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Lenny Bruce, “About the Incident in Toledo”

[NB: Apropos of this: http://www.inknode.com/piece/2396-seth-abramson-why-america-hates-poetry. –SA]

{Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News, June 17, 1959.}

I haven’t spoken up about this before because writing essays isn’t my bag. Neither are reading newspapers, honestly. And also I’m not very interested in what critics say about the art of comedy, and I mean critics at universities or critics anywhere else. I judge myself as a comic on two things, the first being what other comics that I admire think of a set, and the second being whether I’m doing what I can to push off from a history I’ve done my level best to make myself aware about. The best standup guys, and I’m not talking about the guys pushing pap in the weeklies, take this same view. You don’t obsess over what people who don’t know the first thing about comedy say, and you don’t pretend to be some guru of the nightclub set when you haven’t put in the time to know your history. I mean understanding why guys like Harry Blevins, Jermaine Ellis, even a current name like Roger Vlasick were originally hated, even by certain people in standup, only to later be talked about like trailblazers. I don’t even talk to comics that don’t know who Harry Blevins is, and if you’re a comic reading this, frankly neither should you.

About the dustup in Toledo, anyone who’s been in comedy for a while knows the “Aristocrats” joke, which is what I guess the spectacled people at Toledo U would call an “open form” joke. Comics have been using it as a way to strut their bona fides as imaginative persons for decades now. I’m not going to go into the particulars because the News isn’t going to let me do that, but the idea is that the comic fills the open middle of a joke with imaginative but also pretty wrenching material in order to set up a punchline that’s really no punchline, anyway. The joke is in the middle, the “punchline” is there only to put the thing in a style you folks who haven’t made comedy your bag can follow. Me and my brood nix the punchline in private, actually.

I never touched a hair on Lou Melnick’s head in Toledo, as anyone who was there will tell you. I’m not very interested in getting worked up again about that either, I can tell you too. What I’m writing about today is the joke that started it all. What I want to say, and remember that writing essays is not what I do for a living, is that the sort of language we comics use for that gag has had a “gate keep” function for comedy for years now not because anyone who loves the stage also necessarily loves making working stiffs feel uncomfortable in their skins, but because being an artist, and the best standup guys are artists in my feeling, is about stepping over lines in a smart way. If you look at the other types of art in the U.S. that aren’t as big as standup is in 1959, and I mean here ways of expressing yourself like painting or sculpture or poetry or even novels, the main thing is that they police one another rather than test or needle one another into being more and more adventuresome. Policing being the bag of the fascist, because as I heard Telly Savalas of all people say once, “In the Halls of Justice the only justice is in the halls.” Now I repeat that line everywhere, because it’s exactly right.

When a few comics in Toledo get together to shoot the you-know-what with “Aristocrats”, we’re “in the halls” trying to figure out what limits we can push language to, and we do it well knowing the sort of language the stiffs at the Jelly Bar or Pete’s Underground—or choose your comedy hop—are already using anyway. They use all those words and talk about all those things from the joke I can’t repeat here, so they don’t cringe about it like the squares at say Cornell College in Ithaca do. Our language acknowledges theirs and then does something instructively awful with it. The role of the comedian is to make the audience laugh, after all, at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds. If the novelists or the poets or whoever were willing to take the same leap, you could fill The Fenceline in Akron or even Tokyo Joe’s in Toledo (or even the renovated Comedy Cellar in Miami Beach, where neon goes to die) every night for a poetry reading or some heavily accented noodling onstage by Nabakov. But you can’t.

Any artist whose bag is to police what the others of his sort can and can’t say is a retard, and before you go whinging about that I don’t use that word in the usual way, I mean in the sense of  “retarding” the kind of productive one upping that comedy has benefited from since the Catskill days of Leo Selberg and his crew of misfits. It isn’t the language that’s offensive, it’s treating hard or even worrisome language like some sacrosanct religious fetish that can only be handled by certain people and in certain ways or there’s going to be a tussle. Like the one in Toledo. That’s not art, it’s McCarthyism, and if you really can’t tell the difference chances are you’re a politician and not an artist, anyway.

Besides taking off Rudy Glick’s hat briefly, I don’t regret anything I said or did in Toledo and wish more artists would come up on the stage of America and shoot the bull as me and other standup guys do. It’s honest work, and we need more honest artists out here. My personal feeling, as I’ve said before, is that the only honest art form is laughter. Comedy. You can’t fake it. When I see some poet in Greenwich or a certain academic type who thinks he’s a novelist at Toledo U trying to fake it by policing what lines you can cross and when, I quote my pal Ginsberg: “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” The artists I admire most don’t have any difficulty getting that, and respectfully the artists I don’t admire can, and I hope the News won’t censor this bit too, get hung. Life is too short not to wreck some things.

Posted 06/17/14
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