I once asked Lenny Bruce, the controversial performer who paved the way for today’s free speaking stand up comics, if there was any sadism in his comedy.
“What a horrible thought,” he replied. “If there’s any sadism in my work, I wish someone would whip me with a large belt that has a big brass buckle.”
At that time back in the late fifties, Lenny was still using euphemisms like “frig” in his act. Although the media were calling him a “sick comic,” he had not yet been branded as “filthy.” But then he read my interview with Dr. Albert Ellis, the theoretician of the sexual revolution, who talked about his campaign for the proper usage of the word “fuck.”
“My premise,” said Ellis, “is that sexual intercourse, copulation, fucking or whatever you wish to call it is normally, under almost all circumstances, a damned good thing.
“Therefore, I think that we should rarely use it in a negative, condemnatory manner. Instead of denouncing someone by calling him ‘a fucking bastard’ we should say, of course, that he is ‘an unfucking villain’ since ‘bastard,’ too, isn’t necessarily a negative state and should not only be used pejoratively.”
Q: Isn’t the apparently inconsistent use of the word “fuck” due to the fact that it actually has two meanings? The first means “intercourse.” The second means “screw.” You know, like in business: “I fucked him.”
A: You’re right. But since the word “screw” has the same two meanings, and since screwing is in my unjaundiced view equally as enjoyable as fucking, I would want the usage to be “I unscrewed him,” when we mean that I outwitted him or gave him a rough time.
Q: How about the famous Army saying, “Fuck all of them but six and save them for the pallbearers.” There, “fuck” means “kill.”
A: Yes, and it is wrongly used. It should be “Unfuck all of them but six.” Lots of times these words are used correctly, as when you say, “I had a fucking good time.” That’s quite accurate, since fucking, as I said before, is a good thing, and a good thing leads to a good time. But by the same token you should say, “I had an unfucking bad time.”
Q: I can see this scrawled on subway posters two or three centuries from now: “Unfuck you!”
A: Why not? It’s fuckingly more logical that way, isn’t it?
Lenny was amazed. “Are you telling me,” he asked, “that this is legal to sell on newsstands?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “The Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity is that it has to be material which appeals to the prurient interest.”
Lenny took a dictionary from his suitcase and looked up the word “prurient,” which has its roots in the Latin prurire, meaning “to itch.”
“Itching,” he mused. “What does that mean? That they can bust a novelty store owner for selling itching powder along with the dribble glass and the whoopie cushion?”
“It’s their way of saying that something gets you horny.”
He asked me to give out copies of the interview in front of Town Hall before his performance. Lenny brought a copy on stage and proceeded to talk about it. As a result, he was barred from performing there.
“They’ll book me again,” Lenny said. “They made too much money on that concert. I’d have more respect for them if they didn’t ever book me again. At least that would show they were keeping their word.”
But he was right. They did book him again.
Another comedian I interviewed was Woody Allen. This was before he became a writer and movie director. We were discussing censorship on TV.
“The first time I ever appeared on television,” he told me, “I did the Tonight show, and I did my sex and food bit. I was talking about these islands where sex was fine and very open and progressive, but food was a dirty subject. The material describes their sexual attitude only as it relates to food.
“Little strange guys run up to you on the street saying, ‘Hey buddy, how’d you like to get a rye bread?’ And ‘I can get you a picture of a grilled cheese sandwich.’ And there are some women there who will eat a bagel but won’t put cream cheese on it. If you ask them why, they say, ‘I don’t do that.’ And there was a guy at a convention, checked into a hotel, and he had the elevator operator fix him up with a mixed green salad. He ate the salad in the middle of the night and put on his clothes and went home. He said it was a very empty experience.”
Woody got big laughs, but he would not be invited back to the Tonight show for years because then host Jack Paar was offended.
The first piece of material that Woody ever did smacks of irony in view of the Clinton Lewinsky scandal: “I was elected President of the United States and finally called that girl up for a date and she still wouldn’t go out with me, but now I was calling with authority. I do believe that everything I do centers specifically around that. If I go to art museums, if I buy clothes, if I buy an automobile, if I buy record albums, if I change apartments, at the very base of the medulla is that one lingering hope that this is going to turn the trick and I’ll meet the perfect girl.”
Q: What’s going to happen when you do meet the perfect girl and marry her assuming that she’s not looking for the perfect man?
A: I’ll never marry her, because one of the things of perfection is her rejection of me. I won’t consider any girl perfect unless she rejects me.
My interviews with Lenny Bruce and Albert Ellis and Woody Allen are included in my book Impolite Interviews, which will be published this month by Seven Stories Press. And if you don’t want to buy a copy, well, you can just go unfuck yourself.