MY THEME IS the laughter of martyrs. Might as well begin with Lenny Bruce.
He arrived in the 1950s as a kind of emissary from the future, the first American performer to turn culture war into comic spectacle and the last to be convicted of obscenity. His monologues were exercises in criminal speaking, tripped-out dream flights into the back alleys of sexual fascination, racist violence, consumerist decadence, and religious dissent. The crowds that thronged his performances, after he broke through in 1960, teemed with plainclothes agents and walk-out protestors, counterculture hipsters and A-list celebrities, guardians of public morality, columnists sharpening their axes. And his arrests — 19 of them, between 1961 and 1965 — became themselves part of the act, a kind of outrageous comic theater.
Refined in the crucible of these many confrontations, Lenny came to regard himself as a prophet, called to expose the perpetrators of American hypocrisy and injustice. In clubs and courtrooms from San Francisco to New York, he played the part of Elijah demolishing the idols of Baal, of Jesus in the temple court kicking over tables. “I’m off for a bigger mission,” he said, after his first acquittal. “I’m going to thwart pseudo-Christians and make them live their religion or back down.”
And boy did he pay for it. As the world looked on, Lenny Bruce disintegrated into an obsessive, embattled, speed-addled crusader, brandishing law books and begging for an exoneration that never came. Biographers such as Albert Goldman and Gerald Nachman have documented well the signs and stages of Bruce’s demise. He lost his cabaret card in state after state, until he couldn’t work anywhere but California and Florida; he crashed stoned through a second-story window and spent six months in a body cast; on August 3, 1966, hours before he died of a morphine overdose in his bathroom, he received a foreclosure notice on his home. Already in 1962, Bruce was what Goldman described as “a fat, bent, shabby-looking street loafer, a horribly dissipated, baggy-eyed, numb-fleshed junkie, with a tragic darkness in his eyes.” His late performances devolved into bitter jeremiads punctuated by readings from legal decisions and court transcripts, and even the nightclub appearances of his final years struck many observers as stop-time images of a protracted death march, Lenny Bruce’s own personal stations of the cross.
When we talk about the history of stand-up comedy, we tend to imagine the afflicted Lenny Bruce as the founder of a tradition. His nightclub warfare is, for us, the primal scene of a comedy that depends on the suffering of the comedian, and his many heirs have been revisiting that primal scene ever since. George Carlin climbed into a paddy wagon with Bruce in 1962 and never stopped trying to get busted; Richard Pryor fashioned brilliant farces of junkie abasement and finally ran burning down Parthenia Street in a coke-induced agony that was no farce at all. Plenty of others — Freddie Prinze, Andy Kaufman, John Belushi, Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Louis C. K., Dave Chappelle, Hannah Gadsby — have played their own versions of Bruce’s self-destructive shtick, tempting our hatred, begging our pity, embodying our most atrocious stereotypes, and disappearing into one scandal, exile, or untimely death after another. Even the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel discovers her comic vocation on the night she learns that her husband has been cheating on her. In that moment of trauma, she becomes suddenly eligible for comedy’s lonely-hearts club of sad clowns and hilarious pariahs. No accident that a few hours later, in jail, she meets Lenny Bruce.
The stories of these comedians in pain converge, in the way we tell them, with the larger stories we tell about laughter. Laughter, we like to say, is therapeutic. It helps us to cope with anger, tension, and grief. It creates space for the comedian to be honest, to say things she could say in no other context. For these reasons, laughter helps the medicines of unfiltered confession and trenchant social commentary go down. That’s fair enough. And it’s true enough that Lenny Bruce (along with others, from Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl to Mike Nichols and Elaine May) helped write the blueprints for a comedy that fuses intimate disclosure with scorched-earth critique. His career in this way opens forward, into a future he did not live to see.
