How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

An Autobiography


By Lenny Bruce

Preface by Lewis Black

Foreword by Howard Reich

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During the course of a career that began in the late 1940s, Lenny Bruce challenged the sanctity of organized religion and other societal and political conventions; he widened the boundaries of free speech. Critic Ralph Gleason said, “So many taboos have been lifted and so many comics have rushed through the doors Lenny opened. He utterly changed the world of comedy.”

Although Bruce died when he was only forty, his influence on the worlds of comedy, jazz, and satire are incalculable. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People remains a brilliant existential account of his life and the forces that made him the most important and controversial entertainer in history.


Chapter One

Filipinos come quick; colored men are built abnormally large (“Their wangs look like a baby’s arm with an apple in its fist”); ladies with short hair are Lesbians; if you want to keep your man, rub alum on your pussy.

Such bits of erotic folklore were related daily to my mother by Mrs. Janesky, a middle-aged widow who lived across the alley, despite the fact that she had volumes of books delivered by the postman every month—A Sane Sex Life, Ovid the God of Love, How to Make Your Marriage Partner More Compatible—in plain brown wrappers marked “Personal.”

She would begin in a pedantic fashion, using academic medical terminology, but within ten minutes she would be spouting her hoary hornyisms. Their conversation drifted to me as I sat under the sink, picking at the ripped linoleum, daydreaming and staring at my Aunt Mema’s Private Business, guarded by its sinkmate, the vigilant C-N bottle, vanguard of Lysol, Zonite and Massengill.

At this tender age, I knew nothing of douches. The only difference between men and women was that women always had headaches and didn’t like whistling or cap guns; and men didn’t like women—that is, women they were married to.

Aunt Mema’s Private Business, the portable bidet, was a large red-rubber bulb with a long black nozzle. I could never figure out what the hell it was for. I thought maybe it was an enema bag for people who lived in buildings with a super who wouldn’t allow anyone to put up nails to hang things on; I wondered if it was the horn that Harpo Marx squeezed to punctuate his silent sentences. All I knew was that it definitely was not to be used for water-gun battles, and that what it was for was none of my business.

When you’re eight years old, nothing is any of your business.

All my inquiries about Aunt Mema’s large red-rubber bulb, or why hair grew from the mole on her face and nowhere else, or how come the talcum powder stuck between her nay-nays, would get the same answer: “You know too much already, go outside and play.”

Her fear of my becoming a preteen Leopold or Loeb was responsible for my getting more fresh air than any other kid in the neighborhood.

In 1932 you really heard that word a lot—“business.” But it wasn’t, “I wonder what happened to the business.” Everyone knew what happened to the business. There wasn’t any. “That dumb bastard President Hoover” was blamed for driving us into the Depression by people who didn’t necessarily have any interest in politics, but just liked saying “That dumb bastard President Hoover.”

I would sit all alone through endless hours and days, scratching out my homework on the red Big Boy Tablet, in our kitchen with the shiny, flowered oilcloth, the icebox squatting over the pan that constantly overflowed, and the overhead light, bare save for a long brown string with a knot on the end, where flies fell in love.

I sort of felt sorry for the damn flies. They never hurt anybody. Even though they were supposed to carry disease, I never heard anybody say he caught anything from a fly. My cousin gave two guys the clap, and nobody ever whacked her with a newspaper.

The desperate tension of the Depression was lessened for me by my Philco radio with the little yellow-orange dial and the black numbers in the center. What a dear, sweet friend, my wooden radio, with the sensual cloth webbing that separated its cathedrallike architecture from the mass air-wave propaganda I was absorbing—it was the beginning of an awareness of a whole new fantasy culture . . .

“Jump on the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round—the Highway, the Byway, to New York Town . . .”

“And here comes Captain Andy now . . .”

The biggest swinger was Mr. First-Nighter. He always had a car waiting for him. “Take me to the little theater off Times Square.” Barbara Luddy and Les Tremayne.

And Joe Penner said: “Hyuk, hyuk, hyuk.”

“With a cloud of dust, the speed of light and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver Away!

Procter & Gamble provided many Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowship winners with the same formative exposure.

Long Island had loads of screen doors and porches. Screen doors to push your nose against, porches to hide under. It always smelled funny under the porch. I had a continuing vision of one day crawling under there and finding a large cache of money, which I would spend nobly on my mother and aunt—but not until they explained the under-the-sink apparatus; and, if there was enough money, perhaps Mema would even demonstrate it for me.

