One night many, many years ago, I was at The Comedy Store on amateur night when Robin Williams walked in off the street and jumped onto the stage. For the next 45 minutes, the air inside the club turned into nitrous oxide as Williams made us all feel a bit brighter, a bit wittier, a bit more manically high just for being able to keep up with him. It felt like being inside a comic mind that was both unhinged and unleashed.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to see a preview performance in New York of a one-woman act by a performer with the unlikely name of Whoopi Goldberg. Throughout the performance, which later moved to Broadway (and is now scheduled to return for a 20th anniversary performance), I was often uncertain of whether to laugh at or be scared of the characters she created onstage. Either way, I knew I was in the presence of a performer whose abilities as a social commentator and as a mimic were conjoined in an unforgettable fashion.
I mention this because I've spent the last several weeks listening to the recently released six-CD box set "Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware" (Shout Factory), an exhaustive and authoritative collection that gives the uninitiated and even the fan a sense of the thrill, the importance and the tragedy of being Lenny Bruce.
The collection offers evidence of Lenny in his prime, riffing like a virtuoso, taking you on an intoxicating journey of language, the combination of hipster slang and Yiddish, mini-dramas told in word pictures. But it also renders Lenny at the end -- drug-addled, obsessed, reading legal statutes and his court transcripts and playing tapes of interviews with the jurors from his trials.
The boxed set was a labor of love. Kitty Bruce, Lenny's daughter, knew where all his tapes were kept and wanted them to see the light of day. In 1991, Bob Emmer of Shout Factory asked Hal Willner to produce. Willner, who was known then mostly as a music producer, has since produced an Allen Ginsberg boxed set, as well as live tribute shows to Leonard Cohen and last Spring's Randy Newman evening at UCLA's Royce Hall. Although there would be legal delays, eventually a cut was made. Legendary producer Marvin Worth ("Lenny," "Malcolm X"), who controlled Lenny's estate got involved, making sure Willner balanced rarities with Lenny's greatest and best-known bits. Worth died in 1998 causing further delays, but eventually the parties focused on what was most important: letting Lenny Bruce have the last word.
Lenny's professional trajectory was like that of a shooting star -- he came on the scene fast and bright -- by 1959 he was no longer just a stand-up; as he put it, "I'm not a comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce." By 1962, however, he was a target -- his shows were busted repeatedly for obscenity and Lenny was arrested several times for drugs. By the mid-'60s his trials consumed him and dominated his material. Broke, defeated, he could no longer make a living. He died of an overdose on Aug. 3, 1966.
The boxed set offers live versions of some of his most famous bits, "Moses and Christ," "Religions, Inc.," "The Palladium"; unreleased gems such as Lenny's teenage appearance on "The Arthur Godfrey Show" and a morning performance he did for Jonathan Winters dubbed "The Breakfast Show"; and even a series of unreleased commercials Lenny taped for the Los Angeles clothing store Zeidler and Zeidler.
Movies and TV were Lenny's frame of reference. He started his career doing impressions and throughout his career his ability to mimic stars and figures from current culture enlivened his monologues. His appearances on TV, whether on "The Steve Allen Show" or Hugh Hefner's "Playboy Penthouse," widened his popularity. Although he tried writing for TV and movies, his true talent was as a performance artist. The best movies he created happened in your imagination as he spoke. He did bits, he told stories, but his free-form monologues were crafted and tempered by the audience on any given night. They were an American art form. They were jazz.
When Lenny's own life became a drama, he couldn't resist talking about the intricacies of his own immolation. He stopped being funny, but he didn't stop being fascinated and fascinating. That is probably why he inspires such loyalty. He was addicted and addictive.
Lenny's fingerprints are all over present culture. Whether in movies that mock recent or current culture such as "Zoolander," "DodgeBall," "Anchorman" (basically anything Ben Stiller does) or in the animated fare of "South Park" duo Matt Stone and Trey Parker. In the world of stand-up, comedy maven Brad Schreiber told me that he hears echoes of Lenny in such comics as Chris Rock and Bill Maher. They are all Lenny's stepsons.
Just imagine what Lenny would have had to say about The Patriot Act or Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." Hal Willner has said that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" made "many of Lenny's bits come to mind and it feels now like Lenny Bruce is needed more than ever."
There is no little irony in the fact that while Lenny's battles with the law broke him, Howard Stern's battles with the FCC have increased his ratings and led to a lucrative Satellite radio deal. Maybe that's progress.
I never saw Lenny Bruce live. But listening to "Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware" makes me wish I had. After listening to more than seven hours of CDs, it was strange: my head hurt, but I wanted more. The boxed set had given me a taste of something I couldn't have. Man, I wish I could have been in the room then.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.