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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How Leonard Schneider became Lenny Bruce: The influence of Joe Ancis, Joe Maini, and Lord Buckley on his early career

This week marks the publication of The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground, a collection of 57 selections—memoirs, poems, novels, comedy routines, letters, essays, and song lyrics. Edited by Glenn O’Brien, the anthology takes the reader on a journey through America’s subterranean scenes: the worlds of jazz, of disaffected postwar youth, of the racially and sexually excluded, of outlaws and drug users creating their own dissident networks—from Bop to Beat to Punk.

In the following guest blog post, Lary Wallace, a writer for Prestige magazine, reviews the early career of comedian Lenny Bruce, whose routine on the danger of drugs is reprinted in The Cool School, and the influence of his friends Joe Ancis, Joe Maini, and Lord Buckley (whose irreverent piece “The Naz” is also included in the book).

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Maybe it really was those days and nights out at sea that did it. Stationed aboard a Navy destroyer in his late teens and early twenties, young Leonard Schneider would “[s]ometimes . . . talk out loud up on the bow,” vocalizing all those thoughts he’d be thinking because, after all, “out at sea you have a lot of time to think. All day and all night I would think about all kinds of things.” A couple decades later, when he wrote his memoir, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1965), that’s how Lenny Bruce chose to frame his stylistic development—or this aspect of it, anyway: “[t]his process of allowing one subject spontaneously to associate itself with another.” Which is, Lenny added none too modestly, “equivalent to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness.”

I’ll leave to others any comparisons with Joyce, but to pursue the question of where Bruce got his style—not just his free-form and -flowing spritz but the entire repertoire, the slang, the Yiddishisms, the scandalous and sacrosanct subject-matter—we need to take our inquiry beyond the sailor’s lonely days and nights at sea and into the places where Bruce began honing his craft in earnest, after getting himself discharged—by pretending to be a cross-dresser—from the Navy.

His first gigs after the Navy were doing impressions-based routines, Sid Caesar–derivative, around Brooklyn and Coney Island. It was this material that got him his first big break when, in 1950 at the age of 25, he was invited to appear on the popular radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. His mother introduced him to the audience—it was that kind of innocent—whereupon Bruce proceeded to do imitations within imitations: a Bavarian imitating Bogart, a Bavarian imitating Cagney, a Bavarian imitating Edward G. Robinson. You get the idea. But Bruce would soon be putting his gift for mockery to far more mischievous use, because Bruce had met Joe Ancis.

He’d met Ancis hanging out at Hanson’s, the New York City delicatessen where all the comics liked to gather, bullshit, commiserate, and show off for each other. Nobody showed off like Joe Ancis. He was “the original sick comic,” writes Albert Goldman in Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974), the book that’s done more than anything to keep Ancis’s legend alive over the decades:

Joe was never a professional performer. Too terrified of rejection to risk the flak from the ringsiders. Yet he was so heavy that guys like Buddy Hackett and Lenny Bruce sat for hours listening to Joe’s rap without ever sticking in a word of their own.
Even though Ancis was too sensitive for any venue larger than Hanson’s luncheonette, his act did make its way indirectly into some of the largest venues in America, via the comics he’d influenced. Primary among these was Bruce himself, who’d acquired from Ancis a more refined version of the kind of free-association spritz he’d been developing on the USS Brooklyn—a spritz that now entailed, in Goldman’s words, “serious rapping about intellectual themes, taking off into wild way-out travesties and extravaganzas. All the tricks of stand-up comedy—the timing, mugging, dialects and sound effects—but also physical clowning and practical jokes and crazy bust-out gags.” From Ancis, Lenny also acquired, for better and worse, his preoccupation with Jewish themes and his liberal use of Yiddish-language phraseology employed as slang.

Bruce succeeded where Ancis did not because Bruce knew how to take rejection and return for more. After his showing on Talent Scouts, Bruce started getting slightly better gigs up in the Catskills and down on Broadway. But soon he left with Honey, his wife, for California, where he tried and failed dismally to make it in movies and where he started playing the burlesque houses, some of the bawdiest in all of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, at one point even partnering up with Honey as a stripper-comic team.

Although Ancis had already turned Bruce on to jazz by the time he got to California, it was another man, Joe Maini, who made him a full initiate to the jazz lifestyle. If Ancis turned Lenny on to the potential of Jewish humor, Maini turned him on to the artistic and existential potential of the black man’s sensibility. “Every bopper was supposed to be as good with his needle as he was with his horn,” Goldman writes. “Joe Maini was one of the best with both.”

One other figure who should not be ignored—although Goldman all but does so—is Lord Richard Buckley, the “Hip Messiah,” who by the late 1940s had already “become a legend among working comedians and a favorite of bebop jazz musicians,” according to Stephen E. Kercher in his wonderful book Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (2006).

Onstage Buckley was a one-of-a-kind performer who combined the manner of an English patrician with the imagination and spontaneity of a surrealist artist (he wore a distinctive Salvador Dali mustache) and the irreverent, outlaw attitude of a hipster from the streets (he earned a reputation for smoking marijuana onstage). Buckley was most famous for appropriating the patois of urban African Americans (which he believed possessed great “power, purity and beauty”) and then rapping in his “Hipsomatic” dialect free form, parodies of the Gettysburg Address (“Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before daddies swung forth upon this sweet, groovy land, a swingin’, stompin’, jumpin’, blowin’, wailin’ new nation, hip to the cool groove of liberty . . .”), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and, most notoriously, the lives of Mahatma Gandhi (“The Hip Gahn”) and Jesus (“The Naz”). Overall, Buckley's unique characterizations and free-form improvisations made a lasting impression on Bruce, particularly at a time when he was struggling to forge his own technique.
All the elements were now in place for Bruce. The finely honed impressions and accents would be put to much more gravitational purposes than simply yukking off of movie stars, while the flair for a seamlessly incorporated and varied slang would flatter the sensibilities of the self-styled hipster as it also lent a singular kind of music to his ideas. He hadn’t stopped being Leonard Schneider just because he’d changed his name to Lenny Bruce. But he hadn’t become Lenny Bruce just by changing his name from Leonard Schneider, either.

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