I would usually hide under the porch until it came time to “get it.”

“You just wait till your father comes, then you’re really gonna get it.” I always thought what a pain in the ass it would be to be a father. You have to work hard all day and then, instead of resting when you come home, you have to “give it” to someone. I didn’t “get it” as much as other kids, though, because my mother and father were divorced.

I had to wait until visiting days to “get it.”

I look back in tender relished anger, and I can smell the damp newspapers that waited on the porch for the Goodwill—they never picked up anything we gave them because we never had it packed right—and I can hear the muffled voices through the kerosene stove.

“Mickey, I don’t know what we’re going to do with Lenny. He was so fresh to Mema. You know what he asked?”

Then they would all laugh hysterically. And then my father would schlep me from under the porch and whack the crap out of me.

For being fresh to Mema. For forgetting to change my good clothes after school and catching my corduroy knickers on a nail. And for whistling. I would even “get it” for whistling.

I used to love to whistle. The first tune I learned to whistle was Amapola. “Amapola, my pretty little poppy . . .” I received most of my musical education from the sounds that wafted from the alley of Angelo’s Bar and Grille, Ladies Invited, Free Lunch. I was enthralled with the discovery of the jukebox: a machine that didn’t sew, drill, boil or kill; a machine solely for fun.

Angelo, the tavernkeeper, was a classic illustration of onomatopoeia. He laughed “Har! Har! Har!” He talked exactly like the balloons in comic strips. When he was disturbed, he would say “Tch! Tch! Tch!” To express contempt, he would “Harrumph!”

I kept waiting to hear Angelo’s dog say “Arf! Arf!” He never made a sound. I told this to Russell Swan, the oil painter, sometime house painter and town drunk. He replied that the dog had been interbred with a giraffe—a reference I didn’t understand, but which cracked up the erudite Mr. Swan. It must be lonesome, being bright and witty and aware, but living in a town where you can’t relate to people in all areas.

Mr. Swan gave me the first book I ever read, Richard Halliburton’s Royal Road to Romance, the tale of a world traveler who continually searches for beauty and inner peace. I loved to read.

“Don’t read at the table,” I would be told.

“Why do they put stuff on the cereal box if they don’t want you to read?”

“Not at the table.”

When I get big, I thought, I’ll read anywhere I want . . . standing on the subway:

“What’s that you’re reading, sir?”

“A cereal box.”

I almost always made a good score in back of Angelo’s Bar and Grille; the loot consisted of deposit bottles. But there was a hang-up—you could never find anyone willing to cash them. The most sought-after prize was the large Hoffman bottle, which brought a five-cent bounty.

Mr. Geraldo, our neighborhood grocer, cashed my mother’s relief check and so he knew we had barely enough money for staples. Therefore, the luxury of soda pop in deposit bottles was obviously far beyond our economic sphere. Besides, he couldn’t relate to children. He disliked them because they made him nervous.

“Could I have a glass of water, please?”

“No, the water’s broken.”

When I brought the bottles to him, he would interrogate me without an ounce of mercy. “Did you buy these here? When did you buy them?” I would always fall prey to his Olga-of-Interpol tactics. “Yes, I think we bought them here.” Then he would finger-thump me on the back of the head, as if he were testing a watermelon. “Get the hell outta here, you never bought any soda here. I’m going to report your mother to the Welfare man and have him take her check away.”

I could hear the Welfare man saying to Mema: “Your nephew—you know, the one who knows too much already—he’s been arrested on a Deposit Bottle Charge. We have to take your check away.”

Then where would Mema go? We would all have to live under the porch, with the funny smell.

That was the big threat of the day—taking the check away. Generalities spewed forth: The goyim were always being threatened with the loss of their checks because of their presence in bars, and the Yidden for their presence in banks.

Another sure way for a family to lose its check was for any member to be caught going to the movies. But I didn’t worry about that. My friend and I would sneak in, hide under the seats while the porter was vacuuming, and then, after the newsreel was over, we would pop up in the midst of Lou Lehr’s “Mongees is da chrrazziest beeple . . .”

Anyway, my next stop with the deposit bottles would be the King Kullen Market. The manager stared at me. I returned his stare with no apparent guile. I tried to look as innocent and Anglo-Saxon as Jackie Cooper, pouting, pooched-out lip and all, but I’m sure I looked more like a dwarfed Maurice Chevalier.

“I bought them yesterday—I don’t know how the dirt and cobwebs got inside . . .”

