The Arty Semite

Friday Film: A Talking-Head Tribute to Lenny Bruce

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in ‘Lenny’ (1974). Courtesy Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Nearly 50 years after his landmark Carnegie Hall performance, and 44 years since his drug-related death, Lenny Bruce still has the power to shock. And as long he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to look away from Elan Gale’s Looking for Lenny, a new documentary whose North American premiere opens this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 7. But with an overdose of celebrity interviews, and a regrettable final third that makes tenuous connections to Don Imus to Michael Richards, the film feels more like a well-meaning term paper than a compelling portrait of a tortured genius — tortured, that is, by the establishment he mocked.

Some of the interviews do shed light on Bruce’s place in the pop pantheon. “If it wasn’t for Lenny Bruce, we wouldn’t have had Richard Pryor or George Carlin,” says comedian Rob Riggle. “And it’s usually the first guy through the breach who takes all the bullets.” Likewise, cultural agitator Paul Krassner reminds us that Bruce was an “activist, transforming horror into humor.” And Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, provides poignant memories of Bruce’s desperation toward the end of his life — and of her own unbearable grief at learning about his death.

Inexplicably, though, B-list director Troy Duffy — director of infamous megaflop “The Boondock Saints” — gets more camera time than anyone else, and talking heads like comic nuisance Bobby Slayton use their time onscreen to show off or self-analyze. As the film progresses, it makes unsuccessful — and wrongheaded — attempts to link Bruce’s First Amendment heroism to antics like Richards’s 2006 “n-word” incident and Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” episode. And while we learn a lot about what Jon Lovitz and Lisa Lampanelli think, we get zero insight into what shaped Bruce, and what kinds of life experiences might have birthed such a singular talent.

Still, the film is worth watching for the chance it offers to revisit one of the seminal Jewish troublemakers of our age, and to remind ourselves again of what fueled his righteous rage. “Lenny Bruce didn’t pave a path for comics,” says Robert Klein in the film. “He paved a path for people to criticize.”

The film does have a bonus for Forward readers, though. Halfway through the film, Bruce holds up a copy of the Yiddish Forverts and insists the headline reads, “A Star Is Born.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Troy Duffy, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Robert Klein, Rob Riggle, Richard Pryor, Paul Krassner, Michael Richards, Michael Kaminer, Looking for Lenny, Lisa Lampanelli, Lenny Bruce, Kitty Bruce, Jon Lovitz, George Carlin, Elan Gale, Film, Don Imus, Documentaries, Bobby Slayton

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.