Rarely has a film demonstrated so persuasively the exact opposite of what it clearly intends as does the fascinating, revelatory, and ultimately wrongheaded documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. Filmmaker Robert B. Weide obviously believes fervently that Bruce was the top-dog surfer of a ’60s new wave of what came to be known as ”sick humor” — that, indeed, Bruce was a persecuted genius of a genre that would eventually yield such contemporary phenomena as American Pie and especially South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. (Bruce, a man who riffed frequently about private parts and circumcision, would have loved that crass subtitle.)
This Academy Award-nominated work, receiving its first mass-audience exposure outside the art-house movie circuit on HBO, contains rarely seen footage of Bruce on stage and off, plus interviews with the comedian’s ex-wife, Honey Bruce Friedman; his mother, Sally Marr; and his daughter, Kitty. Swear to Tell the Truth is narrated by Robert De Niro, who hymns the funnyman’s ”free-form style of comedy,” of which we’re shown many examples. Until now, most people’s impressions of Bruce’s stand-up career have been molded by Bob Fosse’s 1974 film Lenny, in which Dustin Hoffman delivered the comedian’s routines with such dogged, full-bore concentration that it drained all the humor out of them.
Swear offers the real Lenny Bruce — the pure, uncut stuff. Writer-director Weide’s greatest achievement is that he explodes a crucial part of the Bruce mythos: namely, that Lenny didn’t become funny until he got down and dirty. Au contraire: Clips from Bruce performing on Arthur Godfrey’s and Steve Allen’s TV shows in the ’50s reveal a skilled joker adept at funny, imaginative impressions (his bad-German-comic-doing-Humphrey-Bogart bit is a sidesplitter — honest).
In fact, as Swear to Tell the Truth proceeds, and our protagonist becomes more profane, more hopped-up on speed, more frequently busted by the Man, and more hell-bent on exposing societal hypocrisy — i.e., doing everything for which he became (in)famous — he becomes far less sharp, much less amusing. The great, neglected journalist-critic Seymour Krim had Lenny down cold in a 1966 piece in which Krim noted that the guy who changed stand-up comedy ”from forced frivolity, gags, one-liners to the most ferocious kind of humor that claws into the blisters of sex, race, religion, etc.” had turned into a mere nightclub philosopher — ”the Jazz Circuit Hegel” — and was often ”cheaply sentimental.” Indeed, it’s tiresome to sit through a trademark routine such as the one in which he insists that ”if anyone in this audience believes that God made [your] body, and your body is dirty, the fault lies with the Manufacturer — it’s that cold, Jim — yeah.”