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The tender side of a Tenderloin icon

An eclectic release aims to round out perceptions of cutting-edge comic Lenny Bruce by stressing the man over the mania.

September 26, 2004|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Lenny BRUCE could be almost anything you wanted. A martyr for the 1st Amendment. An innovator who revolutionized comedy the way Elvis revolutionized pop music. A symbol of rebellion. A vulgarian hipster who set comedy on its path toward the gutter.

Any of those perceptions can be drawn from the facts of his turbulent life and the recordings of his stand-up comedy from the late 1950s and early '60s. But the one Lenny Bruce who has remained undocumented, at least on his records, is the warm human being his friends and family have long described. The emergence of that side of the comedian is one of the great charms of "Let the Buyer Beware," a six-CD boxed set on the Shout! Factory label containing nearly eight hours of material, most of it previously unreleased.

This Bruce emerges in the flow of long, unedited nightclub routines, in which the comedian's asides and his chats with his listeners soften the contours of the edgy performance style that's become so familiar. You can almost see him light up as he spots his friend Annie Ross, the jazz singer, in the audience one night. In another show he spins a long, impromptu description of the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi movie "The Black Cat," a riff that radiates a sweet enthusiasm.

And in a discourse on the art of comedy recorded for a San Francisco radio station, Bruce speaks with professorial ease and expertise as he evaluates a host of comedians, from Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields to Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters. His take on Laurel and Hardy ("The relationship they had was so delightful.... You really feel a sincere love there") is crafted with a disarming tenderness.

This side of Bruce is important to see, because it balances the demonized subversive and the persecuted saint with a humanity that makes his ordeal all the more tragic and touching.

Comedy and tragedy

The current debates about indecency in the media are tame compared to the Bruce saga. The prickly provocateur worked his way up through the East Coast comedy circuit and became the scourge of Eisenhower-era America in the late '50s, when his taboo-testing language and subject matter -- racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, sex, relationships, drug use, social injustice -- made him a cause celebre. Soon he was a regular on police blotters nationwide, and his trials for drugs and obscenity sent him spiraling into obsession and paranoia. He died of a morphine overdose in Los Angeles in 1966, the tragedy of which was only partly mitigated last year when New York Gov. George E. Pataki granted him a pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction.

It's understandable that this public drama has overshadowed Bruce's comedy, and while "Let the Buyer Beware" doesn't avoid the painful arc, its mission was to restore some balance to Bruce's legacy.

"I'm hoping the brilliance of him as an artist comes through here over Lenny the victim," says Hal Willner, the producer of the boxed set. "It's not just him as the controversial figure who broke the rules. A bit like 'The Palladium' and 'White Collar Drunks,' that influenced Bill Cosby, who in a mainstream way changed comedy.

"He was bringing a whole cinematic approach to it. These are stories, these are radio shows. No one did that.... 'Religions Incorporated' -- tell me Robin Williams doesn't know that backwards and forward. The guy doing the evangelist as a used-car salesman, every comedian was doing that 20 years later. He got destroyed for that.

"It's hearing him between routines, hearing him talking to the audience, hearing the spontaneity.... He was going on without knowing what he was going to do," Willner says. "There's the time he keeps going, 'I'm gonna leave now,' and then he talks about 'The Black Cat.' That's not a routine, he's just talking about 'The Black Cat.' What a transfixing thing. No one ever would have put that on a record.... But it shows what a great natural storyteller he was. I would call it the side of him we knew was there but never heard...."

Willner assembled "Buyer Beware" from the tape collections of Bruce's daughter, Kitty Bruce, and his former manager Marvin Worth. While it includes some of the best routines from his old albums (most of which are still in print), its real lure is the newly released material. It includes extended, minimally edited sets such as the remarkable "Breakfast Show," a 1963 performance Bruce arranged for morning hours so Winters could see him work.

The set also has its share of ephemera: his 1948 spot on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" (he tied for first place); phone calls he made to jurors after one of his trials; commercials he created for the L.A. clothier Zeidler & Zeidler.

A return to relevance

The main point of "Buyer Beware," though, is that Bruce was one of the funniest comedians of his time, riffing with jazz-inspired cadence through his untapped subject matter. Outrageous, compassionate and highly moral, he repeatedly challenges people simply to live up to the principles they profess.

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