Bruce, Lenny (1925-1966)
Bruce, Lenny (1925-1966)
From the late 1940s until his death in the 1960s, Lenny Bruce's unique comedy included social commentary, "lewd" material, and pointed personal monologues. He addressed issues of sex, race, and religion, and often did so using profanity. Many of his era called his humor "sick," and Journalist Walter Mitchell referred to him as "America's #1 Vomic." Police arrested Bruce numerous times for obscenities, which helped him to become a champion of First Amendment rights and of freedom of speech in general. His work on and off stage permanently changed the face of comedy, particularly stand-up comedy, and pushed the limits of what was considered "socially acceptable" in many mediums. By 1990s standards his material was quite tame and is commonly found on television or even in "PG" rated films, but during his time his work was radical. Many well-known comedians, including Joan Rivers, Jonathan Winters, andRichard Pryor, have attested to Bruce's profound influence on their work.
From approximately the 1920s to the early 1950s, most comedians came out of vaudeville. Comedy, or more precisely jokes, were interspersed in people's vaudeville acts. Jack Benny, for instance, was a vaudeville star who originally did jokes between his violin playing; he eventually played some violin between his jokes or comedy routines. Comedians did a series of "classic" joke-book type jokes, or occasionally a variation on these. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, comedy began to change with the cultural changes of the times. The United States was experiencing a push towards conservatism; middle-class mores were pervasive and commonly exempli-fied in such light "comedy" shows as Father Knows Best and Donna Reed. Additionally, McCarthyism had people fearful of anything "different" they said being held against them. There was, however, also a strong backlash against this conservatism typi-fied in the "Beatnik" movement, including artists such as Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Bruce was part of this counter-culture movement.
Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925 in Mineola, New York. His father, Mickey, was a podiatrist and his mother, Sadie, played bit parts as an actor and did routines in small comedy clubs under the names of Sally Marr and Boots Mallow. From a very young age, Bruce's mother took him to burlesque and nightclubs. Her willingness to expose him to this style of "open sexuality" influenced most of his career. Bruce's very early career was doing conventional comedy routines in the "Borscht Belt"—the Jewish area of the Catskills where many (Jewish) comedians, such asDanny Kaye and Jerry Lewis, got their start; he also did comedy routines in strip clubs. In 1942, Bruce enlisted in the Navy, serving until 1945, when he was dishonorably discharged for claiming to be obsessed with homosexual ideas.
Bruce started developing his own notable style, which not only included the "obscenities" he is often remembered for, but also a running social commentary told in fast-paced, personally-based monologues that used various accents and voices to emphasize his pointed style. He received his first national recognition when he was on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show in 1948. Soon after, his career was furthered when his act at a San Francisco nightclub, Anne's 440, was reviewed by influential cutting-edge columnists Herb Caen and Ralph Gleason (who later wrote many of Bruce's liner notes for his recordings). Some of his early recordings, all under the Fantasy record label, include Interviews of Our Times, American, and The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.
Two quintessential personal events also happened during these "earlier" years—Bruce met stripper Honey Harlow in 1951, whom he married that year in June, and he was introduced to heroin, which became a life-long habit and another reason for his many arrests. Harlow had six abortions, some say at the insistence of Bruce, and later gave birth to a daughter, Brandie Kathleen "Kitty," in 1955. When Bruce and Harlow divorced in 1957, Bruce was awarded custody of Kitty.
In the early 1960s Bruce's career skyrocketed, and by February 1961 he performed to a full house at Carnegie Hall. While he was popular with people immersed in the counter-culture movement, he also attracted many mainstream and even conservative people. Mainstream comedians, such as Steve Allen, understood, appreciated, and supported his comedy; Bruce appeared on Allen's television show three times. Others were highly insulted, not just by his "obscene language," but, for instance, by what they considered his blasphemous attitudes towards organized religion. His act "Religions, Incorporated," in which he compared religious leaders to con artists and crooks, infuriated some and made others praise the raw intelligence and honesty of his comedy. Other people were critical, but titillated by his humor. Bruce often told the story about how people said they were horrified by his common "threat" to urinate on his audience, but when he would not do it people would complain and ask for their money back.
The 1960s brought Bruce's long series of arrests for narcotics and obscenities, as well as his being banned from performing. In September 1961, he was arrested for possession of narcotics, though the charges were dropped because he had authorized prescriptions—but in October 1962 he was once again arrested for possession of narcotics in Los Angeles. With his January 1, 1963 arrest for narcotics possession, however, some began to question whether the circumstances surrounding his arrests were, at the very least, "suspicious"; his convictions were based on testimony by an officer who was at the time suspected of smuggling drugs. Conversely, though, Bruce himself once turned in a small-time drug dealer in exchange for his own freedom from a drug charge.
