In 1965, comedian Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred Schneider) parodied Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” with his irreverent autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.” Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Bruce’s death in 1966, the book was recently re-released to a whole new generation. But many will have never heard of Lenny or may have forgotten him. And yet he’s still considered the most influential stand up comedian in the 20th century.
Before Lenny, comics basically told rapid-fire jokes as in “Take my wife…please!” With his jazz-like, stream of consciousness style, Bruce turned stand up into social commentary as he confronted the taboo subjects of race, sex and religion.
Since his passing, books, plays and an Oscar-nominated movie have chronicled Lenny’s life. But, how he went from a poor Jewish kid in Long Island growing up during the Depression to the most controversial and highest paid comedian of his era, may be best told in Lenny’s own words.
“How to Talk Dirty” is funny starting at the “dedication. “I dedicate this book,” Lenny writes facetiously, “to all the followers of Christ and his teachings; in particular to a true Christian, Jimmy Hoffa – because he hired ex-convicts as, I assume, Christ would have.”
As revealed in his book, the biggest influence in Lenny’s life was his mother, Sally Marr, a strong-willed, former vaudeville comedienne. (Trivia: Marr lived in Santa Monica in the 1970’s and appeared in “Harry and Tonto,” with her movie-ending scene opposite Art Carney filmed on the boardwalk south of the Pier.)
When Lenny was 5 his parents divorced resulting in his father being only sporadically in his life. (Other than Sally’s frequent threat, “Wait until your father hears about this!”) Raised by Marr and her sister, Lenny had a insatiable curiosity about female undergarments. Fortunately, he was also an insatiable reader. This prompted Sally to scold him for reading at the breakfast table. “Why would they put stories on the cereal box,” Lenny asked, “if you’re not supposed to read them?” (Even as a kid, he had a point.)
During WW2, Lenny spent three years aboard a Navy destroyer engaged in major sea battles in the North Atlantic. Despite the carnage, Lenny dealt bravely with the intense combat. It was the after the war monotony that drove him to an outlandish scheme. Altering his uniform slightly, Lenny feigned interest in cross dressing. And it worked! He was immediately given an honorable discharge.
Post-war, Lenny pursued a comedy career. In 1949, the ever-resourceful Marr managed to book him on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” and Lenny’s first national audience. He was downright brilliant. (Google: “Lenny Bruce appears on Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” and hear for yourself.)
After winning “Talent Scouts,” Lenny got work in bigger and better venues, such as New York’s Strand. But he suddenly abandoned stand up for the merchant marines. In the solitude of the sea, however, he realized he was in love with Honey Harlow (Harriet Jolliff) a stripper and aspiring actress, who bore a striking resemblance to movie star Rita Hayworth.
After getting married, Lenny and Honey toured America with their singer/comic act. It was then Lenny hatched another outlandish scheme, becoming a “minister.”
Legally, Lenny acquired a license, and less legally (stole) a Catholic priest’s collar and black suit. He proceeded to very successfully raise money in Florida on behalf of an actual leper colony in New Guinea. (He sent them funds, after taking his cut.)
However, following a car accident that left Honey battling for her life, Lenny made a bargain with God. If she survived he’d quit the “priesthood.” She did and he did.
Featured in the book are charming anecdotes from Lenny’s childhood onward which reveal a warmer side than his public image. We also see the seeds of what would become his many classic comedy routines. These include “The White Collar Drunk,” “Hitler and the MCA,” “Father Flotsky’s Triumph,” “The Paladium,” and “Religions Inc.” (Audios are on YouTube!)
Unfortunately, satirizing religion made Lenny a prime target for police. Soon, an obscenity conviction made it impossible for him to work in the U.S. and even in England and Australia. This drove him into debt, drugs and a tragic overdose death at 40. But it also made Lenny a champion of free speech. In fact, it can be said any stand-up working in “observational humor” today owes a debt to Lenny for paving the way.
In 2003, Lenny finally received some justice when New York Governor, George Pataki, issued a posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction. And hopefully this re-release of his autobiography will bring a new generation to the timeless and important humor of Lenny Bruce.
“How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” is available at Amazon. All proceeds go to The Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit created by Lenny’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, to help those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction who can’t afford treatment. Jack Neworth’s “Laughing Matters” appears every Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.