But it could be that Bruce’s career also opens backward, into a past that finds other meanings in the travails and antics of the righteous pariah. Lenny himself made occasional gestures toward other figures, suffering and sacred. In various onstage bits, he enacted the part of one of the thieves condemned with Jesus (“I’m here for checks. I can’t get crucified! I’m being denied due process!”), fantasized about Christ and Moses coming to earth and wreaking havoc for the religious authorities (“Don’t look at the front door,” Cardinal Spellman hisses to Bishop Sheen; “the lepers are coming”), and mused about the kinship of marginalized Americans with the persecuted Christians of ancient Rome (“What do we do with the Christians? Only one thing that is correct and moral to do with them: throw them to the lions”). Near the end of his life, he sent a doodle to his collaborator Paul Krassner that depicted a man on a cross, with a speech balloon that read, “Where the hell is the ACLU?” These jokes, for Lenny Bruce, all hit a bit too close to home. And they all reveal something about how he perceived himself. Even while he was still at it, he had come to understand himself not just as a comedian but as a martyr.
It’s alluring, this notion of the martyr-comedian. Bruce’s hagiographers, certainly, find it impossible to separate his abiding charisma from his ordeals of persecution and his doomed heroism. But that allure is also a problem. Many of Lenny’s friends found his fascination with martyrdom to be self-indulgent and tragically unnecessary, a distraction from the actual work of creating comic art. “The problem was Lenny,” Albert Goldman wrote, “who clasped the asp of persecution to his bosom and would not let go of it, even when its sting proved less than fatal.” As he courted and caressed his own persecution, Bruce’s social critiques floated free from the glow of his former laughter and became merely middling and tedious. His filth became laboriously aggressive, both more shocking and less surprising than it had been in the bright flush of his early, romping innocence. Even his most faithful champions worried at the time that martyrdom, for this comedian, was an artistic and spiritual dead end.
It’s a legitimate worry. Plenty of commentators still observe that our myths of the Suffering Comedian are either fraught with ethical peril (is the pain of others a product to be consumed?) or, at least, a bit hard to swallow (is Jerry Seinfeld burning in the street?). To valorize Lenny Bruce as a “martyr,” for free speech or rebel authenticity or whatever else, might put us in danger of the same mystifications that tempted Lenny into his own romance with death.
Then again: Bruce’s drama of martyrdom has roots in deep places. Comic performers have long modeled themselves on ancient figures — the wild prophet, the riddling philosopher, the holy idiot. And long traditions of Jewish and Christian religious observance have taken the legends of the martyrs as the basis for artistic performance, for sacred drama and festive reenactment. Start reading into the stories of the martyrs and you’ll find, too, that these sacred figures are themselves flamboyant performers, not as far removed from the antics of modern comedians as we might expect. In the ancient legends, the martyrs joke and provoke and get themselves arrested. They laugh in the face of unsympathetic judges and uncomprehending friends. They embrace folly as something holy, a special form of truth for this present age of lies. What if these sacred figures belong to a history that likewise includes our own suffering clowns? Could it be that the story of contemporary comedy begins not in the trials of the boy born Leonard Alfred Schneider but in the ancient mythologies that laid down the pattern for who he would become?
No use trying to discover the moment when, for the Abrahamic faiths, the figure of the martyr and the figure of the fool converge. Something is happening already when Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac, whose name means “laughter,” and the boy asks who it is, Dad, that we’re going to burn on this altar. There are elements of folly in the wild abandon of the seven brothers tortured to death on the eve of the Maccabean Revolt (“they are splendid favors that you grant us,” one of them says to his executioners), in the locust-eating, Herod-baiting figure of John the Baptist, and in the last performance of the Rabbi Akiba, who in the Jerusalem Talmud surprises his Roman torturer by smiling merrily as death closes in. There is, of course, the mock king of Israel, wearing his crown of thorns and proclaiming paradise from a cross.
But in the long history of antic martyrs, there’s something special about Saint Lawrence, regarded in some Christian traditions as a patron saint of comedians. Lawrence was a deacon of the Roman church when the emperor Valerian carried out his purges of the Christian clergy in 258. On a single day in August, the bishop of Rome and six of the city’s seven deacons were executed. Lawrence alone was spared because the prefect of Rome wanted to ask him about his particular area of diaconal oversight: the church’s treasury. In the first detailed account of Lawrence’s martyrdom, written by the poet Prudentius at the turn of the fifth century, the deacon-treasurer cheerfully affirms that the church is very rich indeed and promises to hand over everything if the prefect will give him three days to gather the treasures together. He then spends those three days gathering a small army of the indigent and the ill-favored: a man with two eyeless sockets, a man with festering sores, a man with a withered hand, a man with a chopped-off leg. Some early Christian writers report that he gives the church’s wealth to these outcasts. And then, at the appointed time, he reports back to the prefect and says: come and see! In Prudentius’s telling, he lays it on thick: “You will see the great nave gleaming with vessels of gold, and along the open colonnades course on course of precious metal.” The prefect can hardly contain himself; he follows Lawrence like a hungry puppy. And then he sees them, gathered into one filthy, mouth-breathing horde: the treasures of the church.
