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Documentary Filmmaker Robert Weide, Continued.

Documentary filmmaker Robert Weide ("WHY-dee"). He's made his reputation making films about comedy and comediennes. His films include: "The Marx Brothers In a Nutshell" (PBS), "The Great Standups" (HBO), and the Emmy Award winning "W.C. Fields Straight Up." His latest project is the HBO documentary "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth" (on HBO). It premiered on HBO August 9th.


Other segments from the episode on August 12, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 12, 1999: Interview with Robert Weide; Interview with Sally Marr; Interview with Robert Weide.


Date: AUGUST 12, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081201np.217
Head: Robert Weide: The Life and Comedy of Lenny Bruce
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:00

MARTY MOSS-COANE, GUEST HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, filling in for Terry Gross.

On today's FRESH AIR: the life and comedy of Lenny Bruce; we talk
with filmmaker Robert Weide about the controversial social satirist
whose comedy provoked the religious and legal establishment. Weide's
new documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth," premiered on
HBO this week. And we'll hear an excerpt of an earlier radio
documentary on Lenny Bruce, an interview with this colorful mother,
Sally Marr.

The comedy of Lenny Bruce coming up on today's FRESH AIR.

First the news.



I'm Marty Moss-Coane, filling in for Terry Gross.

This month HBO presents a documentary on the life and work of one
of the country's most controversial stand-up comics and satirists,
Lenny Bruce. Robert Weide's film, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the
Truth," uses home movies, interviews, bits from TV shows and live
performances, even scenes from cheesy movies that Lenny made, to
create an intimate portrait of this complex man.

Lenny Bruce was busted many times for drugs and obscenity, but
his friends and biographers agree that what really hit a raw nerve was
his take on organized religion and his satires of prominent religious
leaders like Cardinal Spelman (ph), Billy Graham and the pope.

Before we talk to Robert Weide, let's listen to a 1958 Lenny
Bruce performance. The setting is the office of Religion,
Incorporated, on Madison Avenue. Billy Graham, Rabbi Weiss (ph) and
other religious leaders are meeting when a call comes in from Pope
John XXIII. Oral Roberts takes the call.


LENNY BRUCE: Yes, operator? This is 610. Yes, I'll take the
charges. Yes.

Hello, Johnny! What's shaking, baby? Boy, it's really been an
election month, hasn't it, sweetie? Well, listen, I hate to -- yeah,
the puff of white smoke knocked me out. Oh.

Listen, I hate to bug you, but they're bugging us again with that
dumb integration. No, I don't know why the hell they want to
(INAUDIBLE). Yeah, that school bus scene. Well, we had to give them
the bus, but there's two toilets on each bus. They're bugging us.
They say, "Get the religious leaders. Make 'em talk about it."

And I know it, but they're getting (INAUDIBLE). Yes! They say
-- no, they don't want no more quotations from the Bible. They want
us to come out and say things! They want us to say "Let them go to
school with them!" No, I did walkin' across the water and snake into
the cane. They don't want to hear that jazz anymore!

And that "Stop war" jazz every time the bomb scare -- yeah, they
keep saying "Thou shalt not kill" means that (INAUDIBLE) section A.
Yes. They don't want the bomb. Sure, they're commies. No, I get
(INAUDIBLE) we got to do something! Yeah! I got two -- yeah, we got
some people on our side. We got Scatman Crothers and Stepin Fetchit.
Don't do no good! No!

But yes, that's why I called you! What are we going to do?
(INAUDIBLE) Sure, that's easy for you to say! You're over there!
Yeah. I know. And thanks for the pepperoni. Yeah. Oh, did you dig
Spelman on "Stars of Jazz"? Yeah. Yeah.

OK, sweetie. Yeah. You cool it, too. No, nobody knows you're


MOSS-COANE: Robert Weide, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ROBERT WEIDE, FILMMAKER: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

MOSS-COANE: A lot has been said and a lot's been written about
Lenny Bruce. What story, though, did you want to tell with this film?

WEIDE: Well, I just really wanted to tell the story of a guy who
tried to speak his mind, who tried to tell the truth, who tried to
keep it funny and paid a price for it. But above all else, I just was
intrigued by this guy's evolution.

I mean, there's the First Amendment story, but then there's also
a story of a guy who changed an entire art form, who really changed
everybody who came after him, who really started off not with any
intent to be a big rebel or to thwart authority, but just to get
laughs. And it's interesting to watch his evolution from basically a
Borscht Belt sort of comedian to somebody who is talking about
sensitive issues, about government, about religion, about race, about
sex, and at a time when that just wasn't done on stage.

MOSS-COANE: Well, let's play a clip from your film, and perhaps
I can ask you to set it up. This is from his appearance on the
"Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts" show. This goes back to 1950, when he
really gets his first break. Was Arthur Godfrey the kind of Johnny
Carson of his day?
WEIDE: Yeah, but -- I was going to say more powerful, although I
guess that's all relative. But basically, the Godfrey show was a show
that if you appeared on and made a big -- and you were a big hit, you
had a career. And that was really what broke for Lenny -- broke it
for Lenny.

He was in the Navy. When he got out of the Navy, he really was
bitten by the show business bug. His mother, Sally, was a comedian
and a stage mother, and she encouraged him. And basically, the
excerpt we're going to hear was part of an act that she was doing.
Basically, she gave Lenny her act and helped him with his material and
his delivery.