He cashed the bottles and I got my 20 cents.

I bought a Liberty magazine for my mother. She liked to read them because the reading time was quoted: “four minutes, three seconds.” She used to clock herself, and her chief aim was to beat the quoted time. She always succeeded, but probably never knew what the hell she had read.

I bought Aunt Mema a 12-cent jar of Vaseline. She ate it by the ton. She was a Vaseline addict. She would rub it on and stick it in anything and everything. To Mema, carbolated Vaseline was Jewish penicillin.

Perhaps at this point I ought to say a little something about my vocabulary. My conversation, spoken and written, is usually flavored with the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.

In the literate sense—as literate as Yiddish can be since it is not a formal language—“goyish” means “gentile.” But that’s not the way I mean to use it.

To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.

Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Spam is goyish and rye bread is Jewish.

Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very goyish. Georgie Jessel and Danny Thomas are Christians, because if you look closely on their bodies you’ll find a boil somewhere.

To trap an old Jewish woman—they’re crafty and they will lie—just seize one and you will find a handkerchief balled-up in one of her hands.

I can understand why we can’t have a Jewish President. It would be embarrassing to hear the President’s mother screaming love at the grandchildren: “Who’s Grandma’s baby! Who’s Grandma’s baby!”

“. . . And this is Chet Huntley in New York. The First Lady’s mother opened the Macy’s Day Parade screaming, ‘Oy zeishint mine lieber’ and furiously pinching young Stanley’s cheeks . . .”

Actually, she bit his ass, going “Oom, yum yum, is this a tush, whose tushy is that?” The Jews are notorious children’s-ass-kissers. Gentiles neither bite their children’s asses nor do they hahhh their soup.

Gentiles love their children as much as Jews love theirs; they just don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. On the other hand, Jewish mothers don’t hang gold stars in their windows. They’re not proud of their boys’ going into the service. They’re always worried about their being killed.

Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (Ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.

The difference between Jewish and goyish girls is that a gentile girl won’t “touch it once,” whereas a Jewish girl will kiss you and let you touch it—your own, that is.

The only Jewish thing about balling is Vaseline.

One eventful day, I discovered self-gratification. An older kid conducted a school, and five of us graduated about the same time.

A few days later, I was all set for an afternoon of whacking it. I had a copy of National Geographic, with pictures of naked chicks in Africa.

I’m sure that when these spade ladies with the taco tits posed for Osa and Martin Johnson, they never dreamed that they would be part of an 11-year-old satyr’s sexual fantasy, or they certainly wouldn’t have signed a model’s release.

I was propped up in bed, taking care of business. I was so involved, I didn’t hear the door open. “Leonard, what are you doing?” It was my father! My heart stopped. I froze. He repeated: “I said, what are you doing?”

To say it was a traumatic moment would be euphemistic. I had to restrain myself from asking: “Would you wait outside for just a minute?” He snarled, “It’s not only disgusting, what you’re doing—but, goddamnit, in my bed!”

He sat down and proceeded to tell me a story, that story we have all heard, with embellishments. Its grim conclusion left three of our relatives in state insane asylums—poor souls who had never been instructed in the wisdom of sleeping with their hands above the covers. The story line implied that this sort of thing was a nighttime practice and was associated with werewolves and vampires. Their punishment was that their hands withered away into wings, and they couldn’t pull it anymore, just fan it a little.

I had all sorts of horrendous visions of my future: my spine would collapse; my toes would fall off. Even though I resolved never to do it again, I felt I had done some irreparable damage.

Oh, what a cursed thing! I could see myself on a street corner giving testimony for the C.B.W.A.—Crooked Back Whackers Anonymous:

“Yea, brothers, I was of mortal flesh. Fortunately for me, my father walked in that day while I was having my struggle with Satan. Suppose he had not been an observant person, and merely thought I was doing a charade—committing hari-kari triple time—what then? But no, brothers, he knew he had a pervert living under his roof; the most dangerous of them all—a whacker! I would have to stop. No tapering off. I would have to stop now! In the language of the addict’s world, I would have to kick the habit—cold jerky . . .”

Chapter Two

I credit the motion picture industry as the strongest environmental factor in molding the children of my day.

Andy Hardy: whistling; a brown pompadour; a green lawn; a father whose severest punishment was taking your car away for the weekend.

Warner Baxter was a doctor. All priests looked like Pat O’Brien.