It’s a beautiful piece of performance art, a cherry bomb blown up in the face of an idiot-villain who has been stupid enough to ask for it. Lawrence punctuates the prank with a proclamation in which he cries that the great ones of Rome are lepers at their core, bleeding and stinking and mucculentis naribus (snotting at the nose), whereas this company of beggars will soon enter into “their Father’s house on high, no longer dirty or feeble as for the present they appear, but bright with gleaming robes and golden crowns.” In this prophetic vision, Lawrence interprets his own prank as the breaking in of another order, of a kingdom that the privileged citizens of Rome have not the eyes to see. When the prefect finally talks back, he fumes that he has been mocked by all this “comedian’s quibbling and theatrical buffoonery,” that he has been turned into a “piece of entertainment.” It is, in a way, an uncomprehending reply to Lawrence’s thunderous disclosures. But the Latin text of this last phrase — acroma festivum — also captures well what has happened: Lawrence has turned a financial exchange into a festive one. In his carnival turn, he confounds the logic of fiscal calculation and state power with another logic, the upside-down calculus of the powerless who fight with tears and overcome the world.
Where is there to go from here? Might Lawrence, as a reward for his brave stand, have had his mortal life spared and his material treasures preserved? I find it hard to imagine. Prudentius intimates, after all, that this jesting deacon already lives somewhere else, in a world of laughter beyond the horizon of mortal life. The jilted prefect orders that Lawrence be roasted on a gridiron as slowly as possible, and Lawrence, in a famous scene, after lying on the gridiron for a while, cheerfully calls out, “I’m done on this side! Flip me over!” It’s thanks to this one-liner, apparently, that the dying deacon has become a patron saint of comedians and jesters. But the deep wells from which his laughter springs, the fountainheads of comedy, open up all over the place in Lawrence’s legend. For those who had eyes to see, Prudentius reports, Lawrence’s face was radiant with brightness and his flesh smelled of nectar, while to his persecutors he just looked and stank like a body on fire. When, in this account, Lawrence invites the prefect to turn him over, he explicitly challenges, “let’s see what your blazing Vulcan has done.” It’s as if two divinities are battling to consume the man on the altar, and the fire of the Christian God has prevailed so powerfully that Lawrence can’t feel the heat of Vulcan at all. “For Christ,” as Prudentius says, “is the true fire.”
If Lawrence, then, can be imagined to preside over a world of comedy, of sacred laughter and prophetic folly, he might do so not just because he once out-heckled a Roman prefect. The power of his laughter, its authority to tear down kingdoms, comes from an eschatological order that translates death into martyrdom and defeat into victory. The Greek verb apokalyptō means to uncover or disclose, and Lawrence in his prophetic disclosures reveals that his laughter has an apocalyptic vision at its core. Rabbi Akiba, who according to the Talmud smiled in the face of his torturers, likewise makes the eschatological roots of his laughter explicit when, in another episode, he responds merrily to the sight of a fox coming out of the ruined Holy of Holies. How can you be merry, his companions ask, when we all weep at the prosperity of the oppressor and the desolation of our people? Akiba’s answer, like Lawrence’s, is apocalyptic: if the prophecy that therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field has come true, so likewise will the prophecy that there shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem. My laughter, he says, is the promise of a shalom that the Roman conqueror cannot plow down.
