the column of lasting insignificance: Dec. 31, 2011
by John Wilcock
A Change of Shirts
IN MY OPINION, Lenny Bruce is the most perceptive of today's satiric commentators, and he and his audience swing together in a rarely achieved harmony. Lenny just completed a $10,000 engagement at the Village Vanguard, and he's been staying at my place, on and off. I managed to persuade him to answer a batch of questions. He doesn't much care for interviews, so I fired the questions at him one night between shows, put some paper into my typewriter, and recorded his answers verbatim as he shouted them to me while changing his shirt and taking a shave.
How do you feel about working in night clubs?
Naturally the basic motivation of working is profit. A one-nighter pays me what I can make in a week doing 14 shows in seven days. But the whole thing is that I don't develop as much at a concert: I get lazy. Because of ego I want to always get applause. I want to make the waiters laugh. Sometimes I have fantasies in which a customer would say: "He's so clever and inventive," and the waiter would reply: "He's not so inventive. He made that up two weeks ago and he's been saying it every night since."
What topics still seem to shake up audiences the most?
I wish I could bring out a topic for you. If somebody in a group feels shocked he will not verbalize this because he knows he is in the minority.
In your act you occasionally say you'd like "to ball every chick in the room." How often do you get approached afterward by obviously willing girls?
Very seldom. I always run away.
Do you like being recognized on the street?
By pretty girls. Attractive people in general. In an aesthetic sense if you could graph me I'd be pretty shallow because I'm very concerned with the physical. First attraction is not intellectual, ever, with me.
What sort of things/people bug you the most?
Apart from interviews? Interviews upset me but don't bug me. Tonight I had a woman in the audience with hysterical laughter. As soon as I heard it I knew it would make the audience uncomfortable. I listen to the audience more than they listen to me. Sure enough, they heard it after the fourth or fifth time and the people around her began to get uncomfortable and it spread. Finally somebody told her to shut up and she started crying, which I knew would happen from the first. For humor to be effective the audience must be very relaxed, and anything that interferes with that relaxation bugs me. Anything loud upsets me. Loud laughter, loud applause. To me it projects humility. (Laughs) I'm frightened; that's what it is.
What topics get the most attentive response from your audience?
When I deal with subject matter that connects with their own experience. Something that directly involves them. Theology, paritcularly; if I talk about death in a philosophical or satirical manner. For example, I'm often tempted to talk to my mother frankly and say to her: "Ma, you're going to die, and as a favor I'd like you to allow me to say or do anything I want to about your body after death because I think it is archaic and horrendous the manner in which we relate death to our children. It's somber and macabre. I'd like your permission" -- I'd say to my mother -- so that if I'm on the road somewhere and the super in the building calls me at 4 in the morning, the conversation might go something like this:
Is there a subject you wouldn't consider talking about in your act on the grounds of bad taste or anything else?
Yes. Subjects that would offend me because they are trite; that have been exploited too many times. Mother-in-law jokes.
Have you ever done any mother-in-law jokes?
Yes, if they are what I consider bizarre or different. For example, Time magazine beseeched Ralph Gleason to use his influence on me so the first-time question in his interview was: "What do you attribute your divorce to?" So I tried to think of the tritest area and I came up with:
What percentage of your act changes from one show to the next?
Since I have a tremendous backlog, I could do a different show, an extremely different show, every night for about a week, but I wouldn't be creating anything new; I'd just be recalling bits I had already done. From the creative aspect, if I do two shows a night, at the end of the week I've created a new 15-minute bit.
What's a 15-minute bit worth on today's market?
Today? About $1,500 - $2,000.
How do you calculate that?
What comedy writers charge -- a television bit, stand-up spot for the Sullivan show, Jack Paar -- an 8-minute bit. The kind of a guy who's an actor-comedian -- performs well but does not create -- buys bits, does them until other, smaller actor-comedian types steal them or he's overexposed the bit. An 8-minute bit would cost roughly $750 - $1000.
What do you do on nights when you don't feel funny?
What do you do to get funny enough to do your act?
What I will do is bare my soul and through this cathartic method achieve humor.
What writers impress you the most, or have influenced you?
Evelyn Waugh, Terry Southern ("The Magic Christian"), and Henry Miller -- thanks to John Wilcock's extensive Tijuana library.
No. I love them - W.C. Fields, John Garfield, Jimmy Dean, whom I loved to madness, Eisenhower. But they haven't influenced me.
Do you have recurring dreams?
I have very strange dreams. I'm an egomaniac as it is, and then to have a dream like I had recently that smacked of excellent construction, a beginning, a them, and a sensible end...the dream: I shot somebody with a .22 rifle and killed him. I don't remember the killing; it seems somehow that as the dream faded in I was in court standing before the judge and he was sentencing me. And he gave me a choice of spending five years in the penitentiary with no chance of parole -- the full five years -- or be exiled to Alaska forever. And that's it. Is that strange? I don't know what Alaska even looked like. Those tall bears; in my dream they were standing up straight.
What's your answer to people who accuse you of being "sick?"
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but if you verbalize and talk dirty to me, I will not only get horny but be your friend for life.
What are some classic lines that you might have observed people use to make out with girls?
Well, there is make-out and there is trying to get out after you've made out. One classic that killed me was when I heard a girl say: "He wants to marry me but he can't get a divorce because he's Catholic and his wife's in an insane asylum." But making out? I think that the line "You're one of the few chicks I ever seen that I feel a strong attraction for but it's not physical" -- that always seems to be effective.
Lenny, do you have any final message for the world?
Yes. Girls who are celibate wouldn't be that way long if they could only sell a bit.
[from Village Voice archives: June 15, 1961, Vol. VI, No. 34]
The Greenwich Village Scholarship, 1963
SO WHEN I inaugurated the Greenwich Village Scholarship last year, the idea in my mind was that all over America were college girls who couldn't make up their minds about Greenwich Village. Should they go back home and marry the boy next door, or was it possible that the way to truth, beauty, freedom, and opportunity lay among the Bohemian set?
from the Village Voice archives: November 7, 1963, Vol. IX, No. 3
WALTER ALLEN'S MAIN PROBLEM with women has usually been that he wants to assume the submissive role. We went to the Theatre of Psychodrama together recently, and when Professor Richard Korn called for volunteers from the audience, Walter agreed to play out some of the unhappy incidents in his recent relationships.
From the Village Voice archives June 13, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 34
[John Wilcock is in Florida for a week or two]
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— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
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— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixâ€”The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourâ€”Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHOÂ and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
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It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
by John Wilcock
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner
The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol