Written by Kris Noteboom
Lenny Bruce was a comedian. Wasn’t he? That’s how he’s usually described. In fact, he’s sometimes credited as being the father of modern comedy. Many great comedians of the last 50 years credits Bruce as a major influence. He must’ve be a comedian.
But, if you’ve ever seen or even listened to Bruce, you know it’s not quite so simple.
Lenny Bruce was a complex man, and his life is now captured in a solo performance called Lenny Bruce is Back, produced by the Dallas based Bren Rapp and Upstart Productions, and stars Upstart Artistic Director Joey Folsom. The show is unique because despite being a theatrical performance recounting Bruce’s life, the show will go on stage at traditional theaters, comedy venues, including iO West in Los Angeles and Second City in Chicago, and even the Dallas Burlesque Club Viva’s. It’s only appropriate for a man that defied definition throughout his career.
To understand Bruce and what makes a comedian, you have to understand the comedic performance space and how it has evolved over the years.
Before that, comedians performed just about anywhere with a stage. Nightclubs, burlesque clubs, folk clubs, and restaurants. Before that, there was the Borscht Belt in the Catskills of New York. Before that, Vaudeville. And, on and on all the way back to Ancient Greece.
Bruce began performing in nightclubs. Later, folk clubs. And, this distinction matters.
Space matters in performance. Not just the actual performance space, but the venue as well.
By now, everyone is familiar with the plain brick wall backdrop and single microphone on a slightly elevated stage that is the modern Comedy Club. Round club tables with wooden chairs surround the stage, and there’s a two drink minimum.
Sitting in that familiar space puts the audience in a certain mindset. They know they’re there to laugh at the performers. Or, at least that’s the goal. As many comics can attest, it doesn’t always work out that way. But, that doesn’t change the fact that being in a Comedy Club puts one in a certain, arguably more receptive, mindset. Comedians are free to push boundaries because it’s more or less expected.
In the 1800’s there wasn’t near the variety of live entertainment options that exist today. In fact outside of large cities, there was usually only one live entertainment option, and that was often in a saloon, as seen in old Western movies.
But, even in the cities, the theater served as the performance space for everything. One day it might be a circus. The next it might be Edwin Forrest doing Richard III. And, in between there would be music, dancing, interludes, farces, etc. The theater in America essentially began as what we’d later call Variety Theater. A typical evening at a nineteenth Century Theater might open with a band, maybe accompanied by some dancers. The people might even sing along. Then, Forrest or William Macready might come out to deliver one of the Shakespearean performances they were famous for. But, between the acts there might be some comical interludes, and there was almost always a farce to finish off the evening.
This all changed, though, in 1849. It happened for a lot of reasons, but one of the primary drivers was that the Manhattan Uppertens – the wealthy elite – were tired of sharing space with the Bowery dwelling working class. They pressured theaters to institute dress codes to keep the poorer patrons out. Eventually, they even enlisted The New York State Militia, which led to the bloody Astor Place Riot.
American theater was split. “Broadway” then essentially located in and around the Astor Place area – the Astor Place Opera House was right across the street from where The Public Theater is today – slowly migrated north, making its way to Union Square by the 1870’s and eventually all the way up to Times Square.
Meanwhile, popular theater retreated back into the Bowery, absorbed by the saloons and dime museums and eventually becoming what we know as Vaudeville.
Lenny didn’t break through the barrier between the legitimate and popular theaters. He was never accepted by polite society and died too young to ever truly receive the appreciation he deserved. But, we have him to thank for weakening that barrier significantly. His punchlines – such as they were – exploded against the walls of legitimate society, weakening its carefully yet artificially constructed walls.
Theater has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Many new voices have finally been welcomed into the establishment, finally lending some diversity to the classic – and some would say tired – middle class living room dramas that dominated the landscape for so long.
There’s also been an increase in relocation as some theater groups have left the traditional confines of the theater and sought out alternative performance locations from houses to parks to warehouses.
What Upstart is doing with Lenny Bruce is Back, though, is something different than even that.
A lot of alternative space theaters end up in warehouses. That in itself has ascended to the level of being ripe for mockery, but that’s another column. Some end up in appropriate spaces like a house. But, very few take their show to another, perhaps more traditionally appropriate, performance venue.
The lines of demarcation between the legitimate and popular performance spaces are still pretty clearly defined in modern theater.
That’s what makes this tour something special. Not only is Folsom doing Lenny in traditional theater spaces, he’s also performing in famous improv clubs, and as is very appropriate for the man he’s playing, even a burlesque club.
And, it’s a perfect show to try this kind of location hopping with.
Lenny was particularly talented at challenging audience expectations, something that is arguably difficult to do these days. Along with the aforementioned expectations that go with being at a Comedy Club, the same goes for any performance space. The audience enters the space with an idea of what to expect. Thus, they are prepared and un-mussed when a performer says or does something that would create shock in normal society. The audience’s expectations are appropriately adjusted and calm is maintained through the most riotous violations of social norms.
This goes for Comedy Clubs and traditional theaters alike. Especially in the internet age, as now it’s possible to look up what a show is about, and begin adjusting expectations before even entering the performance space. This can be comforting for the potential audience member, but deadly for the performer. And, for the comedian, even worse.
Comedians thrive on challenging audience expectations. Humor works by creating a stress point in the audience, a tensions that binds them up, and then giving them a release in the form of a punchline, which elicits a cathartic laughter. This is what makes comedy funny. The creation and release of tension. It’s also what makes comedy temporal. The funniness of most jokes dissipates over repetition. That’s why comics are constantly writing new material. They can’t play the hits. The hits aren’t funny anymore.
And, it’s not just the specific material. It can be the person too. Comics especially become so ties to their typical material that just seeing them can put the audience in the perfect mindset to not be all that surprised, thus rendering the material less funny, and thus less effective.
Bruce health with this in a more extreme way than even the average comedian. He pushed the boundaries harder than anyone, not just of his time but arguably any time. Through challenging his audience on politics and current events, and challenging the authorities on his swearing and blue humor, Bruce was all about releasing the existing tensions he saw bunched up just beneath the polite veneer of society.
But, time distills us all down to our basic essence, and Lenny’s reputation for obscenity soon proceeded him. Police attended his shows waiting for him to curse. Mainstream entertainment outlets defined him by his obscenity charges.
Yet, despite a premature tragic end, Lenny was able to best his critics. He, more than most, was able to stay ahead of the curve, to sit just on the other side of the line and wave society over like a friendly neighbor.
His delivery was like jazz. His sets were unpredictable. He performed in a variety of venues.
We call Lenny Bruce a comedian, but we might just as well call him a prophet. He showed us how to defy expectations, how to chart your own course, and how to reach many more people than someone who never breaks out from the four walls around them.
What Folsom, Rapp, and Upstart are attempting with this tour is bold. And, it’ll likely challenge a lot of expectations along the way. Something Lenny likely would’ve been pretty proud of.
Lenny Bruce IS BACK
At Viva’s Lounge in the Design District, 1350 Manufacturing Street. #120
8:00pm and 11:00pm
With burlesque pre-show by Vivienne Vermuth