The superintendent of my school looked like Spencer Tracy, and the principal looked like Vincent Price. I was surprised years later to discover they were Spencer Tracy and Vincent Price. I went to Hollywood High, folks. Lana Turner sat at the next desk, Roland Young was the English teacher and Joan Crawford taught general science. “She’s got a fabulous body, but she never takes that shop apron off.”

Actually, I went to public school in North Bellmore, Long Island, for eight years, up until the fifth grade. I remember the routine of milk at 10:15 and napping on the desk—I hated the smell of that desk—I always used to dribble on the initials. And how enigmatic those well-preserved carvings were to me: BOOK YOU.

My friend Carmelo, the barber’s son, and I would “buy” our lunch at the little green store. That’s what we called the student lockers from which we stole hot cold lunches. “Let’s see what we’ve got at the little green store today.”

We would usually go shopping around 11:30 on the eighth-grade floor, when everybody was in homeroom. Carmelo would bust open a locker. A white paper bag! Who used white paper bags? People who could afford to buy baked goods and make their children exotic sandwiches. Tuna on date-nut bread, four creme-filled Hydrox cookies, a banana which was unreal—the color wasn’t solid brown, it was yellow tipped with green, and the end wasn’t rotten—and the last goody: a nickel, wrapped in wax paper.

Some people are wrapping freaks—a little pinch of salt in wax paper, pepper in wax paper, two radishes that were individually wrapped in wax paper. The thing that really made it erotic was that it was real wax paper, not bread-wrapping wax paper.

Carmelo’s father had a barbershop with one chair and a poster in the window showing four different styles of haircuts, and guaranteeing you surefire results in securing employment if you would follow the tips on grooming: “The First Things an Employer Looks at Are Hair, Nails and Shoes.” An atomic-energy department head who looks at these qualifications in a job applicant would probably be a faggot.

Carmelo’s mother was the manicurist and town whore. Those symbols of my childhood are gone—what a shame!—the country doctor, the town whore, the village idiot, and the drunken family from the other side of the tracks have been replaced by the Communist, the junkie, the faggot, and the beatnik.

Prostitution wasn’t respected and accepted, but I figured that if she was the town whore, then all the people in the town had fucked her and had paid her and they were all a part of what she was. I staunchly defended Carmelo’s mother.

Carmelo and I were sitting in the barbershop one lunch hour, drawing mustaches on the people in the Literary Digest, when Mr. Krank, the assistant principal, walked in, looked at us and almost shit. Maybe he had dropped by to pay a visit to the town whore.

He quickly asked Carmelo’s father: “Got time to give me a trim?” This really confused me, because Mr. Krank was almost bald; he didn’t have a goddamn hair on top of his head. We left just as Carmelo’s father did away with the sideburns that Mr. Krank treasured so dearly.

My mother worked as a waitress and doubled as a maid in fashionable Long Beach, Long Island. My father was working during the day and going to college at night. His motive was to better himself and, in turn, better us all. If he had graduated, I might not be where I am now. I’m the head of a big firm today, thanks to my dad’s foresight in placing handy knowledge at my fingertips.

“You’re going to have that set of encyclopedias for your birthday,” he had pledged. “You’re going to have everything I never had as a child, even if I have to do without cigarettes.” And then, to demonstrate his self-sacrifice, he would roll his own in those rubber roller things that Bugler used to sell.

Today I give my daughter what I really didn’t have as a kid. All the silly, dumb, extravagant, frilly, nonfunctional toys I can force on her. She probably wants an encyclopedia. That’s how it goes—one generation saves to buy rubbers for the kids on a rainy day, and when it comes they sit out under a tree getting soaking wet and digging the lightning.

My father instilled in me a few important behavior patterns, one of which was a fantastic dread of being in debt. He explained to me such details as how much we owed on the rent, what the coal and light bills were, how much money we had and how long it would last.

Taking me into his confidence like that made me very sensitive about my responsibilities to help out. When he’d say, “Whatever you want, just ask your father,” it was like the cliché picture of the father and son standing on a high building and the father says: “Some day, son, all this will be yours!” Only, when my father made the offer, it was as if he were telling me I could have it as long as I was willing to push him off the roof to get it.

He would constantly remind me that we were living on the brink of poverty. He would go miles out of his way to look for bargains. He would wear clothes that friends gave him. I became so guilty about asking for anything that I concluded it was much more ethical to steal.

When I was in seventh grade and, for physical education, each boy had to buy sneakers that cost about $1.98, I couldn’t bring myself to ask my father for the money. The previous night he had confided to me that he didn’t know where he was going to get the money for the rent. I decided to steal the money for my sneakers from the Red Cross.