And your listeners will hear that he started off doing basically
what other -- every other comic was doing at the time, impressions and
mimicry and funny voices and funny accents. And it was long before he
learned how to "talk dirty and influence people."

MOSS-COANE: Well, let's listen.

(BEGIN CLIP: "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth")

BRUCE: You know, we're not the only country that have
impersonators. As a GI overseas, I spent a great deal of time in
Bavarian vaudeville houses. And the act that I got the biggest kick
out of was the impersonator of the various Hollywood stars. This was
all in his native tongue. The Bavarian mimic!

Stop the music! Welcome, you lucky (INAUDIBLE) And good ladies,
evening and germs. Mine self is an impersonator. Just a (INAUDIBLE)
is that of the gangster, Mr. (INAUDIBLE) Cagney.


Humphen (ph) Bogart.



MOSS-COANE: And that's Lenny Bruce performing on the "Arthur
Godfrey Talent Scouts" program back in 1950, and it's featured in my
guest's film. Robert Weide's film is called "Lenny Bruce: Swear to
Tell the Truth."

As much as you see all that shtick and impersonations, you do see
a guy that looks very comfortable and very confident.

WEIDE: Yeah. Well, he -- he had watched a lot of other
comedians, and he did have some sort of show biz panache and polish,
although his mother does say at that time, basically, every night
before he went on stage in front of an audience, he'd be throwing up
backstage. So he was nervous. He did have butterflies. But
basically, he came out and was able to do his show.

As time went on, he sort of became known for being very mellow
and very relaxed on stage, and that was, in some way, part of his
contribution to the evolution of stand-up comedy, in that instead of
having his 40 minutes of prepared material and jokes and one-liners,
that he really just came out and talked to the audience as though he
was talking to a friend.

And Lenny was the first guy who really went up on stage and just
continued to talk to the audience as though he were talking to his
pals at the table. It was sort of an unheard way of doing stand-up.

MOSS-COANE: Once he got his break on the Arthur Godfrey show,
what kinds of gigs, what kind of clubs did that lead to?

WEIDE: Little vaudeville gigs. He toured around the eastern
seaboard, I think even had a couple of gigs in the Catskill area, that
sort of thing and -- so he was able to make a living. He was able to
play these vaudeville houses.

What happened was, he was playing a gig in Baltimore at a club
called the Club Charles, and he met his future wife, who was a
stripper, who worked under the name of Hot Honey Harlowe (ph). And
she was hot. She was really something. And he fell in love. That
was his shiksa goddess. And they married and then moved out to
California, where Lenny's estranged father lived, in Arcadia.

He actually came to Los Angeles to write movies. In fact, Buddy
Hackett was a good friend of his, and Buddy lined up a gig for him
writing this little kiddie science fiction film called "The Rocket
Man" for, I think it was Fox and -- but the movie work didn't really
pan out.

So what happened was he started playing places in the L.A. area
and in the valley that were basically strip joints and dives.
"Toilets" they called them back then. And that was sort of the next
phase of his evolution because he was introducing strippers on stage.
He was emceeing these shows. And if you came out and did jokes about,
you know, your mother-in-law or your wife's cooking or your income
taxes or lady drivers, you'd get a beer bottle thrown at your head, so
he did the kind of material that, you know, the drunks in those places
wanted to hear.

MOSS-COANE: You have an interview with his mother, the -- I
guess we could call her the legendary Sally Marr. And the first time
I saw it, it was so hilarious because you're interviewing her in that
beauty shop. She's literally having her hair done.

WEIDE: Yeah.

MOSS-COANE: And I just had to ask, whose idea was that?

WEIDE: Oh, that was her idea. Sally was really something, and I
really miss her a lot. She died in December of '97. She was -- just
prior to her 91st birthday. Your viewers who -- I'm sorry, your
listeners who see the show will be shocked to know that she was 80
when I filmed that interview with her. Now, the film took me 12 years
to make, and that interview was shot back in 1987, and she was already
80. And she was just as sprightly and lucid and funny and irreverent
and cantankerous as possible. She really became my surrogate
grandmother. We became very, very close.

MOSS-COANE: Well, she said an interesting thing about her son,
Lenny Bruce, saying that "He was like a buddy of mine," that she
really treated him more like a pal, perhaps, than a son.

WEIDE: Yeah, and other people who witnessed that relationship
vouch for that. They say that -- first of all, she was 18 when he was
born, so they're about as close in age as a mother and son could be.
And people said that their dynamic was much more like a couple of
buddies than mother and son.

I'll give you one example, too, of how he used to kid with her,
and I'll -- I'll clean this up, I guess, as much as I have to for the
air. But he was playing a gig, oh, I want to say in -- somewhere in
northern California, I guess it was. And I have a copy of a letter
that he wrote to his mother saying, you know, "Mom, I'm doing this gig
up here, and it's going pretty well. But you know, I just was told by
my accountant that I owe a lot of back taxes, so things are kind of
tough financially."

And he said, "You know, there's a cat house up here that I was
visiting, and they said, you know, they're always looking for more
girls to bring in. And even though, you know, you're not a spring
chicken anymore, they said that so long as you have a nice rear end on
you, they could use you. So why don't you come up, and then you can
help out financially and, you know, we can get some bills paid."

