What’s in a dirty word? Remembering Lenny

Finally I was called as a witness in my own behalf. I took the stand and Mr. Bendich examined me.
Q. Mr. Bruce, Mr. Wollenberg yesterday said (to Dr. Gottlieb) specifically that you had said, “Eat it.” Did you say that?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. What did you say, Mr. Bruce?
A. What did I say when?
Q. On the night of October fourth.
MR. WOLLENBERG: There’s no testimony that Mr. Wollenberg said that Mr. Bruce said, “Eat it,” the night of October fourth, if your honor please.
THE COURT: The question is: What did he say?
THE WITNESS: I don’t mean to be facetious. Mr. Wollenberg said “Eat it.” I said “Kiss it.”
MR. BENDICH: Do you apprehend there is a significant difference between the two phrases, Mr. Bruce?
A. “Kissing it” and “eating it,” yes, sir. Kissing my mother goodbye and eating my mother goodbye, there is a quantity of difference.
—Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

If there was ever an example of a manipulation and exploitation of the context in which words were intentionally made to be confusing, that would be it. Taken out of context, both kiss and eat are entirely benign. We do them all the time, although we should probably be doing more of the former and less of the latter. Taken in context, Bruce’s use of “kissing it” had the exact same intention as “eating it.” In no way was the verb “kissing,” as Bruce used it here, similar to the kissing he might bestow upon his mother. In fact, had it been a French court, “kissing it” would have been even more derogatory that “eating it” since the French use “baiser”—to kiss—as a correlative to our “fucking.” Calling someone a “baiseur” is tantamount to us calling him a “fucker.” Direct swearing in public was severely frowned upon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was subject to fine or even imprisonment. Satirists like Bruce therefore often couched their expletives in careful substitution of double entendre. I say “often,” because it was also Bruce’s custom to shoot straight from the hip with unvarnished four-letter words—and longer. Whether it was his rants against government or his playful dissecting of words and phrases, I would go on to add that if there was one individual in the last hundred years who altered the way we speak in public, it was Lenny Bruce.

Thanks to his injudicious use of “cocksucker” or “tits and ass,” Lenny Bruce was arrested half a dozen times and was banned outright from several U.S. cities. Throughout his career he playfully tested the limits of censorship. In one of his famous “bits,” as he called them, he pointedly questioned the value of words in and of themselves: “You can’t put tits and ass on the marquee. Why not? Because it’s dirty and vulgar, that’s why not. Titties are dirty and vulgar? Okay, we’ll compromise. How about Latin? Gluteus maximus, pectoralis majors nightly. That’s alright, that’s clean, ass with class, I’ll buy it. Clean to you, schmuck, but dirty to the Latins!” Kenneth Tynan, Britain’s leading drama critic at the time, hailed Bruce: “We are dealing with an impromptu prose poet, who trusts his audience so completely that he talks in public no less outrageously than he would in private. . . . Hate him or not, he is unique and must be seen. Tynan was an undaunted champion of free speech in his own right, and he is particularly remembered for chalking up the first instance of mentioning that notably opprobrious no-no on BBC television when he said, “I doubt if there are many rational people in this room to whom the word fuck is particularly diabolical or revolting.”

Apparently the Australian government did not agree with Tynan’s assessment of Lenny Bruce. At his first show in Sydney he took the stage and declared, “What a fucking wonderful audience.” Bruce was arrested immediately and consequently banned from performing there. In 1964, after a six-month trial, presided over by three judges, he was sentenced to four months in a workhouse. Constantly hounded by authorities in his last years, he forged a crusade of freedom of speech rather than merely taking pleasure in offending with dirty words: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’” As such, it would seem that freedom of speech is just fine as long as nobody is offended by it. Bruce died in 1966, but he was given a posthumous pardon for his convictions in the state of New York, the first in its history.

For a man who sought out truth while saying the hitherto unsayable, his legacy is inestimable. Those counted as having been influenced by him are far too numerous to list, but they include: Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis Black, Sarah Silverman, Robin Williams, Bill Maher, Sam Kinison, Eddie Izzard, Howard Stern, and, of course, George “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits” Carlin. We may even take it as homage to Lenny Bruce that Carlin culled his little group from a monologue by Bruce. Lenny was, in a word, the “precursor” to the swearing on stage that we take for granted today. Ironically, as an aside, it was Carlin’s list of just-mentioned “heavy seven” words that went on to become the de facto standard for FCC rulings on what could indeed not be said over the public airwaves. Thanks, George!

