Lenny Bruce has long been lionized by the increasingly risqué and thought-provoking comedians who sprang up in the wake of his success, and for good reason. A veritable martyr for the cause, Bruce was subjected to arrests, club bans and, in the years leading up to his untimely death, a number of personal and professional setbacks that rendered him virtually obsolete. Yet in the years immediately following his death, more and more comedians began singing his praises, exalting his fearless comedic style and ability to free associate with the skill and precision of a jazz soloist.

While modern listeners will find themselves puzzled by all the fuss over Bruce’s comparatively tame routines, his influence nevertheless can be heard and felt through generations of observational humorists and social commentators. His was one of the first prominent, socially critical voices to call attention to the absurdities of modern life. That he did so under the guise of comedy makes his observations no less cutting and, as evidenced by the current culture of political and social commentary coming from the mouths of comedians, more prescient and revelatory than even his biggest backers could have imagined at the time.

With How to Talk Dirty & Influence People, Bruce followed a similar format to his on-stage routines, seamlessly blending tangents within an endless stream of social, political, theological and philosophical ruminations. Each of these helped establish his progressive views when taken within the context of late-‘50s/early-‘60s society. His denunciation of the hypocritical prescription drug abusing of housewives who push for the illegality of marijuana, oblivious to the double standard, is particularly biting.

The trouble is Bruce’s lack of focus, his free associative approach to comedy better suited to the stage than the page. Without his inflections and delivery, many of the extended tangents sag under the weight of an overextended idea. His chapter-long diatribe regarding the purchase of a new washer and dryer in particular reads more like a routine better suited to the night club, his physical presence helping to sell the humor. Along with his time spent impersonating a priest, this tends to slow the narrative to a mind-numbing crawl.

Given the tonal shifts, the serial nature in which each piece originally appeared within the pages of Playboy becomes abundantly clear. Compiled into book form posthumously, How to lacks a cohesion that Bruce might have granted to the collection if he had had the chance to work on it before publication. Yet despite the lack of narrative coherence and autobiographical details, Bruce still sheds light on the mind behind some of the most controversial comedy routines of the mid-20th century. In the process, he also establishes a template for comedians in terms of narrative structure and humorous asides, something a number of subsequent comedians would employ when penning their own autobiographies.

However, How to Talk Dirty remains very much a product of its own time, its intentionally shocking moments no longer carrying the same impact. While he certainly shows himself capable of the title’s first half within the pages of the book, it’s the second half of the title for which he will always be known and revered in American comedy. With an unabashedly Bruce-influenced intro by Lewis Black – a contemporary comic clearly under Bruce’s influence – students of comedy will want to check out this posthumous “autobiography.” Those looking for a more in-depth look at the man and his career would be better served by Albert Goldman’s Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!.

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