Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lenny Bruce is dead. Again.

On Bob Dylan's album "Shot of Love," there is a song called "Lenny Bruce is Dead":
Lenny Bruce is dead,
But his ghost lives on and on.
Never did get any Golden Globe award,
Never made it to Synanon.
He was an outlaw,
That's for sure,
More of an outlaw than you ever were.
Lenny Bruce is gone
But his spirit's livin' on and on.
George Carlin is gone now too, and his spirit's livin' on and on. It was, in fact, the same spirit as Lenny Bruce's. But it's hard to be Lenny Bruce, particularly when you're not actually him.

As John Wohlstetter points out, Carlin didn't start out channeling Bruce:
Carlin's childhood ambition was to become his generation's Danny Kaye. Anyone who saw his 60s routines could see the resemblance. Carlin was funny, expressive, creative and clean. "There'll be a massacre at the fort at 9 PM tonight; White Eagle will lead...." Carlin even satirized the counter-culture he later embraced ("This is Al Sleet, your hippy-dippy weatherman....").
But, as Time Magazine points out all of this changed when Carlin saw Bruce perform:
Carlin started his career on the traditional nightclub circuit in a coat and tie, pairing with Burns to spoof TV game shows, news and movies. Perhaps in spite of the outlaw soul, "George was fairly conservative when I met him," said Burns, describing himself as the more left-leaning of the two. It was a degree of separation that would reverse when they came upon Lenny Bruce, the original shock comic, in the early '60s.

"We were working in Chicago, and we went to see Lenny, and we were both blown away," Burns said, recalling the moment as the beginning of the end for their collaboration if not their close friendship. "It was an epiphany for George. The comedy we were doing at the time wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and George knew then that he wanted to go in a different direction."

Despite Carlin's Brucian pose, there was a big difference between the two comics. For one thing, Bruce was more of an outlaw than Carlin ever was: Carlin didn't get any Golden Globe Award either, but he did win the "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Comedy Awards. Bruce appeared on network television only six times, while Carlin ended up a familiar face on the tube. Like Bruce, Carlin employed obscenities in his act, but while Bruce attracted persecution for it, Carlin could only garner accolades. Bruce died young, of a drug overdose; Carlin lived to 71, on the wagon.

Carlin's attempt to take up Bruce's mantle as the revolutionary, underground, anti-establishment comic ultimately didn't work. As hard as he tried, Carlin just couldn't get in as much trouble as Bruce. Every attempt to be bad was met, not with outrage, but with applause. Carlin could never be Bruce because he arrived too late on the cultural scene.

Revolution only lasts about one generation, and then the next generation has to settle for wearing the t-shirts.

By the time Carlin came around, most of the barriers had been broken. He did his best to outrage people with the obscenities and the drug jokes and the atheism, but by that time no one was much interested in arresting people for such things--or even being outraged by them. We were too busy cheering them.

It was the very anti-establishment nature of Bruce that made him funny. But Carlin, like so many other modern comedians unable to distinguish themselves among the crowd of rebels, got less funny the more political and socially conscious he became. In an age when the heretics have the pulpit, it's hard for them to strike the heretical pose and still be funny: just look at Bill Maher and Al Franken.

It's too bad Carlin tried so hard to be Bruce. He could have just been Carlin and been just as funny, maybe even funnier.


Anonymous said...

I find your insulting and condescending remarks about a recently deceased man to be utterly reprehensible.

Martin Cothran said...

Huh? I was talking about his cultural influence. I actually said he was a very funny man. Where did I insult him personally? Did you read the last line?