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L e N N Y   B R u C e

Leonard Alfred Schneider, better known as Lenny Bruce has had probably more impact than any other single comedian upon the shaping of American comedy, and can be seen as a tragedy of modern American culture. Reaching the peak of his career in the early sixties, Bruce was more than just a comic, he was a social satirist, commentator and a great actor. In his time, Lenny was to comedy what the likes of Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa were to music. Daring to break with comedic convention on a large scale, he used scatological and Yiddish idiom to bomb taboos such as: race and gender relations, homosexuality, religion and drugs. It was this approach that provoked not only arrests and audience walkouts, but which led to a misconception of him and his work by future generations of comedians and musicians who were more interested in sainting him than they were in his work. In the end, it was the same approach that killed him.

Lenny was born in 1926 to Sally Marr, who was also in showbusiness. After the Second World War, Lenny followed his mother's footsteps into comedy, changing his name from Schneider to Bruce, and doing the traditional Henny Youngman type 1950's comedy schtick. Lenny slowly won some audiences over, but was struggling. However, a lot of the old-time comics loved what Lenny was doing, something which Lenny later saw and rebelled against. In or around 1950, Lenny married stripper Honey Harlow who later gave birth to a girl, Kitty Bruce. Honey's drug problems, arrests, money problems and affairs on both sides lead to a marriage breakdown and divorce. Lenny originally had custody of Kitty, but later left her with his mother.

It was during this time, that Lenny began working the burlesque houses and underground jazz nightclubs, mostly around San Fransico and LA. He appeared quite often at Mort Sahl's ‘Hungry I’ which was the club that all the new, groundbreaking comics of the time worked at. Between 1958 and 1962, Lenny released four albums on the Fantasy label, which became the inspiration for all of the bright, young comics for about the next 15 years. These albums were edited so that Lenny's routines were put in, but not much of his "between bits" monologues. The bits on the albums were never actually performed the way they are heard, as several nights of performances were edited together. Although this was an innovative way to create a comedy album, the recording techniques of the late fifties hinder the continuity of the bits by today’s standards.

These albums were what really launched Lenny's career, along with appearances on The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Lenny's comedy was more real and more confrontational than anything that had been heard before in American comedy. The jazz and new wave comics got behind Lenny, while the old school comics criticised and ridiculed him.

In 1962, Lenny's bits started to disappear and he begun free forming all the time. He was also arrested in 1962 for the first time, this was for an "obscene" performance during his bit about a couple striving for orgasmic release. He was later arrested for drug posession, despite having a legal prescription for the Morphine they found in his Motel room. Lenny hilariously recounts this episode on the Curran Hall concert album, in which he mentions the police having him strapped to a stretcher and taking the elevator with a guy already in it.

Lenny’s obscenity charge was acquitted in a highly publicised jury case. However, he was arrested and charged several more times for obscenity and possesion of narcotics. Lenny was usually acquitted of his obscenity charges, most often losing in the lower court, but having the desicions overturned in the higher court.

Lenny was finding it more and more difficult to find work, as police threatened club owners that their licences would be revoked if Lenny performed there. The court cases cost Lenny thousands of dollars and this began a new phase of his career. He would discuss the intricacies of the American legal system, and this was the first time a comedian really took on the US constituion in such a way (despite plenty of other guys doing so since, nobody has been able to do it better). Lenny even spent several thousand dollars getting a re-trial for a guy in California on a serious charge because the court case had been unfair and unconstituional.

Lenny was arrested yet again in 1964 and soon after was declared legally bankrupt. Despite difficulties in getting work and money, Lenny was fighting towards a supreme court bid to vindicate his name as a performer and artist. Before Lenny’s 1964 trial, a letter of protest was delivered to the mayor of New York, which demanded that the authorities end their shameful harassment of him. The harassment had led to excessive drug use, squalid living conditions and a collapsed lung. Amongst the many signatures were included: Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Paul Newman, Norman Mailer, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Penn, Terry Southern and Gore Vidal. The protest was ignored and the authorities continued their baseless invasions of Bruce's home and privacy. A pistol under Lenny’s nose was their usual calling card.

Halfway through the 1964 New York trial, Lenny decided to sack his attorneys and defend himself. After comparing the subpoenaed tapes of his performance to the prosecution’s transcript, Lenny found that no less than 1,273 words had been changed. Lenny pleaded with Judge Murtagh saying, "I have the right to say fuck you, but I didn't say it. Please, your Honour, I so desperatly want your respect... I believe in censorship... I believe in prior restraint... I know what obscene means." Judge Murtagh declined Lenny's requests and commented that, "It was only a dirty show presented by the district attorney." Lenny was sentenced to four months in prison, and psychiatric evaluation. The sentence was never enforced. In order to display his performance to the supreme court without the prosecution’s changes, Lenny recorded The Lenny Bruce Performance film in 1965. The film is one of the most important performances in American stand up history (although it could be argued that it is not technically comedy).