The spontaneous laughter of these dying martyrs might seem a far cry from the craft of comic performance. But in the Christian traditions that descend from Lawrence and his fellow martyrs, believers have often imagined themselves as both martyrs for the sake of the gospel and practitioners of a folly wiser than wisdom. The major Eastern churches include among their classes of saints not only the martyr but also the salos (in Greek) or the yurodivy (in Russian), the holy fool. The first of the canonized fools, the sixth-century Syrian hermit Symeon, exemplifies well the ancient alliance between those two classes, between holy suffering and holy laughter. As Leontius of Neapolis tells it in his seventh-century biography, Symeon entered into his vocation of laughter after 29 years of prayer, fasting, silence, and spiritual warfare in the desert. The Lord called him to leave the desert and make converts, and Symeon embarked on a long tour of duty as a prankster-provocateur in the city of Emesa. His absurdist performances made him infamous: he dragged a dead dog around with a rope, defecated in the middle of the market, burst naked into the baths of the women, danced with mime-girls and prostitutes. Lenny Bruce would have recognized the shtick.
But this wild and crazy guy routine was all, the early legend tells us, a spiritual discipline, a school of holiness. Leontius insists that the two vocations of Saint Symeon were inextricable from one another, that his calling to folly had at its heart an askēsis or “mortification,” a dying to the appetites of the ego and the body. When Symeon first returned from the desert to the world of ordinary human activity, he brought with him a longing “that his works might be hidden until his departure from life, so that he might escape human glory.” His habit of folly was an answer to that longing — a performative self-abasement — and his glutton-farts and randy innuendos were just as much ascetic disciplines as his long years of silence in the wilderness. He might have spent his days wearing sausages around his neck and throwing nuts in church, but he spent his nights deep in prayer in his hut, “drenching the ground with his tears,” as Leontius says, a warrior of the desert once more.
This story, of asceticism wed with laughter, has governed the careers of Christian saints from the Antiochene duo Theophilus and Maria, who paraded around disguised as a mime and a prostitute, to the monastic reformers Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, who styled themselves as juggler-clowns for God. Some historians have observed that these figures have tended to flourish at times of prosperity in the church, when the Christian community allies itself with the interests of political and economic power. Against such power, the holy fools proclaim something other: a kingdom of and for the weak, built on the foundations of a love more powerful than law and a poverty more powerful than money. They might not participate in what various Christian traditions refer to as the “red martyrdom” of those called to shed blood, but the fools are martyrs even so, practitioners of the “white martyrdom” of those who, living still, die to the world.
No accident, then, that the martyrs themselves often play the part of fools. The term “martyr” derives from the Greek martus — “witness” — and many legends of Jewish and Christian martyrdom feature scenes in which the protagonist takes the stand and performs, armed only with an apocalyptic message and a killer gospel wit. When the second-century bishop Polycarp, on trial in the arena, is directed by a Roman proconsul to declare, “Away with the Atheists” (that is, with the pantheon-denying Christians), he waves his hand to indicate the jeering spectators and cries out, “Away with the Atheists.” Is he a martyr here, or a fool? The answer, of course, is both. In his exasperating, apocalyptic laughter, Polycarp bears the memory of the outlaw deacon, eyeball-to-eyeball with a legal apparatus that tries and fails to own him.
These performances might seem far off from those of professional comedians. The ordeals of the martyrs have not, after all, been orchestrated for our amusement, and to watch them with any sort of pleasure is to enter into ethical trouble. But then comedy comes with its own sort of ethical trouble, because the laughter of comic audiences turns remarkably often on the pleasure of regarding someone else’s pain. Think about it. Lawrence dies in the fire, and Richard Pryor lands in a burn unit. Is either of those spectacles funny? Plenty of clowns in between have stuck their flaming backsides in a water barrel that turns out to be a powder keg. Is that spectacle funny? One burning body is a matter for tears and another a matter for laughter. The smoldering performers of comedy don’t always make it easy to tell the difference.
Fools and clowns have long danced on a precipice just this side of their own harm. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made their early careers falling off ladders and being thrown around stage by large men (Keaton for a time was billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t be Damaged”). And even the pantheon of American comedians that Lenny Bruce supposedly rendered obsolete fashioned themselves as drunks, tramps, idiots, boors, wayward husbands, bad citizens. The images of Milton Berle in a dress, of Jack E. Leonard abusing his audiences, and of Foster Brooks stumbling around in mock intoxication are so conventional, in mid-20th-century comedy, that we forget how deviant they really are. Outside the context of entertainment, what these clowns did onstage would end careers and marriages, provoke moral indignation, attract the attention of the law. They projected into public view the sins and deformities most despised by the audiences before whom they stood. The risks involved in their performances are more easily apparent in the work of American performers such as Stepin Fetchit and Pigmeat Markham, who spun their personae out of the very racist mythologies that their brilliant careers helped them to resist. Contemporary performers as different from one another as Dave Chappelle and Hannah Gadsby are still reckoning with the way these old-time comedians laid themselves down on an altar of exclusion, at once bearing the pain and eviscerating the power of the abasement they acted out.
