THE SCENE: MIAMI IN 1951. A 25-year-old strip show emcee initiates his first public demonstration of what would, decades later, be called performance art. It is built around a scam: the Brother Matthias Foundation for Lepers. Just out of the merchant marine, recently married to a stripper, nearly broke, and meditating on contemporary defrauding evangelists, Lenny Bruce decides he'll raise money for lepers. And he'll only keep 50 percent. That, he argues forcefully, is far less than other charities, even respectable ones like Community Chest, keep. So he lifts a priest's garb from a local rectory and starts soliciting on the street. Almost immediately, he's invited into people's homes, thanks to his Roman collar. He's making a good haul. His second day out, he gets busted.
Welcome to the world of Lenny Bruce, where “accepted” and “normal” values are regularly, ritualistically turned inside-out. A twisted yet compelling figure, part brilliantly flawed pharmakos and part implacable junkie, part perpetual adolescent and part First Amendment crusader, he was reborn as a hero to the 1960s youth rebellions, and with the rock revival of the 1980s again became an icon; he joins rock critic Lester Bangs, Leonid Brezhnev, and Leonard Bernstein for a stream-of-consciousness catalog of alternative-culture luminaries in REM's machine-gunned “It's the End of the World as We Know It.” This is typical of the way Bruce's name tends to pop up in pop culture, a mismatched juxtaposition that unwittingly says as much about punkerslacker attitude as it does about Lenny Bruce, who, as the old bumper sticker goes, died for our sins of a morphine overdose in 1966 at age 40.
Bruce pioneered an outsider form of in-your-face standup comedy, a kind of jazzy verbal performance art (think of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, Bruce's self-professed and best disciples, or Firesign Theatre, who made Joycean improvisation into high-level pop art) that is now widely accepted and widely practiced. Or is it? Certainly the perpetual-teen side of Lenny Bruce is on display all over the media, on Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central, in the late Andrew Dice