Excerpts from LENNY BRUCE: THE MAKING OF A PROPHET
The beginning of Chapter 8 "Power Corrupts"
As I sit writing these pages decades later, I am obliged to consider that many
readers did not experience the sixties and may find it difficult to understand how the satirical
comedy of Lenny Bruce could have such social impact or, for that matter, why a reasonably
intelligent soul such as myself would persevere in the face of Lenny's obvious failings in
personal and professional relations.
Many would consider Lenny's material
tame compared to a Richard Pryor
or a George Carlin of today, taking for granted the freedom of expression that comedians
and most performers in all media enjoy today. Many of today's readers were children or
infants or not even born, and therefore could not be aware of, much less run afoul of,
the repression and conformity of that time.
Just as our bodies carry forth
the evolutionary remnants of a vestigial
tail at the base of the spine and a reptilian brain beneath our larger brain, so America
dragged forth into the beginning of the sixties unconstitutional laws discriminating against
twenty million black Americans, unconstitutional laws repressing one hundred million female
Americans, and the tendency of political, social, and religious leaders to invoke these laws
to maintain the general and their particular status quo, for better or for worse.
This was a time when laws prohibited a black child from drinking
at a white drinking fountain in Georgia and prohibited a black man from walking the streets
of Pasadena, California, after ten in the evening. This was a time when a woman was guilty
of provoking rape if her breasts and buttocks were allowed to jiggle free of a super- structured
bra and girdle. This was a time when one of the largest television viewing audiences watched a
Catholic priest who espoused conservative policies, endorsed right-wing politicians, and turned a
blind eye to the growing indignation of the public who resented the excesses of its leaders.
It was a time of two-valued thinking: black or white, good or evil, for or against.
If you were not for God (preferably the Christian God), then you must be an ally of Satan, if you
opposed your political leaders then you must be a proponent of Communism and therefore a traitor;
if you practiced miscegenation (the legal term then used in some states for interracial sex) then
you went against the founding fathers who obviously did not intend for their democratic experiment
to extend to their black slaves and neighboring American Indians.
These inequities were not unique to the fifties or sixties. Presidents, potentates,
and popes had invoked such controls upon society for millennia in the misguided and selfish belief
that civilization should evolve in their own national, racial, or religious image. What was astounding
was that these contradictions of the great American experiment in democracy had prevailed through a
half-century of growing mass media.
For it is timing that is the distinction of a prophet, not piety or perfection.
It takes but a seed of honesty planted in the spring of awareness to grow into a tree of knowledge.
A single pearl of wisdom might jostle amidst millions to find the perfect niche for its perfect symmetry.
The smallest spark of genius may illuminate the world only if it chances to ignite a powerful source
of energy. Those particles of honesty, wisdom, and genius in Lenny have been possessed in larger or
smaller degrees by countless people, but Lenny happened to possess them in the late spring of his life,
in the niche of show business's mass media, and in the ignitable atmosphere of social revolution which
was the sixties.
The cry for freedom that ultimately issued from Lenny had long bubbled within the
breasts of Bohemians and Beatniks, me and my peers, and millions who did not want to give up their
lives or the quality of their lives to ensure their leaders' names in history books for wars won
or deities appeased. While others voiced that cry in loftier impassioned speeches on the steps of
churches and capitals, Lenny voiced that same cry through the entertainment media concerning real
issues and real people. But Lenny was not running for office. He was just an innocent who saw
reality in a very talented way, and found it funny that the "emperor wore no clothes."
That was Lenny's most unique talent, the courage and/or naivet to joust with the
dragons plaguing society. Whether he was St. George or Don Quixote is debatable, but he fought
the good fight all of us wanted to, but few dared. That is why the likes of Frankie and I stood
by him despite his obvious faults. His injustices against us were insignificant compared to the
social injustices he attacked early in his career and the personal injustices ultimately heaped upon him.
I do not claim to have been fully conscious of such insight when I was twenty-three and
first met Lenny. Frankie regarded him primarily as an exceptional performing talent, one that he could
appreciate and aid with his own perception, experience, and talents far better than his show business
peers who simply regarded Lenny as a dirty joke. I didn't even have Frankie's perception of Lenny's
talent. I only knew that, while I enjoyed storytelling with Frankie, writing with Lenny was "meaningful"
storytelling. At twenty-three I was consciously searching for answers as to why society was a spider
web of hypocrisies. Writing with Lenny, I found I could take a stick to the spider web and taunt the spider.
Neither Frankie nor Lenny nor I realized how dangerous it was to play with spider webs.
Excerpted from Chapter 10 "Words and Numbers"
Sally's description was not the least exaggerated when I stepped into Lenny's downstairs
bedroom. He was on his hands and knees searching through a sea of photocopied court transcripts that
literally covered the entire carpeting up to his terrycloth-robed tush. Replaying the tape in my brain
of that moment he saw me does not distort or diminish the expression on his face which, if it did not
contain some element of love, was at the very least happy relief. The beatific expression broadened to
a wide-eyed grin as he stumbled through the sea of paper to hug me, saying, "William, William, where
have you been? You're just the man I need. Now we can get something done."
I returned the hug and relished the moment briefly for whatever warmth or sincerity
it might hold. Then, more to establish a working discipline than to milk one of the rare moments
where I had the upper hand with Lenny, I held him slightly apart from me and asked, "Did you ask
Sally to call me?"
He turned into the room and started picking up papers. "Yeah, yeah, didn't she tell
you I'm writing my book?"
I continued in a monotone, "Did you talk to her since she phoned me?"
