Today I have two subjects in mind, one rather obvious, the other close to my heart. The “obvious” is the just-completed Democratic National Convention. As I watched, I couldn’t help but compare it to last week’s RNC, which, all due respect, reminded me of “The Gong Show.” (Ever notice how “all due respect” is usually followed by an insult?)
This is not to say that RNC speakers Scott Baio (aka Chachi from “Joanie loves Chachi”) and underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr. didn’t exactly have the gravitas of Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. (Actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying.)
One of the many highlights of the DNC was Michelle Obama’s moving speech on Monday night. In fact, I can’t wait to see it again when it gets plagiarized at the next RNC. Michelle noted that her American story includes that, as a black First Lady, she wakes up every morning in a house built by slaves. The next day, Bill O’Reilly quickly pointed out that, “The slaves were well fed.” (O’Reilly reportedly makes $20 million a year with “insights” like that.)
Michelle’s speech gave us a glimpse of what it’s been like for her two daughters enduring eight years of attacks on their father’s citizenship and religion. “Our motto is when they go low, we go high.” Typical Trump “going low” on Wednesday, he blasted Hillary Clinton’s VP, Tim Kaine: “He did a terrible job in New Jersey!” Except Tim Kaine wasn’t governor of New Jersey; Tom Kean was!
Later and inexplicably, Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening,” and proceeded to actually encourage Russia to hack into Hillary’s emails. A violation of the Logan Act – and on TV, no less? Actually, retired Navy admiral and law professor John Hutson said Trump’s words showed “criminal intent.” What’s next, he shoots somebody on 5th Avenue?
Back at the DNC, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said of Trump, “I’m a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one.” Comedian Sarah Silverman summed up Trump’s insults and name-calling. “I’m still emotionally 4-years old and calling people names from my gold-encrusted sandbox because I was given money instead of human touch or coping tools.” Ouch.
Speaking of comedians, next Wednesday, Aug. 3, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most influential comedian of the 20th century. In 1966, Lenny Bruce died tragically of a drug overdose at age 40. As in baseball, where Babe Ruth changed the game, so did Lenny Bruce change stand-up. Put it this way: Until Lenny, comedy was essentially mother-in-law jokes. He not only made us laugh, but he forced us to think. Or, as Richard Lewis observed, “Lenny was the most courageous comedian of all time.”
Online there’s an audio recording of Lenny’s first national radio appearance on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” in 1947. He was introduced by his mother, former vaudeville comedienne Sally Marr, whom I knew from when she lived at the Shores.
On “Talent Scouts,” Lenny delivered conventional material unconventionally. With a great ear for dialects, Lenny “took” us to Bavaria where a comic did Cagney, Bogart and Robinson voices but in his brilliant “double speak” version of a Bavarian German.
Over time, Lenny’s material evolved like no other before him. Eventually it would include scathing attacks about society’s hypocrisy on such topics as sex, politics, the death penalty, race and organized religion.
In the early 1960s, Lenny was earning $200,000 a year but, when he joked about organized religions, especially the Catholic Church, there was a backlash. His brilliant “Religions, Incorporated” offended district attorneys throughout the country as well as police, many of whom were Irish Catholic. Lenny was arrested and charged with obscenity and convicted twice.
Lenny was so harassed, as were nightclub owners, that he essentially couldn’t work. He was divorced, broke and a single father to his beloved only child, Kitty, born in 1955. Lenny’s decline was tragic. He was in court for years. A high school dropout, he studied the law in his case vociferously. On the rare occasions when he did work, he was no longer funny, as he was obsessed with his legal cases and his drug addiction worsened until the fatal end.
For fans of Lenny, there’s good news. His hilarious 1965 autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” has just been re-released. (As Kitty champions her father’s legacy through The Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation.) I will be reviewing Lenny’s book in the next few weeks but, in the meantime, go to YouTube and type “Lenny Bruce.”
The following are a few of Lenny’s most brilliant routines on YouTube: “Hitler and the MCA,” “The Palladium,” “Father Flotsky’s Revenge,” “White Collar Drunk,” “Lima Ohio” and “Religions, Incorporated.” And while you’re at it, Google “Thank you, masked man,” Lenny’s uproarious animated spoof of the Lone Ranger.
Lenny’s obscenity convictions were eventually overturned, but only after his death. In 2003, due to a tireless campaign by Kitty, New York Gov. George Pataki pardoned Lenny. It was the first posthumous pardon in New York state history.
During this current presidential campaign, Lenny would have feasted on Donald Trump’s hypocrisy. And Hillary’s, too. After all, Lenny prided himself on being “an equal opportunity offender.”