Lenny Bruce may have appeared before judges in court, but he also appeared at Carnegie Hall. As did George Carlin. George Carlin did. And not only did Carlin appear, he thoroughly entertained everyone—or, we think everyone, because there were no police officers lying in wait there to arrest him for uttering a deemed “obscenity” like “cocksucker.” Carlin went far beyond the taboos imposed upon Bruce, and he flaunted them—at substantial ticket prices, and with nary a slap on the wrist. But Carlin knew his audience. He knew that they had been liberated by the daring voice of Lenny Bruce and were now ready to sit back and enjoy every savory verbal vice that had been hitherto restricted. Carlin, in his raised-brow, mock-ignorant voice during one of his performances asked the audience about the word “cocktail.” Looking around the room, he slowly and melodiously chirped, “What is that?” Then, after the famous Carlin pause he resumed, “Cocktail. Yeah. Women want cock; men want tail.” The audience lapped it up. Bruce would have loved it, too; but he would have had his ass in a sling if he said it in any one of the hundreds of places that Carlin said it.

Bill Maher went on to praise Bruce when he said, “A lot of people can be funny—he was brave.” And he also acknowledged Bruce’s accomplishment as a champion of freedom of speech because comedians and satirists such as himself could now go anywhere in the United States and say whatever they wanted. David Skover, Fredric C. Tausend Professor of Law at the Seattle University School of Law, and author of The Trials of Lenny Bruce, teaches, writes, and lectures in the fields of federal constitutional law, federal courts, free speech, and the Internet. For Mr. Skover, “Lenny created the freest free speech zone in America.” He lamented that Bruce’s life was also a story of the First Amendment: it was “the story of a free speech martyr.”

Intermittently funny and serious as he was, Lenny single-handedly changed stand-up comedy and, consequently, the public’s receptivity to verbal taboos. In the words of Steve Earle from his song “F The CC,” “Just don’t forget your history, dirty Lenny died so we could all be free.”

Still, it wasn’t until 1970, four years after Bruce’s death, that the first “fuck” was uttered in a major American motion picture. The film was M*A*S*H. While lined up in the memorable football sequence, the character “Painless” snarls at an opponent, “All right, bub, your fuckin’ head is comin’ right off.” (The first major, albeit now-forgotten, British film to feature the expletive was I’ll Never Forget What’s’name in 1967. It was charmingly uttered by the always charming Marianne Faithful: “Get out of here, you fucking bastard!”) Back then that line from M*A*S*H probably produced the biggest single laugh of the film. It was like the first pie in the face or slip on a banana peel. Nobody expected it. At the right moment, the carefully chosen instance can still generate a laugh from the word, but it won’t have any of the same impact unless the situation in which it is employed is just as unexpected.

Robert Redford’s muffled “Oh shit!” was greeted with a similar response the previous year in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Meanwhile, although Meet the Fockers set box office records after its 2004 release, the joke of saying “Focker” was wearing so thin by the time Little Fockers appeared in 2010, that it needed overkill to continue to produce a laugh. It was almost like watching an entire film devoted to someone slipping on a banana peel in new ways. Whether visual or verbal, a familiar gag loses its punch unless it is reinvented, and that is precisely what the movie The Aristocrats showed in 2005. The Aristocrats, which Netflix categorizes as a Social and Cultural Documentary, presents more than 100 stand-up comedians—some of whom are mentioned earlier in this chapter—telling the same raunchy joke in ways that would have had Lenny Bruce drawn, quartered, and then burned at the stake in his day. A lot happened in a mere forty-odd years that changed our public attitude toward talking dirty, whether influencing people or not.

Thank you, Lenny Fucking Bruce!

7 thoughts on “What’s in a dirty word? Remembering Lenny

  1. Galaxy Jane April 15, 2015 / 5:10 pm

    Quick note, it isn’t COL Potter who utters the “fuck” in M*A*S*H, but dentist CPT Waldowski, AKA the “Painless Pole”. You appear to have conflated the two. Otherwise, fabulous article.


    • Rob Chirico April 17, 2015 / 1:36 pm

      While I knew that the dentist’s nickname was “Painless,” I just realized where the Potter came from. Bob Hope was Painless Potter in the film Paleface.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Galaxy Jane April 17, 2015 / 1:37 pm

        Funny, the odd things that stick to the back of the brain.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Rob Chirico April 17, 2015 / 1:41 pm

        And that they were both dentists… Yes, it is rather scary what we dredge up from the murky recesses of our brains.


  2. Galaxy Jane April 15, 2015 / 5:12 pm

    And of course, Potter isn’t in the film at all, but COL Blake, my own memory is conflating things today too.


  3. Stan Carey April 15, 2015 / 5:26 pm

    ‘If there was one individual in the last hundred years who altered the way we speak in public, it was Lenny Bruce.’

    This is a really interesting idea. I wonder if we were to make a list, who else might be on it.

    Lenny Bruce was a hero; great to see an appropriate tribute to him here. He was a big influence on Bill Hicks too.

    Liked by 1 person

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