In 1963, before the law and his drug habit brought the curtain down on the comedian, Hugh Hefner asked then-superstar Lenny Bruce to write his autobiography. Lenny hired writer Paul Krassner
to help him edit the book, which appeared in Playboy
over the next two years. Though it's uneven, and somewhat dated, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
deserves a look, if only to balance the movie Lenny
, which many of the comedian's friends say missed the man entirely. The book is, simply, Lenny Bruce riffing on his life--from a drab childhood in Brooklyn, to stints in the navy and merchant marine, and finally to the nightclub circuit and eventual stardom. Of course, the veracity of any single anecdote is highly questionable, but How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
rises above that, revealed as a fascinating expression of how this comedy icon wanted to be seen. Namely, as a rough-and-tumble kid from the streets, as a hustler and ladies' man, and, finally, as a fearless detonator of society's hypocrisy. (Notice that addict and dissolute don't make the list.)
In the movies ... Everett Sloane was a tycoon. He would get his gun off disillusioning Joel McCrea, who wanted to publish a newspaper that would make a statement, and telling him: "M'boy, you'll see when you get old that it's all a game." And I used to think, "No, it's not that way, this cynical old bastard is bullshitting, there are the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, the liars and the truth-tellers."
But Everett Sloane was right. There is only what is. The what-should-be never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is only what is.
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People doesn't catch Bruce's charisma and vaguely sinister electricity--no book could--but it is an interesting, lively read. Bruce was one of the first performers to usher in the new, more honest, more permissive, and more indulgent brand of American art. For anyone who wants to understand our comedy and culture, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People is well worth reading. --Michael Gerber