4/6/21: Lenny (1974) — Beyond Stand – Up Comedy #poetry
I watched two Dave Chappelle stand – up specials yesterday. I had just written about him and I was checking my work. He’s not as good as I thought he was. His aura of artistic integrity is just a schtick, a brand. He’s a canny show businessman. He knows there is a market for “I don’t give a fuck” honesty. So he portrays that. I basically covered that in my writing. Good for me. Part of Chappelle’s brand is that he is known as the most intelligent comedian. That might be true, I guess, but he is running on a slow track. He didn’t make me think once. His material made me laugh — a little, really not that much, but I never thought a minute longer than I do when I am watching a cable news talk show. I gave him a little too much credit when I wrote about him. I look for something more than society in my artists, and stand – up is nothing but society. Chappelle talks about being in show business and being an artist, but he is not an artist … and you can’t be both at once. Sometimes show business people transform into artists and exit harshly from the commercial stage and enter something else. Lenny Bruce started as a hack but emerged as an artist. Unfortunately, Lenny exited the commercial stage and entered his grave. Society loves martyrs — human sacrifices to its power. Society dictates conformity and murders any audacious authenticity. Society is right to be jealous of authenticity. Authenticity would destroy society and replace it with something more human. Society is a machine invented by men and women who fear nature and life. Lenny Bruce was a force of nature. Dave Chappelle is a corporation masquerading as a force of nature.
I was a stand – up comedian in New York in the mid – 1980s. I worked primarily out of the West Bank Cafe, which catered to a sophisticated theater crowd — Yale Drama School types, actors, musicians and playwrights. I had been an actor at the Second City in Chicago and then moved to New York. Paul Sills, the founding director of Second City (Note: the Second City that I worked at has nothing to do with the business that bought its name and does nothing resembling anything that I have ever done or ever wanted to do. The current Second City does not only offend me in my present state as a writer, but also offends my past incarnations as an improvisational actor and stand – up comedian. Reader, please do not associate me in any way with the current Second City. I am embarrassed that anyone would have the impression that I had anything to do with that trash. Second City is not only show business, but it is show business on the ass end … and so is the rest of the “improv” scene, the “classes” all of it … the entire world of my creative upbringing has died, but the real insult is that my creative upbringing’s world has had its identity stolen … people have stolen the creative achievement of others in order to sell shit … Paul Sills has been replaced by a hedge fund CEO who is over sixty and has less than 8% body fat … showing off six pack ads on a video is the least Second City thing that I could think of … my Second City was about humanity, not success … my peers from Second City generally went for the success, most of them would take work from the new asshole who bought their legacy if they got the chance … Second City always had show business cancer, from the beginning … but it was sometimes in remission) … Paul Sills was in New York teaching at the time. We were friendly. He came to see me at the West Bank. the producers there gave me a night. The show got a big positive response — a peak experience. The hip crowd at the West Bank loved it. Paul said it was the greatest evening of American theater in 25 years and compared me to Lenny Bruce. I was later told that Paul said that I was the greatest talent that Second City ever produced. I didn’t know it, but that night was the end of my career as a performer. I have thought about and told this true story often, but I never understood what it was about as much as I do as I write today.
Paul was blown away — he wasn’t given to the praise that he gave my show — because he was an idealistic man and he had not seen content on a comedy stage like in my show — substance, really saying something — since he saw Lenny Bruce. Like Lenny, I actually was what Dave Chappelle Inc. says it is.
Lenny Bruce died a martyr. I just ended my career. Paul knew a lot, but he did not understand the limits of show business. I intuitively got the drift. I was much younger than Paul and I was born knowing that show business is a losing proposition for a certain type of artist. I think Paul was like me too, but didn’t get it. We were too pure for this bullshit. We needed to figure out other ways to get over. We weren’t entertainers. After that show, George Manos, a respected manager of big comedic talent from the famous firm of Rollins and Joffee — they represented Woody Allen and David Letterman — George Manos told me, “That was a great show, but what are you going to do with that? I don’t think you should criticize the country the way that you did.”
It’s not like I decided to end my career. I wanted to criticize my country. I love it. What was I supposed to do, just nod along with racism and Viet Nam and the rest of it? The main reason that I wanted to be on that stage was to say what I think. I couldn’t make a business plan related to my act — check that — it wasn’t an act … it was me … talking about my relation to the world. There is no business where you can do such a thing. Some artists know how to navigate business and art. They compromise, they are savvy and they can live with the almost true results. I don’t judge. I used to wish I was that type of artist. I am not that type of artist. I now accept who I am.
I’m alive because I don’t have sexy problems like Lenny Bruce. I’ve never been into drugs. My sexual history is ordinary and relatively innocent, nothing like his daring. I had a middle class upbringing. I studied books as a kid. I didn’t hang out in burlesque houses. People like me make it past age 47. (We’re conservative in that way … its maybe the only way that we are conservative. I like my recliner. I like Netflix and MSNBC. I enjoy going for a ride and picking up a pizza. My dead blue bloated body on a bathroom floor after I overdosed on heroin never appealed to me. I never wanted to have sex with several partners at a time. It would make me anxious. I like it when a clerk is nice to me in a drug store. I like ordinary life. I’m not some exotic plant. I am not judgmental about the exotic. I love strangeness. I’m strange in a different way.) It is too dangerous to bare your soul in front of a group of strangers. Society crucifies its truth tellers.