The class kept all the money they had collected for the annual Red Cross drive in a big mayonnaise jar in the supply closet. I volunteered to stay after school to wash the blackboard and slap out the erasers. I knew that the teacher, Miss Bostaug, was picked up at 3:30 sharp by her boyfriend.

She was the kind of woman who was old when she was 23. She wore those “sensible” corrective shoes and lisle stockings; and crinkly dresses, the kind that you can see through and don’t want to. The only color she ever wore was a different handkerchief that she pinned on her blouse every day. Her short sleeves revealed a vaccination mark as big as a basketball.

As soon as Miss Bostaug left that afternoon, I picked up the radiator wrench and jimmied open the closet door. I really botched up the door, but I made the heist. My heart was beating six-eight time as I split with the mayonnaise jar.

I hid under the porch and counted the loot. Over $13 in change.

I spent some of the money on the sneakers and a carton of Twenty Grand cigarettes for my father. I figured I would take what was left and return it. Maybe no one would miss what I spent. Maybe no one would notice the door had been torn off its hinges.

But as I neared the classroom, I could hear the storm of protest, so I changed my mind and joined in the denunciation of the culprit. “Boy, how could anyone be so low? Stealing from the Red Cross! Don’t worry, God will punish him.” I felt pretty self-righteous condemning myself, and quite secure that no one suspected me.

But I had underestimated Miss Bostaug.

“Boys and girls,” she announced, “this morning I called my brother, Edward Bostaug, in Washington. He works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He told me that if the criminal doesn’t confess today, he is going to come up here on Monday with a lie detector.” And then, in minute detail, she described the technical perfection of the polygraph in spotting the slightest irregularity in blood pressure, pulse and temperature. As she spoke, my heart was pounding and I was sweating.

After everyone left, I marched boldly up to her desk. She was creaming her face with Noxema. “Miss Bostaug, I know who stole the money. I told him the jig was up, and he told me to tell you that he only spent three dollars and is willing to give me the rest to bring back and he will make up what he spent, little by little, if you promise not to call your brother from the FBI.”

A week later the Long Island Welfare Board paid a visit to my father, attempting to ascertain what sort of family atmosphere produced a criminal of my proportions.

Miss Bostaug hadn’t “squealed” on me, but she had done her duty, not only to the authorities, but also to me. She was aware that my environment was as much to blame for my behavior as I was. She was trying to help.

My father didn’t see it that way, however. He was simply amazed. “How could a son of mine steal, when all he has to do is ask me for anything and I’ll give it to him, even if I have to give up cigarettes?”

He sat down and talked to me. It was difficult for me to answer because he was sitting on my chest.

My mother’s boyfriends were a unique breed. They were buddies rather than beaux. I can’t remember seeing anyone ever kiss my mother—not on the mouth, anyway—and for sure, I never saw her in bed with any man, not even that once-in-a-while “mistake” in the one-bedroom apartment when “Ssh, you’ll wake the kid up!” makes going to the bathroom during the night a combination of horror and fascination.

I can remember only one “walk-in” in my life. As an eight-year-old child, I stumbled through the living room on the way to the bathroom at four o’clock in the morning. My cousin Hannah and her husband were pushing, kissing, tearing and breathing in asthmatic meter. I watched and listened in wonderful curiosity.


  • Praise for How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

    "I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old. It made me want to be in showbiz, have a lot of sex, and be Jewish. I've rethought that last one."—Penn Jillette, author of God No!

    "If there was a God, then he sent down Lenny Bruce to create the art form of modern stand-up comedy. He sought the truth fearlessly and hilariously until his tragically muffled First Amendment rights surely enabled his dying for our sins."—Richard Lewis, author of The Other Great Depression

    Playboy, 8/3/16
    “Outside every American comedy club there ought to be a statue of Lenny Bruce—the type of big bronze statue that commemorates and immortalizes heroes…Bringing Bruce's ideas and stories to a new generation might just be the next best thing to erecting those bronze statues.”

    Spectrum Culture, 10/11/16
    “Sheds light on the mind behind some of the most controversial comedy routines of the mid-20th century.”

On Sale
Aug 2, 2016
Page Count
240 pages
Da Capo Press

Lenny Bruce

About the Author

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) was a stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, and screenwriter. His 1964 trial for obscenity (and posthumous pardon) is seen as a landmark for freedom of speech in the United States.

Learn more about this author