What’s the good in these performances of self-abasement? Comedians often say that their job is simply to make people laugh, but that way of answering the question only raises more questions. Laughter can speak truth, but it can also falsify; it can be healthful or toxic. In the legends of the martyrs, the problem of laughter is already easy enough to see. The story of Saint Lawrence and the purges of 258 offers a chronicle of atrocity, heartbreaking in the suffering it has to tell. What does it mean, then, that Lawrence, in the end, cracks jokes and smells great? What does it mean that Saint Perpetua, martyred in Carthage at the beginning of the third century, doesn’t even know she has been injured in the arena because her joyful ecstasy removes her so completely from the violence at hand? Are these the same martyrs who, in the biblical apocalypse, cry out for relief and are told to wait a little longer? Is the Perpetua who spends the evening before her passion holding forth cheerfully on the goodness of martyrdom and “laughing at the curiosity of the people” a fellow-traveler of the Christ who weeps blood on the eve of his own passion? These legends seem to use laughter to trivialize suffering, to erase it from view.
Hannah Gadsby is wary of laughter exactly because, as she says in her 2018 special Nanette, laughter dissolves tension. In the face of atrocity, laughter dissolves guilt and anger, the tensions that arise when we actually draw close to the pain of those who suffer. Gadsby confesses in this performance that she has spent her career manipulating her own history of suffering — the abuse she has endured because she is “incorrectly female” — as a source of comic tension, climbing onto an altar of self-deprecation and then giving us the gift of a laughter that absolves us of our role in that suffering. Now that’s all over: “This tension,” she says, “it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time.” There won’t be, from Hannah Gadsby, any more zany farces of martyrdom, any more “I’m done on this side! Flip me over!” She wants to look us in the eye and tell us that it hurts.
But that’s not all. The Gadsby who announces in Nanette that “I must quit comedy” proceeds to go right back on the road, working up material for a 2020 special in which she laughs uproariously at golfers, anti-vaxxers, misogynistic paintings, Louis C. K., men who explain things to women, her own autistic cognitive apparatus. Like the abusers she confronts in Nanette, every one of these targets is, in Gadsby’s estimation, an actual or potential agent of harm. In the face of that harm, she rises up with apocalyptic authority, speaking of a promised end in which wounded children become prophets and broken things are restored. That 2020 special, Douglas, still resonates with the challenge she thundered at her audience in Nanette: “Would you test your strength out on me? There is no way anyone would dare test their strength out on me, because you all know there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself!”
So is she quitting comedy, or not? Pay attention to the apocalyptic strains in Gadsby’s laughter, and her pronouncements about the end of comedy begin to make a strange sort of sense. When Saint Lawrence proclaims to the Roman prefect that beggars are really royal sons and fire is really love, he reveals something presently real and yet far off, the eschatological future to which his laughter ultimately belongs. Rabbi Akiba does much the same when he catches his glimpse of a shalom, a city rebuilt, that those around him can’t yet see. Something similar might be in play when Gadsby tells of an ending that comedy has deferred or denied — “in a comedy show, there’s no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending” — and then initiates a firestorm of reckoning in which this ending comes fitfully into view. Jokes, in Gadsby’s comic eschatology, have only a beginning and a middle — a punchline — that pretends to be an ending. But punchlines aren’t really endings, and Gadsby’s avowed mission in Nanette is to see past the sham endings to something truer, to the resolutions that turn experience into story. This world of meanings on the other side of comedy is, in the moment of her performance, both now and not yet. “That is your last joke,” she decrees partway through the show, as the tension of expectancy grows stronger and the truth of story begins to break through. But laughter has not ceased. She keeps unleashing it, right to the end.