Sills became frustrated with me once. He said that I “went into hiding.” You are damn right that I did. It just hurt too much to write in front of other people. They egged me on to give them more of what they wanted. They ridiculed me to stop me from saying what they didn’t want to hear.
For a long time, I just shut up. I went from free speech hero to timid man. I descended into a kind of shame and spent a few years being underemployed. I thought that I would get back to performing but never really did. There was a kind of seeming tragedy, or at least pathos in my touching the soul of Lenny Bruce. But it was just process. An artist has to get knocked on his ass in the transitions. It’s not enough to analyze the changes … you have to feel them. I have been crucified in my life and have risen from the dead in my writing. There’s nothing grandiose about that last line. It’s just about process. If you are an artist, you know what I mean.
Eventually, I tried to live a normal life and managed to get normal, adult jobs. But that didn’t work for me either because I am just different. Whether I am talking or not, they just go after me — with intense admiration or criticism. I did well enough for what society wanted … I had some late success in society’s terms … but God I was sick of the people around me. They either came after me like gunfighters, or rubbed against me looking for love in all the wrong places. I had my personal project and they were taking too much of my time and energy. You don’t choose to be a truth teller. You are stuck with it. I learned how to hide my nature and got some costumes during my periods of basic respect as a member of the community — which I definitely was not.
Lenny Bruce was a moralist, and so am I. He was injured by the immorality of others, and felt an admirable shame for his own sins. His project was to help humanity be more human, starting with himself. (Me too.) He didn’t set out to have social impact. It just happened. And society killed him for it, and fired me for the same reason. Fuck society. It is too much to ask people like me and Lenny to change society. It’s enough work to be different. We’re poets, not Founding Fathers. Someone else should listen to us, give us what we need, support us emotionally and apply what we find out in our hearts to the world at large.
I was able to quit the audience. (I said I was fired. Now I say that I quit. Which is it? They are the same thing. None of this was decided. It’s just the way it is.) Lenny couldn’t — maybe it was his addictive personality. (Do artists have followings? Should they give a shit whether or not they do? I like making this thing … doing this writing and then putting it out there and letting it do whatever it will do. I write for you and me, not to be a star, not to make you my disciples. We will ultimately disappoint each other that way — that’s what happens with Messiahs and disciples. Let’s just touch each other in our mutual solitudes and not depend on each other. Let’s just love each other and support each others’ growth … come and go as we please … let’s be friends bearing witness to each others’ destinies … ) Lenny was a hero. He made the world better. I just want to write. The world is not my responsibility. I have grievances with the world. I demand its respect. I know I am the world’s equal. I have the right to live the life that I was born to live. I will live that life in spite of the world’s bullshit — always the demand that I be less — less smart, less good, less happy, less comfortable.
I am willing to learn a skill set to live in the world honestly — and I have, and continue to do so. The nature of the world tells me that I can’t be myself in front of an audience without being killed or fired. So that’s out.
The nature of the world tells me that I will be attacked for being myself even when I am trying to conform to its ways.
The nature of the world tells me that I can go outside safely but only to select places, and that I can relate to individuals but only select individuals.
The nature of the world tells me that I can be precisely who I was born to be, and freely express who I am when I am alone, in my private thoughts, and when I am writing.
The nature of the world tells me that some people will like my writing and some people will dislike it. I just should live it and do it.
Being a stand up comedian is a position of power. You stand in spotlight. Your voice is amplified. Power is challenged. Stand up comedians are angry people because they live in constant conflict. Their legitimacy is always challenged by hecklers, critics, producers … stand up comedy is being yourself under pressure (when it is done as an art like Lenny and I did … it can also be a calculated exercise in marketing like Dave Chappelle ..)
Writing is a powerful thing too — but the writer is detached, contained and protected. Individual readers can anoint the writer as king or rebel against him and overthrow him. Each party lives out their destiny in the privacy of their own home.The writer doesn’t get fired, murdered or emotionally abused. The power struggle is removed.
Lenny got stuck in reaction. Heroes sacrifice themselves to society. Lenny kept pleading with society to understand things like the equality of all people and free speech — things that he already knew. He got screwed out of a lot — not the least of which was the opportunity to explore new things — to keep learning more truth through his own experience. People feel bad for great artists that aren’t recognized until after they die — but that isn’t so terrible. Society is a fucking anchor. If you remain engaged with society, society holds you back. The natural time to leave society should be after your high school graduation. You’re seventeen or eighteen. You’re socialized. Now you know how to get by and move through hostile territory as you experience life and fulfill your destiny.
Life, not society … life that is the thing. Leave show business to the businessmen and shit to the assholes… leave art to the artists …
I feel so badly for Lenny, and so personally lucky. Lenny died for my sins. Maybe I’ll live for somebody else’s. I love being a writer.
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas