The wrong way to judge a joke

Interesting story from one of Lenny Bruce's trials (article). A witness transcribed his act and started reading it back in court. Bruce was furious: "I'm going to be judged on his bad timing, his ego and his garbled language."

But Richard Kuh, an ambitious assistant D.A., was eager to take on Lenny Bruce. The chief witness against Bruce was Herbert Ruhe, an inspector for the city's licensing division and a former C.I.A agent. At the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, Ruhe took notes on Lenny's performance, which he read from at the trial. (By the way, Ruhe told me later that he was just doing his job, that he had nothing against Lenny.)

Lenny was in a state of desperate frustration. He begged—he literally begged—presiding judge John Murtagh for permission to do his own act and not have it dismembered by an agent of the prosecutor.

"This guy is bumbling" Lenny told me, "and I'm going to jail. He's not only getting it all wrong, but now he thinks he's a comic. I'm going to be judged on his bad timing, his ego and his garbled language."

An unusual witness for Lenny was the syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, an active Catholic and political conservative. But she had a keen sense of humor and had attended some of Lenny's club gigs in New York. In taking the stand, she was treated with great respect by the judges and court attendants. Kuh, the Torquemada-like prosecutor, had put together—out of any context—all of Lenny's "dirty words" from the tape of the Café Au Go Go performance, which Bruce was not permitted to give to the court in his own way.

Kilgallen, demurely dressed, wearing white gloves, sat coolly on the witness chair as Kuh circled her and then, in a loud, accusatory voice, roared a barrage of "dirty words" at her. Pouncing, he shouted: "You say that Mr. Bruce is an artist of social value. What is your reaction, Miss Kilgallen, to these words—these words—he used in his act?" Dorothy Kilgallen looked at her gloves, looked up at Kuh and then, with precise constitutional logic, said: "They are words, Mr. Kuh. Words, words, words."


Reminds me of the whole Colbert tweet debacle or when blogs reprint what Tosh or Tracy Morgan say onstage. Seeing words written down or said by someone else is WAY different than hearing how they were delivered in the room from that performer.

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