Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce
Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce. It is a shame there were only three performances at the Curran Theatre, as part of its Under Construction series; people should have had more opportunities to see and hear Cuiffo’s channeling of the iconic, stand-up comic. On a personal note, my father, Ennis Caldwell, had been the night clerk at the Swiss American Hotel in North Beach where Bruce stayed during his gigs at Anne’s 440, or the Hungry I. He got to know him and told me he and Lenny would “paraphrase Shakespeare” after his shows. Lenny was ground-breaking in that he paved the way for other comics like Richard Pryor, Andrew Dice Clay, and especially George Carlin, who first listed in 1972 in his monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Bruce performed his gigs in progressive jazz clubs from New York to San Francisco, delivering his material in a jazz-like riff. Outside of his brief introduction, Cuiffo, in his black Nehru jacket and pants-a la Bruce, recreated the comic’s routine exactly, down to the pauses, interjections, and timbre of his voice: his nasal “nnnnn”, when transiting to another phrase. He brought the house down.
In this era of political correctness, he would not have gotten arrested for using the word “cocksucker” like it went down, but for saying, “nigger,” “kike”; “wop” and “mick,” words that Cuiffo, as Bruce, cast liberally throughout his routine, all in context. He replicated one of his funniest bits about digging it watching court officials try to mask their delight in “doing Lenny Bruce” emphasizing the word “cocksucker” probably more than necessary. Bruce was much, much more than a spewer of dirty words for laughs comic. He skewered the status quo, his scathing, hysterically funny bits exposed the hypocrisy in the government, social norms, and race; he shocked his audience as he enlightened it. One had to say: “He’s right!”
I got a chance to talk the artist after his show. I wanted to know why a young actor/magician (30s) like him would want to do Lenny Bruce. He told me that someone had given him a boxed set of Bruce’s material. After listening to it he was hooked and began working on his Bruce recreation. He went on to say that he had included some of “Lenny” into a play he had written. He was performing in it when he got a call from the Lenny Bruce estate. “I thought I was in trouble,” he said. Turns out not only was he not in trouble, but the estate wanted to help him expand the bit into a full-length show.
According to a 2011 New Yorker Magazine article, Steve told writer Tad Friend that he gets into the role by running through the performance, jogging from Greenwich Village to 125th Street and back, while listening to Bruce’s concert album on his MP3 player, and reciting Bruce’s “mouthy, staccato riffs”.
Tad Friend quoted Cuiffo: “Whatever it is about Lenny that I latched on to, it’s a physical pleasure to do him at this length, to work him into my muscle memory,” he explained. “It’s a way of bringing all of him back, and maybe, for the audience, bringing back something of that period, too.” Yes, Steve, you got it all. Thank you!