Friday, April 17, 2009
Lenny Bruce: Live* at the Museum
Jamie Kenney (JK): When did you first encounter the work of Lenny Bruce?
Steve Cuiffo (SC): I was working on a play with the Foundry Theater called Major Bang or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb—an homage to Dr. Strangelove. Originally it was a one person show; my writing partner and I were exploring how different people in history used this format. As this was going on, I was given a box set of Lenny Bruce called Let the Buyer Beware . I had a vague, passing knowledge of Lenny Bruce, having seen the Dustin Hoffman movie [Lenny], but when I started listening to him it was not what I was expecting. In his earlier routines, Lenny would do send-ups of popular movies, playing all the characters and we loved that as a format. We thought “What if Lenny came back from the dead and talked about the war on terror?” [In preparing to perform as Bruce,] I realized you can’t separate what’s going on in his mind and what comes out of his mouth. We did a two-month run and every day I listened to Lenny Bruce to keep up the timing and voice. I became immersed.
JK: What most attracted you to Lenny Bruce at that point? What about his material are you most drawn to now?
SC: He’s still so relevant. As an artist, Lenny Bruce went through a tremendous change. There’s a great variety: from mimickery early in his career to social satire later on. I’m more drawn to his later material, which is much more serious. We think of him as a comedian, but he expressed very well-thought out ideas and serious material. This is, for me, the really interesting stuff: humor and satire. But I can still listen to routines from the Arthur Godfrey Show that are crazy and hysterical. Those performances are fun to watch.
JK: What have you learned through Bruce’s personal files that you hadn’t known about him before, or wouldn’t have guessed otherwise? How does it inform your performance?
SC: During any kind of study, the main part of preparing for the performance is listening to the recordings. I’ve been able to hear full sets—towards the end of his life he recorded his own full sets. It’s really interesting and I’m able to observe how he warms up; as a performer, it’s useful to see and hear the full arc. With secondary documents like movies and books there are so many different ways in which people can spin history, so many things you can focus on. But the recordings are the primary source, and he reveals a lot of himself.
JK: How do you think Bruce's Jewish culture creeps into his act?
SC: It doesn’t creep: it’s in the blood and bones of who he was. He used a lot of Yiddish—he was speaking the way his mother spoke when he was growing up, which very much formed his identity. He talks about it a lot, what it was like to be a Jew in the army and so forth.
JK: How do you go about preparing to portray such an iconic character?
SC: It’s been a process. It’s been amazing: I’m going on three years of working on this material. The enjoyment I get out of this is being precise. I really want to get every “umm” and “uh” and “pause.” Sometimes I transcribe it to get every beat. It’s like a game to me. In precision the ideas are expressed at their fullest. Hearing the material live, as a modern day audience, is an interesting performance—the meaning is tied to the delivery.
JK: What do you think will most surprise a younger audience that may not be very familiar with the comedian?
SC: A lot of my friends who were my age came up to me after the show and asked if I updated the material when I hadn’t changed a word. [Bruce] really is timeless. I think that will be surprising to a lot of people: the relevance of his material today. Lenny spoke of general terms of hypocrisy—he’d talk about politicians in general rather than make a joke about a specific person.
JK: What can we expect from your performance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage?
SC: I’ll be performing his later material—1963 to 1966. This is the kind of stuff that’s a little bit more philosophical with some bits and routines incorporated. I’m going to begin with Lenny Bruce on comedy—what kind of comedy he likes, why he likes it—so the audience will have a frame of reference to see how he fits in to the history of comedy. And then I’ll perform him talking about getting arrested in San Francisco for saying a bad word as well as some of his religious humor. Some comedy, some philosophizing: I think it’s his most interesting material. I try to give a trajectory of him as a character. It’s not just a hodgepodge; it is structured, leading one thing to the other so you have a picture at the end, maybe of who this guy. Maybe someone will want to learn something more about him.
Tickets to this one-night-only performance are available online or by calling the Museum box office at 646.437.4202.
Posted by Jamie at 10:54 AM