From Dirty Lenny to Louis: Pryor Trends

Lenny High

I’m always ready to give credit to Lenny Bruce for contemporary trends in stand up comedy, alongside friends Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters and the other “sick” comics, to whom we owe our concept of the modern comedic performer. Lenny’s output was tremendous, generating long form bits and sketch routines with multiple characters, yet always performed solo and unscripted. You have to realize his times, 1948-1966 there wasn’t a “comedy club”, only theaters and nightclubs, no safe haven for dirty comics anywhere. In fact, The Comedy Store in Hollywood was built to give Richard Pryor mic time! When I tell people that I’ve performed stand-up comedy, without fail, Louis C.K. comes up, but rarely Lenny.

I love telling people the brief story of Lenny as though he’s some myth and forgotten hero. But I have never disagreed with anyone about the quality of Louis, though I am surprised he stands as the new icon of comedy, due to his filthy act, or at least I would be were it not for the elegance of his dirty words. Like Lenny, he manages to absorb the language of the locker room and the boardroom into an elegant stream of thought. Something is even bluer collar about Louis, which makes him perfectly American: a Catholic-Mexican-American-Hungarian-Jew.

Lenny was a thorough New York Jew and came to iconic status in the Hollywood hills of California. New York is the place where Louis would gain his stars after growing up in Mexico City and Boston. Lenny Bruce rose to fame in 1948, came to a lull, and skyrocketed suddenly to the top in 1959, was busted from ’61-’64, and died on August 3rd, 1966. Louis C.K. was born thirteen months nine days later in 1967, only a few hundred miles south, in Mexico City.

Lenny was a boundary-pushing comedian and paid for that prestige with his life as court cases piled against him, legal costs surmounted and he sputtered off in to drug addiction. Nightclubs were threatened by local law enforcement when he was showcased in major cities. He had no shortage of an audience and managed to fill the Berkeley Community Theater in 1965, his final great performance. Lenny was the first performer to use words like cocksucker, motherfucker, cunt, and nigger on a regular basis. He also shook the fear of discussing religion, politics, racism, social constructs, sex, and the power of repression, presented in a casual nightclub act. But when he took it to Carnegie Hall, he hardly uttered those words and the philosophy shone through. The question of how obscenity can really be enforced by law came to light with Lenny, his case law in fact made an impact toward free speech, but it was his ideas that got him in to trouble in the first place.

Herbert Ruhe, Former CIA agent and license inspector for the City of New York in 1964, had the following to share with Lenny’s council, Allen Schwartz. He started off to say that he felt badly about the conviction, [1]

I know he’s not obscene and I understand his ideas and why he uses the four and ten letter words. I can see the audience laughing at the ideas, not at the words. He’s a very talented man and yet in a way I feel in a way that he had to be convicted. I rationalize it this way: Okay, Bruce is not obscene but he does use four and ten letter words. If he uses them then other people will use them; people who are not talented and have no ideas, and we will have people paying two dollars to hear some character say motherfucker five times in ten minutes. So I figure, if we prosecute Bruce then we cut off the use of those words at the source. …We aimed for Bruce, we picked him out of all the performers, I admit, it was a case of picking on one man to establish a principle.

Richard Pryor is considered a contemporary of Lenny and Lenny contemporary to Red Foxx, who influenced Pryor, who influenced Louis. Foxx told dirty jokes, but he wasn’t picked on. In 1981, Richard Pryor made a film called Live at the Sunset Strip, recorded a stones throw from the mansion that Lenny overdosed in, 15 years prior, and released in 1982, the year I was born. In this performance, Pryor says motherfucker five times in ten minutes, several times. But people didn’t pay two dollars, they paid quite a bit more because Pryor was already the icon of his time, sharing the limelight with George Carlin, discussing all the topics that Lenny broke through. This is the show where Pryor ends by lighting a match as if an impression of himself. This was soon after his addiction to crack was made public; he freebased himself aflame, running out in panic from his San Fernando Valley home. He speaks openly about freebasing crack and the audience fully accepts him, in his vulnerability, in his honesty. They don’t seem to mind funding a drug addict, so long as he shares his stories! Lenny hardly spoke of drugs on stage, but when he did, it was shocking, because open drug use was not common, though he was known to appear on stage under the perfect mix of amphetamine and heroin.

