the spirit of Lenny Bruce - nothing was sacred, no subject off limits. When menaced with the gong, he pulled out a joke pistol and threatened to shoot the compere, John Stahl.
Amongst such talents, I was just a daft, wee laddie, who wanted to succeed more than I wanted to perform.
So, on my return, I revamped one of my old drag characters, Bessie Graham, a mistress of the single entendre. I went through the rehearsed material and it seemed to be working well - at least for half the audience, those nearest to the stage that is. But for anyone beyond row 4, I appeared as an indifferent mime artist, with a basic grasp of mime. Later, I was told my mic had not been working.
Afterwards, watching Craig Ferguson perform, I decided to give it all up. Over 2 years of performing, on-and-off, I’d found out I was fine at comic characters and sketches, but hadn’t grown-up enough to have my own voice, and know what I wanted to say. And without that, I would never be any good.
Documentarian Richard B. Weide likes to focus on the lives of comedians in his films and in Lenny Bruce he has powerful material to work with. Combining rare archival footage and interviews with Lenny’s mother Sally Marr, ex-wife Honey, daughter Kitty, Paul Krassner, Nat Hentoff and Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth manages to be both richly informative and emotionally engaging. It’s a terrific movie.
With lean narration by Robert De Niro, Weide digs deep into the life of a comedian prophet driven to an early death by drugs and a government hellbent on shutting his mouth. Bruce was a punk Jesus who railed against hypocrisy and injustice with the low key deadliness of a man armed with the truth and a razor blade tongue.
The man who spawned modern comedy, Lenny Bruce was born today in 1925. Instead of a selection of his well-known monologues from stage and TV appearances, here is Dance Hall Racket, a low budget exploitation movie, which Bruce wrote and starred in, alongside his wife Honey Harlow, and Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scialli.
Produced by George Weiss (best known as the producer of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?), Dance Hall Racket was the third of the Umberto Scialli films, following on from Devil’s Sleep and Racket Girls, in which Scialli was killed. Dance Hall Racket is a quirky, trashy, Z-movie, and leaves no clue to the Lenny Bruce who would, within the decade, start a revolution in comedy.
Bonus clips, Lenny sings and on-stage, after the jump…
Speculating on how an 85-year-old Lenny Bruce would be celebrating his birthday today is as fun as it is pointless.
But it’s pretty easy to guess that edgy comedy’s patron saint would not have been able to stretch out casually on TV for 25 minutes in conversation with a legendary publisher and lifestyle creator like the Hef.
That’s what happened in 1959 on the first episode of Playboy’s Penthouse, Hugh Hefner’s first foray into TV, which broadcast from WBKB in his Chicago hometown. This was the first mass-market exposure of the erstwhile club-bound Bruce, and its high-end hepness set the tone for the show’s two-season run, which featured a ton of figures in the jazz culture scene.
Of course, the dynamic between the eloquent snapping-and-riffing Long Islander Bruce and the perennially modest Midwestern Hefner is classic as the comedian covers topics like “sick” comedy, nose-blowing, Steve Allen, network censorship, tattoos & Jews, decency wackos, Lou Costello, integration, stereotypes, medicine and more.
An online auction of rare memorabilia from the estate of comedian Lenny Bruce, whose outspoken views on sex, drugs and religion paved the way for generations of comics, is currently accepting bids.The auction, set up by Bruce’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, is to benefit Lenny’s House, a nonprofit recovery program for women who are dealing with drug and alcohol addictions. Items for sale include Bruce’s typewriter, several private family photographs, his bed frame and one of Bruce’s trademark black trench coats, often seen in his arrest photos. This is the first time items from the Bruce estate have ever been put up for auction.
Other celebrity supporters who have also donated items include Chris Rock, Yoko Ono, Hugh Hefner, Jonathan Winters, Elizabeth Taylor, Carl Reiner and Arianna Huffington.
Bidding on the auction will end Oct. 28, and that evening a benefit for Lenny’s House will be held at The Laugh Factory comedy club with performers Paul Mooney, Rick Overton, Paul Provenza, and Bobby Slayton, with Richard Belzer hosting. Tickets are $35 and $50.