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the column of lasting insignificance: Dec. 31, 2011
by John Wilcock

++ What follow are columns written for
the Village Voice in the ‘50s and ‘60s ++

A Change of Shirts
with Lenny Bruce

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:

Super: Mr. Bruce, this is Mr. Schindler. I hate to have this as a reason to call you, but your mother passed away.
Lenny: I'm awfully sorry to hear that.
Super: Yeah, it was a tough break.
Lenny: What time is it there now?
Super: 4 a.m.
Lenny: Is it cold? It's so damn rainy and sleety here.
Super: I don't know if you heard me or not, but I said your mother passed away.
Lenny: I know.
Super: So?
Lenny: So what?
Super: Er, well...What do you want to do with the body?
Lenny: Well, what would you like to do with it?
Super: I guess you're in shock.
Lenny: No, I'm just answering your question in a logical, reasonable manner. And it seems rather sad, but the only thing really said about this call is that I've been living in your building now for nine years and this is the first time you've called me. You never called to say: "Lenny, the honeysuckle's in bloom, isn't it wonderful? to be alive; is the moon there as full and radiant as it is here?" The only time people give their fellow man respect is when he's stretched out.
Super: I'm not interested in all that philosophy horse manure; I want to know what you want us to do with the body?
Lenny: If the rent is paid to the 16th, let it stay there. And fill in a change-of-address card.

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:
"My mother-in-law broke up my marriage."
"Your mother-in-law?! What happened?"
"One day my wife came home early from work and found us in bed together."
"In bed together? With your own mother-in-law? Why that's...you're a pervert!"
"Why?" I said. "It was her mother, not mine."

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?

I bomb.

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.

Actors, actresses?

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?

    The scholarship offered the winning chick three days of parties, tours, coffee-shopping, guided exploration, and discussion in the Village, during which time she could match her image with the reality and, as they say, come to her own conclusions.

    Last year's winner, Amy Stone of Swarthmore, was chosen unanimously by the judges (Ted Wilentz of the 8th Street Bookshop; Art D'Lugoff of the Village Gate; and myself) on the basis of her letter listing the reasons why she felt such a visit to the Village would be beneficial. She had enjoyed herself, so presumably the visit was beneficial. Which brings us to the Greenwich Village Scholarship for 1963.

    In recent months it has become clear to me that there is a whole category of American womanhood that is even more in need of a Greenwich Village education than college girls. I refer, of course, to the underprivileged chicks now living in Manhattan's East 60s. They look beautiful, they dress beautifully, and their lives are a constant round of elegant artificiality. their concept of the Village is of a seething snakepit -- exactly the view, in fact, that Villagers take of the tourist scene that such weekend visitors help to produce.

    Well, it's my view that such chicks are not completely beyond redemption, and while there is a chance to save them, I am willing to offer it. This year's Greenwich Village Scholarship -- an intensive round in the late November of Village life, parties, and subtle indoctrination -- is open to all Manhattan girls currently living a life of elegance. As long as they're not living it south of 14th Street.

    Letters of application for the scholarship will be considered for the next two weeks, after which the judges' decision will be announced. Photographs and relevant background material should accompany all applications—

from the Village Voice archives: November 7, 1963, Vol. IX, No. 3

The Theatre of Psychodrama

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.

    Prompted by Dr. Korn and assisted by a girl he chose from the audience, Walter tried to get "Rebecca" a taxi on a wet night. To ascertain exactly how the incident had developed originally, Walter and Rebecca were frequently asked to reverse roles. "Okay, Walter," Korn would say, "Now you're Rebecca. Order Walter around in exactly the way you remember it happened." Or: "Walter, be Rebecca for a moment and put into words what she must have been thinking."

    This very successful psychodrama technique enables the participants to reenact the original roles as accurately as possible. And very quickly, Walter found out that he wasn't merely "acting" as he'd intended but was as involved as he had been when the incident had first taken place.

    And so the story unfolds. An incident at Rebecca's apartment ends with her telling Walter to move out. He accepts it placidly but with the resigned air that all women eventually fail to keep their bargain. "But it was pleasing to be held at arm's length and never really attain her," he comments revealingly.

    Change of locale onstage as Dr. Korn has an objective consultation with "Dr. Who" (the analyst in Walter) played by Walter as objectively as he can.

    Dr. Who: "Walter thinks of himself as a tragic hero -- sensitive, creative, and would-be perfect except, like Hamlet, for one tragic flaw."

    Dr. Korn: Can you act out one of Walter's day-dreams? For the purposes of this Rebecca will be a robot. She will be absolutely positive and will do exactly as you say."

    Walter acts out an imaginary incident in which he meets Rebecca, buys her a drink, takes her to his apartment to read his poetry, and seduces her. Korn: "Did it ever happen like that?" Walter: "No."

    And now the descent into a lower level of subconscious, symbolically assisted at the Theatre of Psychodrama by lowering the lights. Back to the days of just after birth. Another girl from the audience plays mother, Walter with head in her lap.

    Walter: "I like it. I don't want to grow up. I adore it: Just keep father away. I want this to go on endlessly."

    Lights back on, another consultation with Dr. Korn. "The world says you're not a baby, though; you're 27. What do you do now?"

    Walter: I'd like to go back.

    Korn, to the women in the audience: "Is there one of you who wants to look after a 27-year-old baby who will do everything you want and fulfill all your needs as long as you feed and look after him?"

    First girl: "Unfortunately, too much of me wants to do that."

    Second girl: "For a little while I'd want that, but I'd get bored with it."

    Third girl: "I don't want a big baby: I want a little baby."

    Fourth girl: "I want what Walter wants the other way around. I want somebody to look after me."

    The first woman acts out a relationship with Walter for a while -- does his bidding, takes charge and runs things (including him) in return for his witty, charming self and constant presence. She gets so emotionally involved in the part when this feminine role finally gets to her that she ends up actually striking Walter onstage and telling him not to be "a vegetable."

    Walter, with a resigned air after the slapping: "I could have predicted that would happen. Women are always the same; they always renege on their bargain."

    Korn: "The dominant female and the submissive male have this in common -- they are both very lonely. Where do you go from here?"

    Walter: "I read and pass away the time until I find another girl I can beguile for a longer period."

From the Village Voice archives June 13, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 34
(Walter Allen, in actuality, was a then relatively-unknown Woody Allen)


[John Wilcock is in Florida for a week or two]


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