Another thing used against Lenny in prosecution, peace officers claimed he performed gestures of masturbation. But he didn’t, it was a gag using the microphone for gestures of benediction, like the Pope, not masturbation. Pryor hints at gestures of masturbation, flirts with the idea but doesn’t quite do it in an obvious way, but the gesture he uses ties it with his jokes, so indeed he is. His gag was more obvious than any confused benediction by Lenny. In truth, no comedian has ever been convicted of obscenity since Lenny. Two icons one generation apart and the contemporary is doing everything he can to expand on the same filth Lenny was busted for, meanwhile making an impression on Louis, only two years before his first open mic in 1984.

Flash forward twenty-seven years to the concert film recorded in 2009 entitled Hilarious; it was the first comedy film to enter Sundance, produced independently by Louis. It really is epic filth. Louis performs a recreation of masturbation and completes an orgasm. So what is obscene? Lenny would say that the intent would have to be to get the audience horny. Louis feigning orgasm gets nobody horny, but it makes you laugh. He says all the four and ten letter words in fast succession and gains complete acceptance, because the audience is caught in the act during self-reflection. So what’s filthy? Lenny said that “you can’t do anything with anybodies’ body and call it dirty, it’s illogical.” And I would argue, that if you follow the Lenny school, you’d never do a thing obscene. So what is offensive is “the area that is trite; you’ve seen in many times.” If you go to any comedy open mic anywhere tonight, you get exactly what is trite and what is brilliant side by side. You get bad comics feigning masturbation gestures as if that in itself makes the punch line — jokes that don’t comment on racism but exploit it — rape, incest, infanticide, masturbation, all taken lightly by the vulgar, obscene comics who use all the same words they lift from Louis and Pryor, while few of them have paid enough attention to Lenny. Naturally though, the kids in the scene learn their mistakes, go through a self awareness that they suck, then become funny. And I believe this is exactly where Louis stands out. He’s like the best open mic comic you’ve ever heard because he dishes the humor as raw truth, streaming reflections of reality to his mind and back to reality.

Louis proves the Lenny school of law, that in obscenity cases, the words on trial must be judged against their contemporary usage against the average person within their age bracket; that is the yardstick. Louis is simply repeating very common expressions that can become vulgar, but only further to confirm a true observation. With Comedy Central going uncensored during late hours more and more programming surprises us with what once was vulgar, stuff that in my own generation was unheard of on television. I start thinking about other people, the exclusion of George Carlin and Dave Chappelle to this topic, parallel comics to the above discussed who have changed the landscape and gained iconic status, grappling with the words, the issues, and managed to stay alive within their industry.

So maybe we’ll end on a question that I can bring up later – the Thelonius Monk school of writing: not a conclusion, rather another mode. Will there be a new form in comedy that evolves from stand up in the next five years? In the same way that “the sick comics” during Lenny’s time changed the form of comedy, generating “the stand up” concept? The limitations are no longer scandalous, maybe the next wave is clean but more intense in some other way — perhaps it will be an integrative force. We have the open mic, comedy clubs with a rising audience, so the stand up is becoming naturally trite, industrialized. Meanwhile social media is happening, videos are easier to produce than ever and Twitter is the haiku of jokes. Will comedy clubs become the passé mode of an older generation? Is there an indie movement happening with storytellers on the rise? For as long as comedy is a means of reflecting society back upon itself, there is an opportunity for healing. But for those who are willing to die for evolution, for the liberation of art, they will reverberate for as long as we live within the walls that they broke through.


[1] Audio recording, letter by Allen Schwartz to Lenny, Let the Buyer Beware: Track 7.




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