Bruce played a handful of gigs over the last two years of his life, occasionally going to his friend, record producer Phil Spector's house where Stan Laurel would make up a dinner threesome. Lenny's ex-wife Honey (who he had briefly seen again) was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a time. In Frank Zappa's book it is mentioned that Zappa played on a bill with Lenny in 1965 and that, according to Lenny's then housemate John Judnich, Bruce would stay up all night dressed in a doctor’s outfit, listening to Sousa marches while working on his legal briefs.

America wasn't the only place Lenny had trouble, he was deported from England and banned in Australia, not to mention his run-ins with producers regarding certain bits he intended to do on their TV shows.

In the end Bruce was sick, overweight and still having to cope with police harassment. He eventually went to the FBI headquarters in an attempt to put an end to it. He died on August 3, 1966 of a Morphine overdose, naked on the floor with the needle sticking out of his arm - reportedly with a faint smile on his face.

Even after his death, the police continued to abuse Lenny. They herded groups of photographers in to take snapshots of his lifeless body. Lenny's friend, record producer Phil Spector joined many others in condemning the police for their treatment of Bruce following his death. So disgusted with it all was Spector that he claimed Lenny’s body and had him buried, despite reactionary religious controversy and oversensitive police chiefs.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Lenny Bruce is that his story has obscured his comedic touch. He was an excellent mimmick and actor with a great eye for detail. Bits like "Religions Inc.", "Father Flotski's Triumph", "The Palladium" and "How To Relax Coloured Friends At Parties" are classics of American comedy. Lenny's legacy still lives on today, and most comics owe a debt to the honesty he brought on stage. Comedians such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis and Eric Bogosian in particuar have mentioned the debt that they owe to Lenny.

Now, many years later, some might argue that Lenny's shock value has dissipated with the upsurge of "foul mouthed" comics. But as Mort Sahl said, it wasn't the dirty words that Lenny used to offend people with, it was what he used to say in between them.

There are plenty of imitators, but only one Lenny Bruce who can still upset and rile over 30 years later. One night in December 1999, DoN’T FoRGeT YouR PUBES broadcast nothing but Lenny’s performances from midnight to 9am. The next morning the radio station’s banner outside the station had been slashed several times. Some folks still can’t laugh.

We leave you with a comment on Lenny's work in 1961 from old-time comic Jack Carter, and Lenny's response.

QUOTE FROM JACK CARTER INTERVIEW in the New York Sunday News 29th of January, 1961 -

Lenny Bruce?  I think the guy should be stopped by the union from working, the sick comic's embarrassing to the business.  He gets up there mouthing four-letter words of filth as if no one had ever heard them before, he indulges himself.  His act is nothing more than unprofessional rambling.


Dear Jack:

Brother!  Did that wake me up!  A few other people had told me that, but I didn't believe them.  The writers charged me $7,500 for that four-letter-word bit, and they swore to God to me that no one ever heard them before.  Being a neophyte, I took them at their word and went braggin' all over that I finally had an original piece of material.  I broke it in in Bridgeport, and it went over just swell.  Really terrific.  But when I worked Milwaukee a couple of bopsters who were real dopey, probably on benzedrine or that other stuff that they smoke, said.  'Why don't you get some new material?"  I thought they were talking about my Sophie Tucker "Mr. Segal, Make it Legal" number that I, er, didn't exactly steal from her because I always start out the number with "To one of the greatest performers in show business today," and then I go into her number.   I switched the lyrics around the second show to a "Khrushchev needs a good piece well-laid plan" bit.  Sometimes I'll switch off and use one of Joe E. Lewis's numbers if I find the vice aren't in.  But those guys were talking about my four-letter-word bit.  I said, "Are you kidding?   You mean to tell me you've heard those words before?"  And they said, "Sure."

"Where from?"

"Oh, from my father, from my uncle."

"Well, you'd better tell your father and vour uncle that I paid $1500 for that bit," and do you know that one of those guys just looked at me and said: "Fuck you!" And I said,

"I just gave a guy a $1,500 retainer on that bit.'  Now Jack, please tell me the truth.  Have you ever heard of "Fuck you" before?  Tell me, because I'm not going to spend a lot of money on material that people have heard before. 

Love, Lenny the rambler  


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