Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware. Shout! Factory Records. 6 CDs, 2004. $45.00
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
October 26, 2004
During his lecture at Milwaukee’s North Division High School a few weeks back, Bill Cosby stopped and asked abruptly, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” As with most of the evening’s proceedings, the shocking question was not meant to evoke laughter. Instead, it was Cosby’s way of making his audience think about labels and attitudes. Chris Rock mined this vein a few years ago when throwing around the N-word to distinguish social differences within the black race.
It was Lenny Bruce, however, who asked Cosby’s exact same question some 45 years ago, to a very different world. Like Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce wanted to entertain his listeners, but the end result must be a heightened thought process. Bruce was fascinated with the power of words – in terms of destruction, but especially in regards to education.
Shortly after his death in 1966, Lenny Bruce fell victim to the Albert Grossman biography treatment, and was later the subject of a 1974 Hollywood film biography (played by Dustin Hoffman). After sufficient money had been excised from the corpse through these typical means, Bruce was largely allowed to rest in peace for the past thirty years.
The name Lenny Bruce today is much like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. People often drop references to these important artistic milestones to show a depth of hipness, when they usually know little of the artist’s work. But to be fair to the posers, it has not been easy to locate some of Bruce’s most important recordings since the advent of CDs.
This situation has been remedied by Shout! Factory Records, which has released a 6 CD set entitled Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware that allows a full investigation of the man and his spoken art. Throughout these disks the seeds of modern comedy are not only present but in full bloom. From set pieces to largely improvised musings, the listener is able to connect with Bruce and follow his thought process to its logical culmination.
Part social commentary, part New York hip, part Jewish suffering – Bruce was fascinating until near the end, when a lifetime of battles finally affected his art. Sadly, one of his most readily available recordings is the uninspired Berkeley Concert from very late in his career. Fortunately, this new collection sets the record straight, offering a generous overview of Lenny Bruce’s talents. It is not all howlingly funny, nor was it meant to be. As the man himself often said, “I’m not a comedian; I’m Lenny Bruce.”