- The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightning Rod: The Case of Lenny Bruce1
To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb
(Lenny Bruce, accompanying himself on drums):
To is a preposition, come is a verb. To is a preposition, come is a verb. To is a preposition, come is a verb, the verb intransitive. To come. To come. I’ve heard these two words my whole adult life, and as a child when I thought I was sleeping. To come. To come. It’s been like a big drum solo: Did ja come? Didja come good? Didja come good didja come good didja come good? Recitatif: I come better with you sweetheart than with anyone in the whole goddamn world. I really came so good. I really came so good ‘cause I love you. Really came so good. I come better with you sweetheart, than anyone in the whole world, I really came so good. So good. BUT. Don’t come in me. Don’t come in me. Don’t come imme, mimme mimme don’t come imme mimme mimme don’t come in me. I CAN’T COME. Cause you don’t love me, that’s why you can’t come. I love you I just can’t come, that’s my hangup. I can’t come when I’m loaded, all right? Cause you don’t love me. Just what the hell is the matter with you? What has that got to do with loving you? I just can’t come, that’s all. Now if anyone in this room or the world finds those two words decadent, obscene, immoral, amoral, asexual, the words “to come” really make you feel uncomfortable, if you think I’m rank for saying it to you, and you the beholder gets rank for listening to it, you probably can’t come.2
In the summer of 1989 I got a copy of Lenny Bruce’s 1962 obscenity trial transcript from Albert Bendich, the defense attorney for the case. As I drove home with the 352-page document, the radio told me of Jesse Helms’ proposed muzzling of the NEA. Heretofore, my interest in Jewishness as a de facto and traditionally “traveling culture” with its own makeshift language(s) had been primarily a process of self-exploration, a project about whose narcissism and self-indulgence I had constant questions. That moment of being trapped in a small and moving space with Jesse Helms and Lenny Bruce, and later, reading the transcript itself, redirected my efforts. My work took on the added dimensions, as well as the urgency, of exploring the ways different “deviant” masculinities overlap and intersect, and how these differences can be read through the hierarchies of culture represented in the trial, which was in effect a showdown between high, low and middlebrow cultures as represented respectively by the academy, the entertainment world with its blurred sexual boundaries, and the discourse of the courtroom and the police force. The trial foregrounded and foreshadowed social change even as its protagonist was offered up for public consumption.
Bruce, the stranger who rode into town and said the right thing at the right time in front of the wrong people, suffered the consequences of a wayward hyperverbalism deployed in the interest of social criticism. Though the scholarship on Jewish-diaspora language use suggests certain strategies—for example, the primacy of anecdotes and minutiae, the valuation of dialogue, commentary and argument as pleasures and/or ends in themselves, the blending of the sublime and the earthy or its rhetorical analogue, the blending of the language of high abstraction and colloquialisms—as characteristic of Jewish written and oral culture, I want to stress that in identifying Bruce’s strategies as “Jewish” I do not posit these strategies as inherently or only Jewish.3 Indeed, Bruce’s manic polyglot eclecticism and makeshift, survivalist logic shares much with a more generalized, multi-ethnic urban sensibility, especially the African-American jive idiom; his “conversation” mingled “the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.”4 Nonethless, I focus on the latter because it is, arguably, the primary constitutive element of Bruce’s self-presentation, and...