Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir
Bruce Jay Friedman
Biblioasis, 275 pages $29.95
Bruce Jay Friedman was sent to a charity sleep-away camp in Peekskill, N.Y. each summer. It was sponsored by the Central Jewish Institute and staffed by Israelis counselors. Like most Jews born and bred in the Bronx, Friedman didn’t take well to the outdoors.
But as he writes in his fascinating new book, “Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir,” CJI may have provided him with a career path. On Shabbos evenings, the 5-year-olds would gather around a campfire and listen to stories about the Wise Men of Chelm.
“I found the stories [written by Sholom Aleichem] spellbinding,” he writes. “Did they ignite a need in me to take a try at (slightly bent) stories of my own? It’s conceivable….”
The operative words there are “slightly bent.” Friedman is best known as a writer of black humor, a term he himself popularized in America. Though thought of generally as dark or morbid, essentially it is Jewish humor mixed with self-deprecating urban Jewish angst.
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.
Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.
There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.