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Lenny Bruce: 'We agree to be offended by certain words.'


Lenny Bruce was my idol in those days. He performed at the Village Vanguard, a Greenwich Village jazz joint which also booked comics on occasion. I was an up-and-coming comic and worked the club from time to time myself. But when Lenny was on, I sat in the back of the room to learn from the master. The nineteen fifties was a time of tumultuous change. Integration had been made the law of the land. President Eisenhower had ordered the national guard to escort a small group of Black children into their school in Little Rock. They had to pass through a mob of adults screaming nigger. Nigger, nigger, nigger. What a terrible word. Lenny Bruce decided to deal with the issue.


One night at the Vanguard I watched in shocked amazement as he pointed to a customer and said, “Oh look, we’ve got a nigger here tonight.” The crowd froze. “And another darky is with him and a third jigaboo.” The silence was deafening. But Lenny was an advocate of the old show business maxim: if you’ve gone too far… go farther. He’d only just begun “Look over here”, he said, “A kike. And a mocky is at the table with him. And we got two spicks in the back. Hey, there’s a fag at the bar.” Slowly, the laughter began. Lenny said nigger a hundred times. Finally the crowd was howling. The pure outrageousness of it all had gotten to them and they simply had no choice.

When Lenny had them where he wanted them he turned serious. “It’s all arbitrary,” he told the crowd. “We agree to be offended by certain words. What if we decided that the word dentist was offensive. You dirty rotten dentist! Then that would become the insult du jour. But what if we simply decide not to be offended. What if we just take the sting out of these words and use them as terms of affection. ‘Hey niggah, how ya doin’? ‘Fine, honky, an’ you?’ What if we all just agreed that words can’t hurt? Then nobody could scream insults at a poor little Black girl in Little Rock.”

How poor Lenny’s wishes have not come true. Now we can’t even say nigger to condemn its use. We have to call it the “N-word.” How pathetic. And the “F-word” is next as the gay rebellion takes charge. At least you can still go outside to smoke. But certain words are taboo anywhere.

The left has decided to insult the tea party people by calling them tea baggers. First, they had to explain it was an insult by pointing out that it was an obscure sexual term. I’d never heard of it; not many Americans had. But the tea party folks, on cue, dutifully chose to be insulted. What if they hadn’t. Tea bagger is kind of cute, really. It’s a better nickname than tea party. And you could hold up little Tetley tea bags. Why not co-opt the name. Overnight, they couldn’t insult you anymore. It would annoy them and they’d stop trying and look for some other way to put you down.

While I’m on the subject of Lenny Bruce, he had a great routine on the subject of nature versus nurture. It went like this: the infant child of a pair of brilliant physicists is lost in the woods. Raised by a pack of wild dogs, he finds his way out again at the age of eighteen and goes on to graduate with honors from M.I.T. But a year after that he’s killed chasing a car.

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