I have long had a great appreciation for stand up comics. This goes back to my youth when I first discovered George Carlin. I was very enamored with his use of language and poetic flair. Being a fan of Carlin meant that I wanted to seek out his influences. One of those early influences was Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce would become a figure that I learned a lot about during my high school years. I came to admire his comedic ability but was also inspired by his battles against censorship. Being a First Amendment fanatic made him a significant figure to me.


There is much literature available on Bruce but I wanted to read something more personal. Bruce wrote a book that is akin to an autobiography called How To Talk Dirty and Influence People. I use the term akin to autobiography because some of it seems like self serving hyperbole. Bruce was a comedian so being humorous was a requirement.


The original publication of this book was in 1963. That was three years before his death and also before his most famous obscenity trials. There were two subsequent revisions that include some of the details of his trials. The California trial took place in 1962 so it was covered in the first version. Like his comedy act, the book also takes a downward turn when he starts to obsess over the trials. Many have suggested that the trials were more responsible for his death than the drug use. He seems to make a preemptive suggestion of that sort in this book.


I have owned an old paperback copy of the book for 15 years. My copy of the book includes an introduction by Eric Begosian. Begosian offers a lot of his own feelings toward what Lenny Bruce meant to today’s comics and artists in general. He also gets into the ongoing censorship issues that continue in America. It is a good prelude for the book although it doesn’t really shed any light on Bruce the artist or man.


Chapter one of the book begins when Bruce is only eight years old. Here he is first beginning to learn of the differences between men and women and of sex. He is constantly informed that these matters are none of his business. He has an Aunt Mema who took care of hygiene manners in front of the boy who was not allowed to ask any questions. This seems to be the cause of his burning curiosity toward sex. Because Bruce was a comedian and a bit of a con man, I question the authenticity of much of what he writes in the book. Some of the stuff seems to be written merely to be funny or ironic.


The first few chapters deal with his early youth. He also wrote about his adventures while he was in the Navy. He wrote about the ports and the interaction between sailors on the ships. His stint in the Navy was his first exposure to a certain kind of lady. This seems like something that is common with Naval veterans of that era. I have read numerous accounts of how fresh young lads became men in the seaports throughout the world.


Bruce also detailed his relationship with Honey. Honey was a “dancer” whom he would marry and continue a relationship with for the rest of his life. Their affair was tumultuous to say the least. He wrote of the early days when they were poor and living in a small apartment. He comes across as if he were really madly in love with her and that they were happy in those days. One should bear in mind that the movie Lenny was written largely from Honey’s viewpoint and some of it is exaggerated. Of course, Bruce himself was also guilty of deception so one must wonder what is real and what is not.


He also wrote a bit on his drug use. He steered clear of confessing to being an addict. He wrote glowingly of marijuana although he was more critical of other drugs. He was also miffed about the hypocrisy of making some drugs (tobacco and alcohol) legal while others (marijuana, cocaine etc) were illegal. He seemed to view his own abuse as an incidental aspect of his life. Most experts viewed him as a full blown addict and he did die of an overdose so perhaps he was still in a state of denial.


The book takes a downward spiral whenever he starts in on the obscenity trials. He became obsessed with the trials and often times his performances suffered. I read quite a lot about how his later performances became rants about the court system etc. It is an affliction that struck his book as well. There are several chapters in the end when all he does is rant and rave about the legal system. He also reprints excerpts from the trials. The excerpts from the trial cover many pages. The book becomes very tedious when he begins to proselytize.


Lenny Bruce was a fascinating figure in American history. He pushed boundaries with his comedy. He was highly influential on comics who followed him including George Carlin. This book is an interesting read but it will probably be mainly of interest to those who are already fans of Bruce. At times, his writing can be very witty and concise. Other times, he tends to drift off and meander. The portions that deal with the obscenity trials are downright tedious.


I don’t know that someone needing an introduction to Bruce should consult this book first. I found myself wondering how truthful some of the writing was. I think this would be better for someone already familiar with Bruce. The reader with advance knowledge will have a greater ability to keep things in perspective. This is, at times, a very amusing and entertaining book. I would recommend it for Bruce fans and for those interested in censorship issues in America.



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