Bruce's first and probably best known arrest for obscenity was in October 1961. He used the word "cocksucker" in his act at the San Francisco Jazz Workshop; the word violated the California Obscenity Code. (A number of reviewers have pointed out that in the 1980s Meryl Streep won an Academy Award for the movie Sophie's Choice, where she also used the term "cocksucker.") With lawyer Albert Bendich—who represented Allen Ginsberg when he was charged with obscenity for his book Howl —Bruce eventually emerged victorious and the event was seen as a landmark win for First Amendment rights.
In October 1962, Bruce was arrested for being obscene during his act at Hollywood's Troubador Theater. In the same year, after two Australian appearances, he was kicked out of Australia and banned from Australian television; he was also deported from England twice. In April 1963, on arriving in England, he was classified as an "undesirable alien" and sent back to the United States within two hours. Upon arrival in the United States, customs agents stripped and internally searched Bruce. Soon after, he was arrested for obscenity in both Chicago and Miami. In 1963, Bruce also published his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, and it was eventually serialized in Playboy magazine. Despite—or perhaps because of—these events, Bruce continued to make recordings throughout the early 1960s, including To Is a Preposition, Come is a Verb, The Berkeley Concert, and Live at the Curran Theatre.
Another of Bruce's pivotal and very influential obscenity arrests occurred in April 1964 at New York's Cafe A Go-Go, where Tiny Tim was his warm-up act. Over 100 well-known "alternative" artists and activists, including Dick Gregory, Bob Dylan, Joseph Heller, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal, signed a petition which Allen Ginsberg helped write. The petition protested New York using obscenity laws to harass Bruce, whom they called a social-satirist on par with Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Bruce himself said he did not believe his arrest was about obscenity, but rather his views against the system. New York's District Attorney of that time, Richard Kuh, felt Bruce should not be shown mercy because he lacked remorse; Bruce openly stated he had no remorse and was only seeking justice. On November 4, 1964, his work was deemed illegal for violating "contemporary community standards" and for being offensive to the "average person." This was a severe blow to Bruce, as clubs were afraid to hire him: if New York City responded in such a way, other clubs around the United States would surely be shut down if he were to perform in them. In October 1965, Bruce went to the San Francisco office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), complaining that California and New York were conspiring against his rights. Not surprisingly, the FBI took no action.
Between difficulty being hired, his drug addiction, and his financial concerns, Bruce found himself in an extremely difficult predicament. A few days after complaining to the FBI he filed bankruptcy in Federal Court. A few months later, under the influence of drugs, he fell 25 feet out a window, resulting in multiple fractures in both his legs and ankles. His last performance was at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in June 1966, where he played with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Two months later, on August 3, 1966, Bruce was dead from a so-called accidental overdose of morphine. Some say the police staged photographs of the scene to make it look as if he accidentally overdosed. Regardless of the circumstances, conspiracy and harassment were on Bruce's mind when he died—at the time of his death he was in the midst of writing about the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees people protection against "unreasonable search and seizure."
Sadly, Bruce neither lived to see his New York obscenity conviction overruled in 1966, nor the dramatic changes that much of his pioneering work helped catalyze. Ironically, by the 1970s, many plays, books, and movies, were produced about Bruce that romanticized and glorified his work. In death, he became part of the mainstream entertainment world that often shunned him. The most well-known and mainstream of these productions was the 1974 filmLenny, based on the play by Julian Barry and starring Dustin Hoffman as Bruce. Indeed, despite his incredible influence, many born after his time thought of Bruce only as Hoffman's portrayal in this stylized film. Paradoxically, only eight years after his death, the film Lenny was only given an "R" rating for routines that got Bruce arrested time and time again. That his own work was considered so "tame" just a short time after his death is perhaps a testimony to the degree of change Lenny Bruce really initiated.
—tova gd stabin
Barry, Julian. Lenny: A Play, Based On the Life and Words of Lenny Bruce. New York, Grove Press, 1971.
Bruce, Lenny. The Almost Unpublished Lenny Bruce: From the Private Collection of Kitty Bruce. Philadelphia, Running Press, 1984.
——. The Essential Lenny Bruce, edited by John Cohen. New York, Douglas Books, 1970.
——. How To Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. Chicago, Playboy Press, 1973.
Goldman, Albert Harry. Ladies and gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! New York, Random House, 1974.
Kofsky, Frank. Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist. New York, Monad Press, 1974.
Saporta, Sol. "Lenny Bruce on Police Brutality." Humor. Vol. 7, No.2, 1994, 175.
Thomas, William Karl. Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet. Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1989.