And this was the kind of letter that he'd just jot off to her,
and it was a little raunchier than I just paraphrased it, but -- and
she would get it, and she would be laughing. She would be in
hysterics. So that's the kind of rapport that they had. And so I
really think -- and other people have agreed -- that the key to
understanding Lenny, in some ways, is knowing Sally. And Sally
instilled a lot of -- a lot of thoughts and philosophy in his head as
a kid, which later came out in his work.

MOSS-COANE: She seemed really proud of him.

WEIDE: She was. She was. Well, you know, he was her son, and
she was a Jewish mother, so of course, her son was a genius. And it's
interesting, too, because, you know, then she lost her son years
later, and watched him go through this terrible ordeal. And hanging
out with Sally, you could talk about Lenny, and she would just tell
you funny anecdotes, and she'd be laughing and carrying on and telling
you the greatest stories, and you'd be laughing. But then after a
while, when it got quiet, you'd look at her and very often her eyes
were welled up. So you know, all these years later, the fact that she
had lost her only boy still certainly had its impact on her.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I want to talk some more, but first we're
going to take a short break. And our guest today on FRESH AIR is
Robert Weide, and his film, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth," is
being featured this month on HBO.

We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: My guest is filmmaker Robert Weide. We're talking
about his documentary of Lenny Bruce called "Lenny Bruce: Swear to
Tell the Truth."

Lenny Bruce was a regular on "The Steve Allen Show." Why was
Steve Allen so supportive of him? And he clearly was very

WEIDE: Oh, he was a big champion, and you'd have to realize --
well, it's a bit of a misnomer to say he was a regular because he only
appeared three times, twice in 1959 and once in 1964, an appearance
which was censored and shelved and ultimately lost, but -- but
uncovered for our film, thankfully.

But yeah, Steve was a big champion of Lenny's, and this was at a
time when Lenny already had this reputation of being uncontrollable
and being irreverent and being scatological. And the idea of him
doing television was sort of out of the question, but Steve championed
Lenny and told the network he wanted him on. And Steve has the power
at that time that he could basically put on his show whoever he

MOSS-COANE: Your film does feature a bit that he did that the
censors did yank and -- first of all, I'm curious where you found
this. Where was this hidden?

WEIDE: Well, it's interesting because this was sort of always
the Holy Grail for Lenny Bruce aficionados. This was the 1964
appearance, which was -- which was lost. And Steve Allen in his book,
"Funny People," has a chapter on Lenny. He talks about this
appearance, and he talks about it being shelved and lost and bemoans
the fact that it will never be seen.

Well, I found it at the UCLA film archives, who have a lot of
Steve Allen's stuff on deposit, some on videotape, some on kinescope.
And basically, I was going through their records and came across this
card indicating that there was a Lenny Bruce appearance from 1964.

And I brought it up to Dan Einstein (ph), one of the fellows at
the archive, and I said, "Is this accurate?" And he said, "Yeah.
Yeah." And he was familiar with the piece. I don't know if he had
screened it or viewed it. But I said, "Well, if this is true, this is
-- this is" -- you know, "This is a lost episode that was -- that
never aired."

And they weren't aware of that at the archives, and they put it
up for me, and I screened it, and sure enough, there it was, much as
Steve Allen had described it in his book. So I had the pleasure of
calling up Steve Allen and telling him I'd found the missing

MOSS-COANE: Well, let's play that clip. And this is Lenny Bruce
in 1964, an appearance on "The Steve Allen Show," and appearance that
was censored.

(BEGIN CLIP: "The Steve Allen Show")

BRUCE: Now, as far as the present litigation I am involved with,
I'd like to perhaps give you a four-letter word that starts with an
"S" and ends with a "T." First time on television. I'm not going to
look at you when I say this because this way, I can't get busted. You
don't know who said it. The band said it. Starts with "S", ends with
a "T," and the word is "snot."

I know a lot of people are thinking (INAUDIBLE) "He's clever up
to a point, but just for a cheap laugh, he just says `snot.'" I
(INAUDIBLE) I could tell you something about snot that is so unique
that you say, "Is that the truth about snot? What a fool I've been!
I can't believe that! All these years. Is that really (INAUDIBLE)?
Is that documented?" Yes, that's the truth about snot. Well, hear
this about snot. You can't get snot off a suede jacket.


MOSS-COANE: And that's Lenny Bruce from an appearance on "The
Steve Allen Show" that never saw the light of day.

Well, and Lenny Bruce is very coy about this because he sets it
up as the four-letter word that begins with "S" and ends with "T."

WEIDE: Yeah. I mean, he...

MOSS-COANE: Being very playful about it.

WEIDE: Right. Right. And Steve Allen fought for it, and even
went back and filmed this introduction to the piece, warning people
that Lenny was going to say a word that many of them would probably
find offensive, and if they wanted to, they should change the channel
right now and come back in 10 minutes. And so Steve sort of filmed
this after the fact, and they cut it in to see if that would work as a
disclaimer. And they still decided it was just too much for audiences
of 1964 to bear. I guess they thought it would be the end of
civilization or something, so they -- they shelved it.

MOSS-COANE: When did he become known as the sick comic, and who
called him that?

