Comedy: Looking Back At Bruce

If a comic gets onstage and tells his audience "I am not a comedian," he'd better say something important--or really damn funny. Lenny Bruce--the hepcat who took his act from L.A. strip clubs to Carnegie Hall, redefining stand-up in the process--did both. Now, nearly 40 years after a fatal drug overdose, a dizzyingly complete six-CD collection of his trailblazing routines has been released.

"Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware" spans his career from his promising first performance in 1948 to the ravings of a haunted, hunted man the day before his death in 1966. The warts-and-all portrait includes hours of previously unreleased material and chronicles Bruce as he tilts against hypocrisy ("Censorship on the Steve Allen Show"), racism ("How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties") and religion ("Religions, Inc.").

Bruce was a fan of four-letter words, and he went after sacred cows--practically the entire herd. From the pope to Jackie Kennedy, no one was safe. Without him there probably would have been no Richard Pryor, George Carlin or Howard Stern. (Last year Bruce was finally pardoned by the state of New York for a 1964 obscenity conviction.) With him, the denunciation of the president by the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines last year--which made the band music-industry pariahs--seems relatively toothless. Bill Maher, who invited controversy of his own by criticizing the government after 9/11, credits Bruce. "One generation plants the trees, another gets the shade," Maher tells NEWSWEEK. "He's definitely the guy who planted the trees."