Thursday, November 11, 2004

Lenny Bruce would have plenty to say about the First Amendment circa 2004. Between Janet Jackson’s breast-baring escapade and Howard Stern’s Federal Communications Commission smackdown, the man who invented the free-speech free-for-all would have scampered from “Larry King Live” to “The Tonight Show” to fight fire with fire.

That is, if the network and cable censors let him near a live microphone.

The button-pushing comic carved his visage on comedy’s Mount Rushmore fighting for the right to say any outrageous thing that popped into his head.

Back in the 1960s, that meant constant harassment from the obscenity police — real police, not today’s watchdog groups that instigate letter-writing campaigns. These uniformed officers chased him off the stage repeatedly for his cobalt-blue tongue.

A new compilation, “Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware,” returns us to that still-shockable America of yesteryear, when the scatological ravings of the “sick comic” made him the scourge of society.

The new six-CD boxed set, lovingly presented in part by Mr. Bruce’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, represents a treasure trove for Bruce purists. It combines the expected stand-up banter with rare recordings of the comic on radio talk shows, “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” and other obscure sources.

Much of the material has never been released. Turns out Mr. Bruce, who died in 1966 from a drug overdose, taped nearly everything he ever said, providing a wide portal into the mind of the man comics such as Richard Pryor, Bill Maher and George Carlin cite as their inspiration.

But just because the man was ahead of his time doesn’t mean he’s in sync with ours. Does his material stand up nearly four decades later? There’s a risk in commercially releasing Lenny Bruce monologues. It invites a question seldom asked anymore about a figure sanctified in some quarters as a First Amendment martyr: Does he make us laugh?

As someone who’s read busloads about Mr. Bruce but never experienced the genuine article beyond the 1974 biopic starring Dustin Hoffman, the answer is a depressing “No.”

Much of the material rambles, and Mr. Bruce’s storytelling abilities are surprisingly weak. It takes a steady mind to follow some of his narrative threads. The rewards rarely repay the effort.

Many of the CDs’ references are dated. That’s only to be expected from material this old, and the set comes with an extensive glossary for those who wouldn’t know a beatnik from Sputnik.

More surprising and less excusable is that few of the comic’s bits — even the celebrated ones such as “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” — elicit more than knowing smiles. The profanity doesn’t shock anymore. Factor out the guilty pleasure of the taboo, and there’s precious little left here.

At his best, Mr. Bruce exploded the hypocrisies of modern life without fear or favor — but he reserved special venom for organized religion. Yet, while Chris Rock or Mr. Carlin might provoke belly laughs with their precision strikes against the absurdities of intolerant piety, Mr. Bruce earns no more than a kind of mirthless assent.

It doesn’t help that the boxed set is bloated with filler. “Let the Buyer Beware” has done an impressive job of excavation but a dismal job of selection. Like a certain shock jock, Mr. Bruce worked under the delusion that his every thought deserved expression and his every utterance demanded public consideration.

At least Mr. Bruce had bigots in his sights when he trotted out the N-word. Mr. Stern’s use of racially derogatory terms can’t be spun to be socially redeeming, no matter how much he may protest otherwise.

Mr. Stern’s sexual banter is intended to titillate and upset social norms, not right societal wrongs. He’s an opportunist, not a bleeding heart. (Truth be told, Mr. Bruce had more of the main chancer in him than the sentimental mythology that has clung to him allows. “I’m a hustler,” he acknowledges in this collection. “As long as they give, I’ll grab.”)

Mr. Bruce professed to hate the label “sick comic,” then turned around and called one album “The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.” Mr. Stern also proclaims his martyrdom, then uses it for marketing purposes. Take “Crucified By the FCC,” a past collection of his naughtiest radio bits. It’s as dishonest as it is calculating.

Mr. Bruce notoriously — and pathetically — descended late in his career to dragging fans through his personal legal mud by reading his court transcripts on stage. Here, again, Mr. Stern follows in his footsteps. The “king of all media” spends countless hours decrying the restrictions placed upon him by broadcast radio standards and, over the past year, the mysterious political “forces” out to get him.

The increasingly bitter shock jock finally put his career where his mouth is, signing with satellite-radio upstart Sirius, where he can talk without constraint. But Howard Stern’s raison d’etre is to rattle the bars of his cage. Who needs an uncaged Mr. Stern?

Will a Howard Stern without standards to defy or unsuspecting mainstream sensibilities to assault be any more vital or relevant than the stale sallies entombed in “Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware”?

Will a Stern without limits be a Stern without listeners?

Unlike Mr. Bruce, whose finances hit rock bottom before he died, Mr. Stern has managed to reap vast rewards from his notoriety.

Isn’t it funny that he can thank Mr. Bruce for that?

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