WEIDE: Gee, that's a good question. I don't know who's credited
with actually first coming up with that. But I think Lenny's
reputation for sick comedy really started in the mid and late '50s.
Again, he was working these little dives in L.A. in the early and mid-

And then what happened was, he went up and played an extended gig
at a place called Ann's 440 (ph) in the North Beach district of San
Francisco. And he was up there for a long time and really kind of
developed up there and, oddly enough, was championed by two -- two
very powerful critics at the time. That was Herb Caen (ph) and Ralph
Gleason, who was a music critic, a jazz critic, who really dug Lenny.
And the two of them started to write about Lenny, so that was sort of
the next phase of his evolution.
Anyway, then he came back down to Los Angeles and was playing
better clubs. He was playing the Crescendo (ph) in Los Angeles on the
Strip and places like that. And again, his reputation just grew and
grew. He never reached the mass acceptance level of someone like a
Shelly Berman (ph) or Nichols and May. He always remained at somewhat
cult status, but his cult was very devoted and large enough.

MOSS-COANE: He's been quoted as saying, "I am not a comic, I am
Lenny Bruce." What was he trying to say by that? Was he trying to
distance himself from comedy?

WEIDE: Well, I think that was in the later years. You know,
that's really the quote that Paul Krasner (ph) gives us. Paul Krasner
was a good friend of his. Paul's still around, a comedian certainly
in his own right, and a political satirist. And Paul was the editor
of "The Realist," which was an underground sort of counterculture
magazine which actually still comes out.

And Paul edited Lenny's autobiography, "How to Talk Dirty and
Influence People" and -- but when Paul was interviewing Lenny for "The
Realist," he asked him what the role of a comedian was. And Lenny
didn't give any philosophical answer with deep social meaning. He
said the -- you know, "The obligation of a comedian is to get a laugh
every 15 or 25 seconds because you're working for a club owner who has
to sell seats and sell drinks, and that's your obligation, is to get
laughs. That's what a comedian does."

So years later, when Lenny got very serious on stage and was
talking a lot about his legal problems, and sometimes the laughs were
few and far between, Krasner said to him backstage one night, he said,
"Well, what happened to your theory about what a comedian does,
getting laughs every 15 to 25 seconds?" And Lenny said, "Well, you
know, I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce." And it was just his --
his observation of what he was becoming at that time, that he was
becoming an icon, he was becoming a symbol.

And at that point, a lot of times people would show up at his
shows not to hear brilliant comedy but to see if he would get
arrested, to see if they could see a part of history and go home and
tell their friends that they saw Lenny Bruce get busted.

MOSS-COANE: Robert Weide's documentary on Lenny Bruce, "Lenny
Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth," is showing this month on HBO. He'll
be back in the second half of the show. And we'll hear an interview
with Lenny's mother, Sally Marr.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, and this is FRESH AIR.


BRUCE: All Broadway musicals sound the same, especially the

Hello, Steve! Hello, Don. Say, Bill! What's that, Freddy?
I've never, never been in love! Do you know something? I've never
been in love, either! How do you know when you're really in love? I
don't know. Well, it's a certain intangible thing, my friend. You
see -- (SINGS) I've never been in love before, I never knew the



MOSS-COANE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

Today we are talking about comedian and social satirist Lenny
Bruce. Later in the show, we'll continue our interview with Robert
Weide, whose documentary "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth" is
showing on HBO this month.

Weide said the key to understanding Lenny was knowing his mother.
Sally Marr, a single mom and a comedian who worked clubs and burlesque
joints, introduced her only child to show biz. She died in 1997 at
the age of 90.

In 1989, radio producer Larry Josephson interviewed Sally Marr in
her apartment for his documentary, "Lenny Bruce Remembered." It was
featured on Josephson's weekly program, "Modern Times."

Here's an excerpt of their conversation.

LARRY JOSEPHSON: How did Lenny go from doing pretty much the
same kind of impressions that other comics were doing to someone who
really skewered and challenged society? He was called a sick comic,
he was called an angry comic. To me, he seems like very sweet -- a
very sweet man. Well, so, I think he got that from you.



MARR: Lenny's very easy -- was very easygoing, good natured,
never got excited, never got angry. Didn't like anger, didn't like
people who were angry. He'd always run away from people who were
angry. He always wanted to see things nice.

Now, when he hung around New York and he did a few shows, the
agents always wanted him to do his impressions, and he would tell
jokes. So he -- I don't know, he went up to Montreal to work, and I
didn't know that he was taking my material and doing it up there,
because when I went up there I said to the guy -- the man said to me,
"Hey, listen," he said, "there was a fellow here last week, Lenny
Bruce, and he did all this material."

"Oh," I said, "don't worry, I'll take care of him." So I went
home, I said, "Lenny," I said, "you're doing my material all over the
place." I said, "Can't do that. Nothing to do with me," I said,
"it's you." I said, "If you are going to do this," I said, "try to
create, like I do."

He said, "Well, I can't do that." I said, "Yes, you can." He
said, "I don't know... " I said, "Look, are there a lot of things you
don't like? Say it, do it. Don't tell it like it should be, tell it
like it is. And when you tell it like it is, people won't like it."
I said, "I have that -- I have those problems." At that time I was
doing mothers taking their children to dancing school, and the mothers
who come in and said, "Oh, meet my daughter, isn't she wonderful?
What, $5 a lesson? Stop the music, I'll dance myself."

