Rarely has a film demonstrated so persuasively the exact opposite of what it clearly intends as does the fascinating, revelatory, and ultimately wrongheaded documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. Filmmaker Robert B. Weide obviously believes fervently that Bruce was the top-dog surfer of a ’60s new wave of what came to be known as ”sick humor” — that, indeed, Bruce was a persecuted genius of a genre that would eventually yield such contemporary phenomena as American Pie and especially South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. (Bruce, a man who riffed frequently about private parts and circumcision, would have loved that crass subtitle.)
This Academy Award-nominated work, receiving its first mass-audience exposure outside the art-house movie circuit on HBO, contains rarely seen footage of Bruce on stage and off, plus interviews with the comedian’s ex-wife, Honey Bruce Friedman; his mother, Sally Marr; and his daughter, Kitty. Swear to Tell the Truth is narrated by Robert De Niro, who hymns the funnyman’s ”free-form style of comedy,” of which we’re shown many examples. Until now, most people’s impressions of Bruce’s stand-up career have been molded by Bob Fosse’s 1974 film Lenny, in which Dustin Hoffman delivered the comedian’s routines with such dogged, full-bore concentration that it drained all the humor out of them.
Swear offers the real Lenny Bruce — the pure, uncut stuff. Writer-director Weide’s greatest achievement is that he explodes a crucial part of the Bruce mythos: namely, that Lenny didn’t become funny until he got down and dirty. Au contraire: Clips from Bruce performing on Arthur Godfrey’s and Steve Allen’s TV shows in the ’50s reveal a skilled joker adept at funny, imaginative impressions (his bad-German-comic-doing-Humphrey-Bogart bit is a sidesplitter — honest).
In fact, as Swear to Tell the Truth proceeds, and our protagonist becomes more profane, more hopped-up on speed, more frequently busted by the Man, and more hell-bent on exposing societal hypocrisy — i.e., doing everything for which he became (in)famous — he becomes far less sharp, much less amusing. The great, neglected journalist-critic Seymour Krim had Lenny down cold in a 1966 piece in which Krim noted that the guy who changed stand-up comedy ”from forced frivolity, gags, one-liners to the most ferocious kind of humor that claws into the blisters of sex, race, religion, etc.” had turned into a mere nightclub philosopher — ”the Jazz Circuit Hegel” — and was often ”cheaply sentimental.” Indeed, it’s tiresome to sit through a trademark routine such as the one in which he insists that ”if anyone in this audience believes that God made [your] body, and your body is dirty, the fault lies with the Manufacturer — it’s that cold, Jim — yeah.”
Bruce’s hipster lingo (”Dig it” was his mantra), his Nehru suits, and his bleary-eyed smiles might appeal to folks still into that Rat Pack nostalgia. But for the rest of us, Bruce is very much an ossified relic of his time, his shock power usurped long ago by Richard Pryor (whose obscenity contained the jolt of universal recognition) and, right now, Chris Rock. In addition to the vintage clips, what makes Swear worthwhile are the interviews. I mean, Lenny’s mom, Sally — whatta piece of work. Brassy and bawdy, she’s interviewed at her hairdresser’s, telling the camera proudly that she brought Lenny to his first burlesque show when he was a mere 12 (hey, kids — here’s a parent who’d probably love to sneak you into Eyes Wide Shut!).
And Weide also benefits from recent events such as Steve Allen’s current newspaper-ad campaign to wipe smut off the TV screen. Allen is shown to have been a strong supporter of Bruce’s ”sick” humor; a 1959 clip has him introducing Bruce as ”the most shocking comedian of our time,” just before Lenny comes out and does a bit about kids sniffing glue. Now, that routine really was shocking, both for its time and today (no way would Leno or Letterman allow a comic to talk this casually and frankly about substance abuse). Lots of political liberals eventually harden into cultural conservatives, but seeing Allen here and comparing his no-naughtiness stance now is still pretty startling.
Swear to Tell the Truth dribbles to its sad conclusion — the drug and obscenity busts, the comedian’s mounting (and not entirely unjustified) paranoia — with Weide focusing on how law enforcement officials threatened to revoke the liquor license of any nightclub owner who booked Bruce. But just as club audiences grew restless when Bruce started reading his trial transcripts on stage instead of making with the laffs, so will you start to fidget at the depressing tediousness of Bruce’s final years, before he died of a drug overdose after shooting up in his bathroom in 1966.
”You either dug Lenny or you wanted to wash his mouth out with soap,” says De Niro. No: What I wanted to do was slap him into rehab and say, ”Pull yourself together, man — you’re a funny guy who could have been an important star. Dig it?”