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Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall

Lenny Bruce took two days to make his way to Carnegie Hall from Miami in a raging blizzard, unsure if anyone would even show up to his set in the middle of the storm. They did show up: Nearly 3,000 people braved two feet of snow and a driving ban to witness two hours of his signature comedic improvisation. The live recording of his midnight set on February 4, 1961, is one of the fullest examples of the style and material for which he became known.

Bruce was introduced to the audience as a so-called “sick comic”—a label that had begun to stick with him as he became blacklisted from more and more nightclubs and barred from television because of his controversial language and material—but the host went on to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t Bruce who was “sick,” but the society to which he simply held “up a mirror.” It’s true that much of the material showcased in the set was driven by an urge to expose hypocrisy, whether it was that of the Ku Klux Klan or President Kennedy. He mused, “When you get to morals, they’re just your morals. They’re not even morals. They’re mores.”

This bit of wordplay embodies the linguistically and rhythmically complex mode in which Bruce realized his material. In some ways, he was less a crafter of jokes than an observational slam poet: In the words of his biographer Albert Goldman, who wrote the liner notes for the Carnegie Hall album, “He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated …” On the recording, you can even hear Bruce finding a rhythm and snapping along to his own stream of consciousness: “Whether the word is either ‘dig,’ ‘bread,’ or ‘cool,’ or Jewish, completely erudite, pedantic, whether it’s euphemistic, anthropomorphistic …”

Bruce was instrumental in developing the form of modern stand-up comedy, and is well known as an influence of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Joan Rivers—but his performances often had little resemblance to the stand-up to which contemporary audiences are now accustomed. His rapid-fire, jam-packed verbiage was sprinkled with slang, Yiddish interjections, and cleverly poetic turns of phrase spit out so quickly you might miss them. Like a jazz musician, he preferred to improvise, even riffing in this particular set that he wouldn’t perform the same bit twice lest he become a dull neighbor who repeats the same funny story over and over again. Some of his jokes don’t age well, veering from the provocative toward the derogatory. But like Bruce himself, who died before he could grow out of touch with his own material—he joked that no one over 40 should be allowed to come to his shows—they are preserved in the cultural memory less for their laugh-out-loud humor and more for their rule-breaking unorthodoxy: wisecracks nobody else would say, said in a way nobody else would say them.

Listen to Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall Show

Image courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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