And I made fun of everybody.

Move back there, you'll be more comfortable.

JOSEPHSON: That's all right.

MARR: And all it was was observations of what was going on in
the world. Now, I grew up making fun of people as a child, and people
used to laugh all the time. But nobody said, "You can't do that," you
know what I mean? Well, I didn't have much competition. I went to
the third grade, so I didn't know what it is to take a test or...

JOSEPHSON: Lenny went to the eighth grade, right?

MARR: Yes, we're both highly educated people with opinions,

JOSEPHSON: You lived alone with Lenny, right? He -- you had
divorced his father...

MARR: Well, his father wanted to marry a baby sitter, and he did
me a big favor. Yes, it was -- Lenny was about 7.

JOSEPHSON: And Lenny was attached to his father, or so...

MARR: No, no.


MARR: No, his father really didn't like him at all. But he was
(INAUDIBLE) -- I don't know, he was looking for his approval. I think
is all -- I think all boys would do that.

But I had a wonderful friend, and that was my mother-in-law. But
the rest of the family was snobby, and Lenny never got to meet any of
his cousins, you know. Oh, he wasn't part of any family, Lenny. He
was part of my family, you know, but he was not part of theirs. But
Lenny loved -- Lenny had a good time with his mother. He took all my
friends. I never had any -- his friends were my friends. It was a
very unusual relationship.

JOSEPHSON: Yes, most Jewish boys I know, including this one, are
trying to put distance between themselves and their mothers, you know,
it's like too much. And it's very unusual for you and Lenny to be so

MARR: Don't you know, because he had such freedom. But so free,
you have no idea. There's no -- there's nobody in this world that
have had that kind of a mother, the freedom.
JOSEPHSON: Did you -- were you able to talk to him about sex in
your household when he was, like, a teenager? Was it, like, free?
Did you have men visiting you when he was there?

MARR: No, I didn't, no. No, I -- if I had a boyfriend, they
never stayed overnight. And I was always like -- took me out, you
know what I mean? But there was no hanging out and hanging around.
And Lenny once wrote in a book, he said, "I never saw my mother in bed
with anybody but my father," and I -- it took me years to catch onto
that, because I guess a lot of mothers, a lot of kids -- he said, "I
never had uncles."

No, I tell you, when he was 11 years old, I took him to
burlesque, and from what I understand, that was very weird or unusual
in the '30s, right? So I'm going into the burlesque theater, and the
guy said, "Where you going? You can't take that kid." I said, "Why?"
"Well," he said, "it's dirty." I said, "What do you do -- well, why
are you working here if it's dirty?"

Anyway, when we went in and sat down -- Lenny was going on 12 --
I said, "Aren't those women beautiful?" That's where he got -- I
don't know if you ever listened to his routine when he talked about
women's breasts -- if it's beautiful, it's bad, if it's maimed, you
can look at it. And I was the one, at that time -- and he never
forgot -- I said, "You want to hear something about people, Lenny?" I
said, "If that woman was in an accident, they'd say, `Oh, you poor
thing,' and everybody would try to help her, and they wouldn't even
notice her bust." That's the kind of an observer I was.

I said, "But the fact that they're gorgeous and they're beautiful
and they could possibly excite somebody, it's bad." But he said,
"Why?" I said, "I wish I knew." I said, "You don't see me talking to
you and telling you it's bad and it's dirty. Did I ever tell you
that?" He says, "Oh, no, Mom."

When Lenny joined the Navy, he wrote me a letter. He said, "Why
do I know more than anybody else about everything, Mom? Especially
about sex and gay people." He had grown up in a gay boarding house.
I brought him up in a gay boarding house. And when a woman says to
me, "Well, what are you doing?" she said. "Don't you realize those
people are queer where you live?" I says, "But I don't know what that
means." So she says, "Well, that means he could grow up to be a

"Oh," I said, "no problem." I said, "I'm... " I was always a
skinny kid. I said, "I got dresses size 6, 7, and if he stays slim,"
I said, "he can wear them."

I always resented people that talked to me that way. You know,
"How come you're talking to those black people?" See, Lenny was
brought up different than any other child.

JOSEPHSON: How did he feel about his Jewishness?

MARR: Oh, he loved the idea of being Jewish. That's why he
wrote, "Ridges Incorporated (ph)," because I was really against it, I
was really against the Jewishness, because I was brought up in an
extremely Jewish home, and for some reason, I thought that he should
be bar mitzvah, because I loved my father, my father passed away, and
I thought, If my father were alive, he would like to have seen his
grandson bar mitzvahed.

That was running through my head. So I took him to this shul,
and I told the man, I said, "I don't have any money," I said. "I'm
working as a housekeeper for some people," I said. And I said, "How
much does it cost?" He said, "$250." I said, "Well, I don't have
that kind of money." He says, "Well, if you don't have that kind of
money, what can I tell you? You don't have the money, there's no bar

And I really laid it onto Lenny. I said, "If you ever grow up
and you ever think there's a religion, that's the only thing I ever
told you, Lenny. I never butt into your life, I want you to be a free
thinker, I don't want you to be influenced by anybody but yourself."
I said, "I have to tell you something about religion. It could be
bought. If I had $250, I could have bought you a bar mitzvah."