Lenny brusquely focused his attention on the three other people in the room, his
houseman, John Judnich, and two scantily clad girls. "You guys go fix something to eat, go do
something in the other room, just go, okay, you guys." When they had left, he began snuffling
as he looked down at the papers he shuffled in his hands, then looked up unsmiling at me and said,
"I need you, Bill. I don't have much money, but I need you." He let the papers trail to the floor
as his arms hung limply at his sides. "You can see that, can't you? I need you."
I looked out the picture window at the predawn gray of the Los Angeles skyline
and said, "Before I leave today, I expect you to talk in realistic terms about paying me. Before
I start, I want to be reassured I have complete authority which shall be superseded by you only
when I say your head is straight. Otherwise I don't see . . ."
The ecstatic smile returned to his face and he grabbed both my hands, interrupting
me with, "You got it, you got it!" Then he did a line from Lord Buckley's "The Naz" routine, "You
lay it down, sweet double-hipness, whomp, and we'll pick it up."
And, as Lord Buckley would say, I llllllaid it.
For starters, I asked everyone who was not salaried to leave, which caused the
redhead to disappear. The brunette wasn't salaried, but she was a good soldier and stayed, even
after I asked her to change out of her babydoll nightie into some slacks and a shirt. I busied
everyone stacking the paperwork in neat piles against one wall, then transferring it to stacks
against the opposite wall separated by case file numbers which I started to list numerically on
the wall with labels that could be removed later. Lenny, in his eager haste, started scribbling
the numbers on the wall with a marker, but mostly out of sequence. Once that was in progress,
I took Lenny in the other room and asked him about the manuscript.
"Well, I had this girl typing the manuscript, see, but a week or so ago I got
horny and I jumped her. Now she thinks she's in love with me. She says she's coming over to
work, but all she does when she gets here is cry because the other broads are here and all.
I dunno, I always manage to screw things up somehow."
There was no manuscript. Bits of it were being held for ransom by unpaid secretaries
and at least one lovesick one who only showed up to do melodramatic suicide routines. I finally had
to get file copies back from Playboy of the few completed installments they had as a basis to get a
handle on the book.
When I left Lenny two years before, I had sent him every photograph, every negative,
every page of everything I had ever done for him, all beautifully organized and filed in books, binders,
and boxes. At the beginning of our separation, I saw those materials used in publicity, in records,
and in the later routines where only a seed of my contribution remained recognizable.
When I returned to Lenny, not one scrap of those materials or organization remained
to be seen. The files, the audio control room, and the house were in a shambles. Lenny himself did
not look as sleek or as healthy as he did two years before.
I took a bread-and-butter job in cinema equipment sales with Bob Gamble's Photo Supply
because, not only did my work with Lenny not begin to provide a living, I also needed to replenish my
cinema and audio equipment and it didn't hurt to be next to the wholesale sources. It also didn't hurt
my efforts to re-establish the audio room in Lenny's house where my original installation of racked
tape decks, custom-built mini-console, and laboriously wired patch bay that fed from all parts of the
house was now just so many pounds of badly damaged spare parts.
In bits and spurts, whenever money could be spared from Lenny's legal fees and other
needs, I tediously rebuilt the audio room which was to become the heart of Lenny's subsequent creative
works. Lenny had been introduced to drugs long before I met him, but from our earliest association,
I was responsible for making him, as one reporter put it, a "tape recorder junkie."
I tried to use recorders in writing with Frankie and originally with Lenny, particularly
since neither of them typed or were particularly good grammarians, but it proved pointless because the
principal reason they collaborated with me was so I could ride herd over their wandering imaginations
and discipline the material into some semblance of the intended plot. Giving them a recorder to work
with when I wasn't around largely inhibited them and, at the most, produced a lot of unrelated ramblings
that offered little more than working from a dictionary or a telephone book. They both needed the
interaction of bouncing ideas off someone, and I was, at the very least, a someone capable of evaluating
and developing those ideas, and sometimes more.
After the first album had to be recorded live in the nightclub before an audience because
Lenny couldn't perform in a cold impersonal sound studio, he got used to recording most of his performances
for the creative advantages of reviewing his stage presence and ad-lib material for further development.
But this was all still dependent upon a live audience to get anything out of Lenny and onto tape.
Lenny began to really take an interest in tape recorders when I was working as an
investigator and his latent voyeurism was titillated by the "eavesdropping" element in my work.
He had been around jazz musicians who were audiophiles and, while he never really understood the
technology of audio electronics, he was enamored of sophisticated audio equipment because of this
association. But when it came to the tape recorder as a "bugging" device, he suddenly developed a
passion to understand, equip himself, and employ recorders offstage for the first time as a "technology
When I began working on the autobiography with him, the unstable money and environmental
situation precluded hiring a typist, so conditioning Lenny to use tape recorders for dictation was the
only way to go. I established a system of taking the reels of dictation myself, when there was money,
to a typist and providing one typed copy for Lenny, one for Playboy, and one for me, because Lenny's
copy would invariably be lost within a day or two and he'd need xeroxes of mine.
Some people will find it curious that a performer who stood with a microphone before
huge audiences most of his life could get "mike fright" when placed alone in a room with the same mike,
but Lenny, not unlike others I've known in similar situations, did just that. It's rather like going
to a shrink for the first time. It's one thing to talk about your intimate life to either a friend,
or an audience of a thousand if you have a performer's talent and temperament, but it's an entirely
different thing to tell your life story to a cold, impersonal machine.
I can see his nervous face before me as I listen to that first tape I made
him make in the newly reconstructed audio room back in 1961. With my voice in the background
explaining the layout of the new console, he starts in a subdued voice, "Hello, one, one, one,
one, one. Dear Mr. Thomas, I'm a comedian that . . . . works on the principle of reporting.
I report, er, about everything I see during the day, my own personal life . . . . in a way that,
eh . . . . It's very strange, I find myself inhibited by the microphone."
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