She does so because there’s another side of laughter. Laughter can dissolve tension, yes; it can deny the weight of suffering. But it can also produce tension. In the hands of a prophetic performer such as Saint Lawrence, laughter can assert the weight of suffering, confronting the depredations of a bloodstained present with the claims of an eschatological future. Perhaps Lawrence’s laughter in the face of the Roman prefect is not so much a way of ignoring atrocity as a promise spoken in the midst of atrocity, in defiance of the systems of power on which atrocity depends. As he speaks this promise, the comedian-saint goes out of his way to bait, antagonize, and insult his Roman audience, to arouse maximum discomfort among the comfortable. Like plenty of comedians after him, he aligns himself with the people his persecutors most despise — cripples and beggars — and proclaims, against all odds and opposition, that these outcasts will inherit the earth. So much for laughter as the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of critique go down. Lawrence brings laughter as a holy fire, powerful enough to overcome empires. He knows full well that he himself might get burned in the bargain.
Gadsby insists in Nanette that suffering does not make art. Survival makes art, she says instead; connection makes art. Fair enough: she’s not going to justify or explain suffering by bending it toward some satisfying conclusion, and she’s not going to allow us to instrumentalize the pain of others by saying that, well, it does make for some compelling drama. Still, in the context of her defiant laughter, her suffering, like the suffering of a Lawrence or a Perpetua, becomes part of her authority. Those ancient martyrs speak from a piece of ground that the priests and prefects of this age cannot reach. Their laughter is a sign of their charismatic life, their radiant joy in the face of all the violent force that the Roman law can throw at them. It’s no wonder that some legends of Lawrence interpret his name as a derivation from lauream tenens (“bearing a laurel wreath”) and treat the burning saint as a champion, prevailing in his weakness over the strength of the strong. No wonder, either, that the chronicle of a holy fool such as Symeon emphasizes not just his laughing antics but also the suffering that gives his laughter its meaning. Evade the suffering, and the laughter is in danger of becoming another instrument of power, a way of abusing the weak or of amusing and anesthetizing the strong. Inhabit the suffering, and the laughter becomes something holy, the special possession of those dispossessed by the powers of the present age.
So the charisma of martyrs and comedians depends partly on their pain, on their willed exile from the economy of social and political power. But it also depends, even more, on their embodiment of an alternative economy, a kingdom that unsettles the whole order of things within which those forms of power are possible. In this way, the martyrs and the comedians belong to a great army of twee warriors and avenging nerds, from the unlikely prophets of sacred history — David making his stand before Goliath, Jonah at the gates of Nineveh, Francis preaching in his underwear — to the little general of Buster Keaton, the little senator of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the little philosophers and freedom-fighters of Peanuts. It’s no accident that, in American culture, one of the most resonant representations of the paradigmatic little warrior, the Christ Child, comes in the person of Linus van Pelt, clutching his blanket and speaking to an empty auditorium: “And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” The unlikely victors of all these comic enterprises overcome the world of temporal power by affirming the things temporal power chronically fails to acknowledge: faith, hope, love, shalom, the miracles of forgiveness and resurrection. Saint Lawrence, with his battalion of beggars, is never far off.
These figures are, of course, widely diverse. When Rabbi Akiba proclaims the hope of Jerusalem rebuilt, he means something very different from what Hannah Gadsby means when she comes onstage as a woman who “has rebuilt herself.” There are gulfs of difference between Lenny Bruce and Lawrence the deacon, and between the different forms of hope they come to proclaim. In the case of the shock jocks and loudmouth sadists I’ve seen on some comedy stages, the claim of kinship with Lawrence or Symeon might be a stretch too far. But where there is vitality in contemporary comedy, I want to propose that the comedians do share something with the ancient martyrs. And the martyrs might help us to see that this shared something is an eschatology, the apocalyptic and prophetic enactment of a redemptive future. The gravitational pull of eschatological longing might explain why Linus’s proclamation of the child-Messiah is so strangely resonant, and why so many comic stories have grown up around the celebration of Christmas. Linus belongs to a history that stretches from the Ghost of Christmas Future to the image of Kevin McCallister in a nativity scene, huddled at the threshold of a new creation. In these stories, as much as anywhere, the sacred resonances and residues of comedy become explicit. They gather at the manger of a child whose death will redefine martyrdom, and they belong to a festive celebration in which the kingdom of God comes blazing into view, even as innocents are slaughtered, the poor chased into exile, and orphans left home alone.