But he's the one that wanted it, because a friend of his, some
kid he knew, had a party. And he liked the idea of all the presents
and everything. And Lenny never had a birthday party, too busy going
from one house to another. And that's how it started.

JOSEPHSON: Two hundred and fifty is probably a 10 -- like
$10,000 now, right?

MARR: Yes. And that was the Depression. But that's what really
started Lenny's thinking. I think everything that happened in Lenny's
very, very young life -- because you can't write about anything that
you don't know anything about. It's impossible. That's why you give
a comedian material. He can't be a comedian, a comedian is a
comedian. He views things differently. He sees -- he is different
than the average person.

MOSS-COANE: Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce's mother, speaking with
Larry Josephson in an excerpt from his 1989 radio documentary, "Lenny
Bruce Remembered."

Coming up, we continue our interview with filmmaker Robert Weide.
His documentary on Lenny is being featured this month on HBO.

This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: Let's get back to filmmaker Robert Weide. We're
talking about his new documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the
Truth," which runs this month on HBO.

You also say in this film that apart from his language, that it
was his attacks of the church that got him in equal amounts of
trouble. What did he not like about the church?

ROBERT WEIDE, FILMMAKER: Well, the point is made in our film
that there were a number of other comedians working at the time who
were working in far more scatological terms than Lenny. But it tended
to be more of the nudge, nudge kind of humor, two guys walk into a bar
or farmer's daughter type material. And nobody bothered them, because
they weren't stepping on anyone's toes.

Lenny upset a few people. What's interesting about the religion
thing -- and I should say this, that when he was busted in Chicago
after his performance one night, a cop came into the club and talked
to the owner, and said, "If you let that guy on stage tonight, if you
let him on stage tonight, mock my pope the way he did last night,
we're going to clip him, we're going to clip you and everyone in the

And he was a good, honest cop, he was true to his word. The next
night Lenny went on stage, talked about the pope, and he was arrested.

And I'll also add this, just because it's sort of interesting
anecdotally, that during his trial, coincidentally Ash Wednesday
happened to fall on one of the days of his trial, and Lenny was in
court, and in walked the judge with a spot of ash on his forehead.
The D.A. had a spot of ash on his forehead, the bailiff had ash on his

And then the jurors all walked in with ash on their forehead. So
this was the fair trial that he got in Chicago.

But, you know, he really had nothing against God, he had nothing
against people who believed in God. What he spoke out against was the
hypocritical things that many people do in the name of God. He really
had no problem with the idea of religion.

But he was asking serious questions that were on his mind. And
I'll give you an example.

MOSS-COANE: Go ahead.

WEIDE: There's a routine which is excerpted in my documentary
where he fantasizes about Christ and Moses coming back down to earth.
And they decide they're going to take in, you know, the sermon at St.
Patrick's Cathedral in New York. So they're standing in back of the
church, and Cardinal Spelman is talking about love and peace and

And Lenny says that Christ is confused, because their route took
them through Spanish Harlem, and Christ is wondering why 40 Puerto
Ricans are living in one room when a square foot on that stained glass
window is worth $10,000.

So by today's standards, that's a fairly innocuous sort of
routine. I mean, you could do that on network television now, and you
might get a couple of letters, but that would be it.

But what's interesting, to make this point further, is that a
couple of years later, Lenny would refer back to that bit, and he'd
say, "You know, I used to do this routine about Christ and Moses," and
he'd recount the bit. And then he'd say, "You know, but then I gave
it some thought. And if the purpose of the church is to teach, well,
you have to bring people in to teach them, you have to bring your
flock in."

And he says, "If I'm a raggedy-ass guy living in a raggedy-ass
house in a raggedy-ass part of town, why would I want to go to a
raggedy-ass church?"

So he came to that conclusion. He realized that the splendor and
the majesty of the church was to provide an attractive environment to
bring people in. And once he came to that conclusion, he never went
back and did the old bit.

So this is hardly a rebel who's out to, you know, overthrow
organized religion, or overthrow the government. This was a guy who
just had questions on his mind, was asking them on stage, and trying
to keep it funny.

MOSS-COANE: At what point in his career did Lenny Bruce turn
some of his attention to more political issues? And I'm thinking of
things like the Vietnam War, civil rights?

WEIDE: Yes, that would be, you know, early, mid-'60s. He wasn't
-- he wasn't so much political by nature. Eventually he started to do
political material, and he did talk about Vietnam and what he thought
we were doing there. And he did talk about political leaders, be it
Eisenhower, Nixon, even Kennedy and LBJ. He was more socially
oriented, talking about relationships and that sort of thing.

But again, you know, it really was whatever was on his mind that
day, he would talk about. And if there was some big political, you
know, event in the news, he'd get up and talk about it.

But basically, you know, his social and political awareness
really bloomed, I'd say, around 1959 and continued, you know, through
to the end.

MOSS-COANE: We actually have a clip from a performance at
Berkeley. This is, I believe, 1964, where he's talking about LBJ.
Let's listen.


LENNY BRUCE: Lyndon Johnson, they didn't let him talk for the
first six months. It took him six months to learn how to say, "Nee-
gro, Nig-ro."

OK, let's hear it one more time, Lyndon, now. OK, let him pose
again. OK. All right.


