Last week, on the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death, a small crowd gathered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to watch videos of his stand-up. Mr. Bruce appeared on a large screen and told jokes for 40 minutes, and hardly anyone laughed.
In the middle of the last century, Mr. Bruce was the coolest comic in America. Then he died and became more famous, a mythic cultural figure celebrated in hagiographic films and a Bob Dylan song. In recent years, however, he has become more respected than loved. In an essay, Patton Oswalt wrote that he never found Mr. Bruce funny, and that comics who said they did were lying.
What is striking today is how his comedy has been obscured by his reputation as a truth-telling social critic and boundary-pusher who became a symbol for free speech after being arrested multiple times on obscenity charges. He inspired George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers, but his style more closely resembled a theatrical solo show than a stand-up act.
Mr. Bruce’s early work leaned hard on impressions, and his late career indulged his own obsession with his many legal cases. But in his prime (the late 1950s and early ’60s), his act was packed with wandering stories punctuated by amusing turns of phrase and vivid character studies as opposed to crackling punch lines. The jokes seemed to serve the stories rather than the other way around — and what makes them riveting, and occasionally funny, is less content than form.
His takes on sex and religion got him arrested but now sound tame, if not retrograde. The controversy surrounding them also made him seem more political than he really was. That was more the terrain of his contemporary Mort Sahl, who practically invented pointed topical stand-up. At 89, he still performs a cranky weekly show about current events that is now broadcast on Periscope. Stumbling upon Mr. Sahl cracking wise about Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton in relative obscurity is like discovering George Méliès has returned to life to make a science-fiction movie — and no one has bought a ticket.
Mr. Bruce often poked fun at the liberals of his day. “I used to go to civil rights marches, but Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles kept bumping into people,” he joked. What animated most of his best work was an aversion to moralism that seems out of step in an age of internet outrage. “When you get to morals, they’re just your morals,” he said in his Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, perhaps his finest recorded performance. “They’re not even morals. They’re mores.”
This cynical jab deftly reduces principles to inherited customs and displays a gift for intelligent wordplay. But it’s also easy to miss his point. Mr. Bruce’s bits are dense and require close attention. A loose improvisational performer, he didn’t patiently set up premises, emphasizing clarity. Instead, he used a jazzy rhythm and spoke quickly, in bursts of stammering digressions that mixed repurposed Yiddish with rhetorical turns of phrases that aimed for literary pleasures.
If Mr. Bruce were around today, he probably wouldn’t be playing comedy clubs. His knowing, elusive style might better fit into one of the alternative niches in the comedy scene. While he joked about religion and language, his main preoccupation was show business. Time and again, he framed grave events in its context. He imagined Adolf Hitler as the creation of talent agents. In his first show after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he started with remorse for the comic famous as his impressionist: “Vaughn Meader is screwed.”
Many of his most ambitious set pieces examined the thorny relationship between the performer and the audience, with sensitivity to the dangers of pandering. He had a wonderful and long character sketch of a hack comic desperate to play a more prestigious theater that would make a great short story.
His spoof on the Lone Ranger, “Thank You, Masked Man,” reveals both Mr. Bruce at the height of his powers and also why his work doesn’t always age well. It hinges on how the Lone Ranger always leaves before those he helps have time to thank him, inspiring the question, “Who was that masked man?” Mr. Bruce digs deeper, imagining the eventual annoyance at these premature departures “What’s he too good for everybody?” one man says in a wiseguy accent. “He saw the old lady made coffee and cake and the shmuck rides off.”
Eventually, they track down the Lone Ranger and he explains that he rides away because if he received any adulation, he would become addicted to gratitude, turning down cries for help to bask in attention. Mr. Bruce turns the Lone Ranger into just another neurotic performer, one ego trip away from losing his work. The bit ends with a tired joke imagining the hero as gay, which may have been new in the 1950s (Eddie Murphy used a similar premise when he pondered a gay Mr. T in the ’80s), but not now.
At a panel discussion after the videos at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, Kliph Nesteroff, author of the excellent book “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy,” seemed to suggest that the reason no one laughs at Mr. Bruce today is that all comedy bombs with future generations. “Nothing holds up,” he said, a provocative argument that no one would make about drama.
While I disagree — presumably as audiences who still laugh at Falstaff or the great silent film comedies would — all art is the product of its time and place. And no comic is fashionable forever. Mr. Bruce understood this better than most. “Soon I will be out of touch,” he wrote in his book “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” adding, “There’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.”
He died in 1966, not long after that book was published. He was 40, the age at which, he once joked, people should be banned from seeing his shows. Unlike his peers, Mr. Bruce never reached the less glamorous side of the generation gap. In death, he became an eternal hipster.