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TJFF: Looking for Lenny

Looking for Lenny

Directed by Elan Gale

2011, USA, 70 mins.

Director Elan Gale has a point to make, and it is this: the reason people like me are allowed to write ‘fuck’ in a social context without fear of repercussion is because people like Lenny Bruce did it first and suffered the repercussions for us. Gale isn’t alone. His film, Looking for Lenny, is filled with comedians (like Lewis Black, Robin Williams, and Phyllis Diller) and, for lack of a better phrase, social ne’er-do-wells (like Hugh Hefner and Ron Jeremy) who make the same point. They are compelling, and I am convinced – but the film is much more than a biography. Looking for Lenny expounds on the subject of political correctness and censorship, and discusses Michael Richard’s racist rant and Don Imus’s firing. Through it all, Lenny Bruce himself remains something of an elusive figure in his own documentary.

Watching Looking for Lenny is a bit like watching The Aristocrats. The recollections and thoughts of so many major comedians and entertainers (not to mention Lenny Bruce’s own daughter, Kitty Bruce) foster a sense of privilege amongst the audience. It’s like we’re being let in on some great secret about show business – it’s an exciting and humbling feeling. It’s also an odd thing to see comedians take something so seriously. To be sure, they make jokes, but they have a genuine sense of awe and respect when talking about Lenny that catches the audience off guard and demands attention.

The title Looking for Lenny is apt – part of Gale’s point is that Lenny Bruce’s legacy is poorly understood, due in part to its relationship to the social politics behind obscenity and humour. This brings us to places like Michael Richard’s racist tirade at the Laugh Factory, and the difference between jokes about race and simple racism. It’s a fascinating discussion.

Part of the appeal of this film is that debates respecting obscenity are not over, and likely never will be. In this country, it is possible for a comedian to be charged over offensive material. Forty-five years after his death, Lenny Bruce is more relevant than ever.

–       Dave Robson

Toronto Jewish Film Festival is playing from May 7th through May 15th. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone, or in person. More information is available on their website.