How might the martyrs help us to understand the trials and demise of Lenny Bruce? I find it hard to ignore the friends and contemporaries of Bruce who regarded his crusade as not a fulfillment but an abandonment of his comic vocation. “You can get so obsessed with an injustice that you lose sight of what’s funny,” Mike Nichols commented to Gerald Nachman; “that’s what happened to Lenny.” The untimely death that has struck many of Bruce’s hagiographers as the inevitable cost or even the apotheosis of his wild laughter struck Nichols and plenty of others as instead a turn away from that laughter, a senseless and costly abdication. Bruce himself seems to have entertained a similar suspicion. When, in Nachman’s telling, Paul Krassner observed that Lenny wasn’t getting laughs anymore and so wasn’t doing his job as a comedian, the doomed performer replied: “I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”
Is this martyrdom? Or could it be that Lenny Bruce’s turn away from the laughter of the comedian amounted also to a turn away from the miraculous charisma, the defiant aliveness, of the martyr? He once joked, of a nightclub gig, “I feel like it’s taking me away from my practice,” and the joke rings tellingly true. If comedians confront law with laughter, it might be that Lenny Bruce chose progressively to confront law with law. He put aside the trivial question of laughter and started traveling with a suitcase full of law books, begging the very civic order against which he had raised his voice to ratify his proclamation. “Please, your honor,” he begged the judge in his 1964 New York trial, “I so desperately want your respect. The court hasn’t heard the show. I can give you the show verbatim. Let me tell you what the show is about. Counsel doesn’t understand my show.” This became his plea: for the American legal establishment to understand his show — for confirmation that Lenny Bruce is a legitimate citizen of the present age.
Is that too much to ask? Perhaps it’s too little. No surprise, in any case, that when Bruce met the powers of the state on their own field of battle, within the orbit of their own values, they crushed him. Perhaps his most powerful weapon, from the beginning, was his charism of laughter, rooted in his affirmation of realities that the principalities of this age cannot legislate or own. Perhaps, in the end, he was tempted to confuse the apocalyptic liberties of his laughter with a freedom of speech defined and policed by the very forces at which he laughed. There’s something poignantly ironic about Bruce’s doodle of Christ on the cross, with its “where the hell is the ACLU?” plea. Christ himself pled in his agony, after all, not for the arrival of the ACLU but for the opening of a whole new life, a “paradise” in which, as he says to the thief hanging beside him, criminals and kings will abide together.
In his 2017 show The Bird Revelation, Dave Chappelle says to the comedians in the audience, “You have a responsibility to speak recklessly.” The case of Lenny Bruce can be hard to make sense of because he owned so completely his calling to speak recklessly — until he didn’t. The language of the law is not reckless, and Bruce’s devotion to that language says something about his longing to escape the tensions of comic speaking, the suspension of the comedian between criminality and holiness. When Donavan Bess interviewed him in 1964, he noted that Bruce’s eyes “glowed with joy just once, while reading extracts from the U.S. Court decisions on obscenity. ‘Beautiful!’ he exclaimed. ‘Magnificent writing!’ He savored the eminent sound of ‘Judge Learned Hand.’ He exclaimed, ‘That is his name!’”
There’s sadness in the anecdote. The decisions of Judge Learned Hand represent a false hope, a marker on Lenny Bruce’s journey toward his dismal end. I wonder, though, whether this small kindling of joy doesn’t bring Lenny closer to his martyr’s victory than any court decision on obscenity ever could. It could be that the presiding genius of modern comedy asserted his freedom most powerfully not in the moments when he confronted the feds or whetted his obscenities to weapon-sharpness, but rather in this moment of boyish wonder at the sound of a name, or in moments such as the opening of his 1961 midnight show at Carnegie Hall, when he confessed his fantasy that “maybe the people who own this place don’t even know we’re here.”
A tiny disclosure, this, and it might not look like apocalypse. But here he stands, the beggar-king, blazing with a hilarious proclamation. Come to me, you thieves and outcasts, you wayward children and midnight insurgents — O come, all you who don’t own the place. Today you will be with me in paradise.
Jason Crawford teaches in the Department of English at Union University. He is the author of Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2017).