Maybe it really was those days and nights out at sea that did it. Stationed aboard a Navy destroyer in his late teens and early twenties, young Leonard Schneider would “[s]ometimes . . . talk out loud up on the bow,” vocalizing all those thoughts he’d be thinking because, after all, “out at sea you have a lot of time to think. All day and all night I would think about all kinds of things.” A couple decades later, when he wrote his memoir, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1965), that’s how Lenny Bruce chose to frame his stylistic development—or this aspect of it, anyway: “[t]his process of allowing one subject spontaneously to associate itself with another.” Which is, Lenny added none too modestly, “equivalent to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness.”
I’ll leave to others any comparisons with Joyce, but to pursue the question of where Bruce got his style—not just his free-form and -flowing spritz but the entire repertoire, the slang, the Yiddishisms, the scandalous and sacrosanct subject-matter—we need to take our inquiry beyond the sailor’s lonely days and nights at sea and into the places where Bruce began honing his craft in earnest, after getting himself discharged—by pretending to be a cross-dresser—from the Navy.