No -- Can you say -- look, it is a -- Say it quick -- Negro --
like that.

Nigger. Oh, oh, Nig-ro. I can't help it, I can't say it, that's
all. I can't say Neg-ro. I'm pissing in bed and everything,
stuttering. I can't -- what the hell, Nig-nig-ro, Nag-ro, Nigraaah.

Let me show them the scar!

No, no, no, no. Just say it and say it, and that's it there.

(INAUDIBLE) completely confused. But they were -- that family is
so -- pshew! That's really -- You know, it's -- this is -- there's a
certain kind of non-Jewish look that they could pass any test, they
are the biggest non-Jews in the world, no question, they walk right
through the line, that (INAUDIBLE).


MOSS-COANE: And that's Lenny Bruce in Berkeley back in 1964.

How do you think Lenny Bruce's being Jewish played into his
humor? I mean, there's a whole tradition there, but how did he do it?

WEIDE: Well, I mean, you know, out of that Jewish tradition of
making humor out of pain in life, I guess that would be the most
obvious example. His mother, in some ways, was a very typical Jewish
mother. In some ways, I guess, she was the antithesis of a Jewish

But he certainly had Judaism instilled in him culturally if not,
you know, in observant form. He used to do bits about, you know -- he
felt that he was just on kind of the tail end of anti-Semitism, that
he paid, you know, a certain percentage of those dues. But he talked
about the different phases of being Jewish, and he talked about how
you go through that defensive period, where somebody says, you know,
"What time is it?" And you say, "Yes, I'm Jewish, so what?"

And he talked about very Jewish notions. I think his whole way
of working was somewhat Talmudic, in that some people have said what
he really was, was a funny rabbi. And, of course, Jews always
question. What's the old joke, you put two Jews together, you're
going to get three opinions.

And so Lenny was always just dissecting things and asking
questions. And what he sort of ran up against was the mentality that
you are not to question, which is, you know, more of the Catholic sort
of thinking, which I don't say pejoratively. But that was sort of the
conflict, was, here was a guy on stage questioning everything, and he
was told not to question. And I think that was the big conflict.

MOSS-COANE: More about Lenny Bruce after this break. My guest
is documentary filmmaker Robert Weide.

This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: Back with filmmaker Robert Weide. His documentary,
"Swear to Tell the Truth," is about the life and comedy of Lenny

How many times did he get arrested?

WEIDE: My best count is 12, about a dozen times. There was
actually a -- that doesn't count an early arrest for impersonating a
priest back in Miami. He was soliciting donations for some bogus
charity that he put together. That was a whole 'nother thing.

But the busts started in 1961, the last big one was in New York
in '64. And from '61 to '64, between the obscenity busts and the drug
busts, there were about a dozen.

MOSS-COANE: And did he ever spend time in jail? Did he ever
have to pay a fine?

WEIDE: Well, he had to pay a lot of lawyers' fees, which, you
know, most people can tell you is, you know, about six of one, half
dozen of the other.

No, he never did time, although there were periods of time that
he'd be put in holding cells, where he'd be arrested, he'd be brought
to, you know, headquarters, as they used to say in '40s movies, and
he'd be held in -- he'd be held in a cell overnight. That happened in
New York after the arrest at the Cafe a Go-Go (ph). He was brought
downtown and put in a cell until the next morning.

MOSS-COANE: He used a lot of the arrest material in his act. At
times even later on, he read from all sorts of police descriptions of
what happened, from court transcripts as well. Did he embrace this
idea of being arrested? Was that sort of part of what he wanted to do

WEIDE: No, no. It was a pain in the neck for him, and it was
breaking him financially. I mean, at his peak he was making a pretty
solid six figures a year, and what happened, once the arrests really
started to escalate, and it really did start to snowball to Kafkaesque
proportions, he couldn't get work. He couldn't get work because what
they would do is, they would also arrest the club owner, or they would
take away their liquor license or shut them down.

So club owners weren't going to take the risk of hiring him. So
work dried up. He wasn't making any money. What money he did make
was going to his lawyers. And these were just ridiculous cases, where
he had to fly all over the country and defend himself. He would have,
you know, two or three court cases going on at a time.

So no, he did not enjoy it. I think after the first arrest --
the first obscenity arrest in San Francisco, he was acquitted on that
charge. And at that point, I think he probably felt, OK, I'm cool,
you know, I've been acquitted in San Francisco, that sort of sets a
precedent under equal protection. You know, I should be safe anywhere
in the country.

And soon after, he was arrested in Los Angeles in 1962 for saying
the word "shmuck" on stage, which really, you know, gives you an idea
of how silly this became. And he was acquitted in Los Angeles, but
then he was arrested in Chicago, and he was found guilty in Chicago,
and that was sort of the turning point. Then it really got ugly.
And then the New York arrest was -- the New York conviction was
really the final nail in his professional coffin. It was very sad.

