Lenny Bruce, half a century after his death, remains one of the most recognizable names in American Culture. He published no books, performed in no movies, starred in no stage plays, was involved in no political movements.
What he did was stand around on stages in nightclubs, often with a copy of a recent newspaper or magazine in his hand, speaking more or less extemporaneously about the current scene. He didn’t tell jokes. He rambled. But his ramblings contained insights of such startling brilliance, such humorous acuity, such transcendent hipness, such bepop alacrity, that he set a standard for intelligent comedy that has yet to be surpassed.
And he did it at a time when, for most Americans, the height of comedic skill was represented by Uncle Miltie.
He made his name in San Francisco. It has been pointed out that if he had tried to present his act in Fresno, no one would ever have heard of him. But San Francisco hipsters, jazz musicians, beat writers, artists, intellectuals and scenesters gravitated to his dry wit, insight, and outrageousness.
Like the beat poets, he spoke about the unspeakable in a time of monstrous conformity, under the frightening shadow of a pressure for conformity that poet Alan Ginsberg characterized as the demon, Moloch. For this, he was repeatedly jailed on obscenity charges.
He was a troubled man. In 1959, Herb Caen wrote that Lenny Bruce presented “…the kind of truth that might not have dawned on you if there weren’t a few Lenny Bruces around to hammer it home.” But by 1964, Caen was less supportive, remarking, “You should be doing this material on a psychiatrist’s couch, not in a night club.”
There is plenty of film of Bruce performing, but, still, one might wonder, “What was he really like on stage?”
Thanks to Steve Cuiffo’s brilliant interpretation, we can get a pretty damn good idea. Cuiffo recreates Bruce’s routine verbatim — not just the words spoken, but every stammer and stutter, the “mms,” “ahhs,” “uhuh’s,” that great comics use to polish a line, make a point, structure the delivery. Cuiffo does not do a dead on take of the original — unlike Lenny, he takes his time, and seems less jittery, less neurotic. But the material is sharp, concise, funny, and seems completely contemporary.
Pay attention, and you’ll come away from this performance believing that Bruce was a genius, a visionary, even a prophet.
This is a brilliant and egoless performance, in which Cuiffo is completely dedicated to the material and his genius subject, disappearing completely into the character.
And yes, you will laugh until your sides ache.
See this show to get a damn good idea of where that cat was really at.
“Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce,” a “performance portrait” arranged and performed by Steve Cuiffo, taken verbatim from Bruce’s original performances. Produced by Curran Under Construction.