MOSS-COANE: It is sad, though, to see Lenny Bruce's decline, and
you begin to see the humor turn to rage, turn to a guy feeling sorry
for himself. And it's -- and you see it in his face. It's a sad

WEIDE: Yes, it takes a physical toll. And again, I'm the first
one to say that there were two things going on at the same time.
There was this really needless legal harassment he was going through,
you know, cops showing up at his house and Lenny saying, "Can I see
your search warrant?" and the cops bringing out a gun and saying,
"Here's my search warrant," and that kind of nonsense, a lot of busts
that were clearly setups. A lot of the drug busts, I certainly have
evidence to indicate that, you know, Lenny was set up on a lot of

So there was legal harassment. They really wanted to shut this
guy up. And at the same time, Lenny did have this Achilles heel of
his drug use. And that took its toll too. I think the two were
somewhat related. I think as -- not to justify it, but I think as the
harassment escalated, the drug use escalated as well. I think he was
trying to find a way to tune it all out.

But, yes, it all did take a toll. And again, his finances just
went down the tubes, and the monies went to the law -- the money went
to the lawyers, and he couldn't work.

And it took a very definite toll, you know, finally ending in his
-- with his death at the age of 40 in 1966 from a drug overdose.

MOSS-COANE: Yes, and he -- that's right, he died of a drug
overdose. Who found him?

WEIDE: A buddy of his, who's become a friend of mine, a dear guy
who lives in northern California named John Judnik (ph). And John
(INAUDIBLE) initially came to the house to work as Lenny's handyman
and also a sound technician, and recorded a lot of his gigs. And he
lived at the house and came home and was calling, "Lenny, Lenny, it's
John," couldn't find him, couldn't find him, walked around the house,
and then found him lying on the floor in the bathroom.

MOSS-COANE: When the police came to the house, they actually
posed his body. They pulled his pants down.

WEIDE: Yes, yes. You want to talk about obscene, I'll give you
the ultimate obscenity.


WEIDE: Because when John found him, he was -- you know, Lenny
had fallen on the floor off of the toilet. And -- but John, out of
respect for Lenny, knowing that people ultimately were going to be
showing up at the house, put Lenny's pants on him, and, you know,
buckled them up. Called one of Lenny's attorneys, who then, I guess,
called -- I don't know if he called the cops or if he called the

But eventually, the cops and the press both showed up. And the
cops were letting reporters and photographers in two by two, sort of
like at a deli counter when you take the number, and they call your
number, and you get to go in. So the photographers were going in two
by two. But they couldn't get a good shot of Lenny at the angle he
was in.

So the police sort of posed him. They pulled him out of the
bathroom so the photographers could get a better shot at him. And
then they pulled his pants off. They removed his pants. And the
photographs and the news footage you see of Lenny at the end are
basically -- you know, it was a photo-op, it was the final photo-op.
And I think it was the cops' way of saying, Look, this is what happens
when you take us on.

MOSS-COANE: When would you say Lenny Bruce reached his peak? At
what point in his life, his career?

WEIDE: I would say his peak years were from '57 through maybe
'61. I'd say the -- probably the top of the mountain for him was his
performance at Carnegie Hall in February of '61. And as your
listeners will see if they watch the show, is, this took place in the
middle of a devastating blizzard in New York City, where public
transportation came to a halt, even, you know, personal
transportation. There's no way to drive through the city. They were
just snowed in.

And Lenny played Carnegie Hall at midnight, a midnight show in
this blizzard, and sold the place out. And that concert actually
exists on CD, unabridged, and it's a wonderful, wonderful concert, and
you're really hearing Lenny just, you know, swing with the best of

MOSS-COANE: Robert Weide's documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to
Tell the Truth," airs this month on HBO.

Thanks to Larry Josephson and the Radio Foundation, KCRW, and
WNYC for the excerpt of Larry's interview with Sally Marr, which was
recorded for his 1989 documentary, "Lenny Bruce Remembered."


BRUCE: Dig, there's -- this is so strange. Not the people
necessarily involved with the religion, but the religion itself,
Catholicism, the genius religion. Three years ago I was wondering --
I used to do a bit, you know, four years ago, Religions Incorporated.
So my view at that time was, Here's a rich church, Catholicism, next
door is poverty, so it's hypocrisy. So obvious view.

So I started digging, digging, reading, reading, getting into it.
And I realized the reason for the Baroque church, the grand church, in
the poverty neighborhood, is that what the church is, is a school,
it's a method of instruction. And people who have no understanding,
who need instruction, don't know about philosophy. They can only
understand material things. So a raggedy-ass guy won't go into a
raggedy-ass temple.

He says, "I'm living in a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) house, what do I
got to go in one for?"

But if you show him something nice, he can understand it, and you
can instruct him.

OK. So the ecumenical council really are geniuses, and they make
some tremendous moves.



MOSS-COANE: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our
interviews and reviews are produced by Amy Sallett (ph), Naomi Person
(ph), Phyllis Meyers (ph), and Kathy Wolfe (ph), with Monique
Nazareth, Alan Tu (ph), and Anne-Marie Baldonado (ph). Bob Purdick
(ph) is our engineer. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm Marty Moss-Coane.


This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Robert Weide, Sally Marr
High: Filmmaker Robert Weide discusses his latest project for HBO: a
documentary called "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth." Also, an
excerpt of an interview with Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr,
conducted in 1989 by radio producer Larry Josephson for his program
"Modern Times."
Spec: Entertainment; Lenny Bruce; Robert Weide; "Lenny Bruce: Swear
To Tell The Truth"; Radio And Television

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights
reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc.
Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes
from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without
attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in
whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Robert Weide: The Life and Comedy of Lenny Bruce

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