3rd August 2006 was the 40th Death Anniversary of Lenny Bruce. We, of the present generation, owe Lenny Bruce a fucking lot. He contributed a lot to the fucking effort it took to make saying 'fucking' fucking okay. Except for him, Eminem would have been lost to us, and a whole lot of other musicians would have been a whole lot less inspired.
Lenny Bruce was an extremely funny American comedian who specialized in scathing social observations, a flawed human being who was not a Feminist's Dream or a Guiding Light of the PC Crowd, and a very courageous, principled man who never backed down from his belief in freedom of expression.
His friend, Dick Gregory said about him -
"This man is the eighth wonder of the world. You have to go back to Mark Twain to find anything remotely like him. And if they don't kill him, or throw him in jail, he's liable to shake up this whole fuckin' country."
Leonard Alfred Schneider was born on 13 October 1925 in a working-class Jewish family in Mineola, New York. His parents divorced when he was still very young and he was parceled off to his grandparents. During his growing years, he seems to have spent more time in the company of adults than children his age and this made him pretty precocious. The adults found him amusing and this added fuel to his fire. He developed a strong penchant for entertaining people and decided to follow his mother, Sally Marr, into a career as a Stage Performer. But World War II happened first and he went off to join the Navy and remained with it till 1946.
Back in civilian life, he adopted the stage name Lenny Bruce and began doing stand-up comedy routines at a cabaret night-club. He also began performing in comedy clubs around the country. These experiences honed his natural comic skills and, while he had started out doing pretty traditional stuff, he soon began to move towards social satire. He had a very sharp eye and a way of putting his finger directly on the hub of controversy.
It was at the night-club that Lenny had met and fallen in love with Honey Harlowe, a dancer whom, along with his mother, he had begun incorporating in his routines. They married and for a time things seemed pretty good. A daughter, Kitty Bruce, was born in 1955, and Lenny Bruce's career as a comedian really took off. He was to cut numerous comedy albums, appear on the Steve Allen Show, and perform at Carnegie Hall
Soon, however, his penchant for heroin and the establishment's habit of finding his comic routines obscene overshadowed his life.
Troubles with the Wife and the Authorities:
Lenny's first brush with authority had come in 1951 when he had thought it would be amusing to collect donations for a leper colony in British Guiana by impersonating a Catholic Priest. He first masqueraded as a laundry man to equip himself with the necessary clerical clothes and then kept most of the collected money for himself. Certain legal loopholes saved him and failed to amuse the prosecuting authorities.
After several years together, Lenny Bruce and Honey divorced. His inability to overcome the heroin addiction - and perhaps his habit of making outrageous comments about their sex life in public - had finally taken the toll on their domestic bliss.
Meanwhile, through word-to-mouth channels, his audience had grown to include unsmiling policemen and FBI agents. They were people with plenty morals and no humor, and very little liking for, as the science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison put it, the burrs under society's saddle. Lenny Bruce, by the quirk of his personality, was definitely one such burr.
He was a lively, intelligent man, with wide interests, and he never accepted things as they were; he always had to prod and question and inquire why the accepted was accepted in the accepted fashion. He made far too many perceptive observations about religion, marriage, morals, drugs, racism, irrational ideas, amongst other things, and this was, unfortunately, unacceptable to the establishment. At least twice, he was arrested immediately after coming off-stage.
In the Nazi-era, a German comedian, Weiss Ferdl, had made jokes about the establishment and its pillars, and the Gestapo had promptly dispatched him to Dachau. In the USA of the 1960s, since Guantanamo did not yet exist, Lenny Bruce kept ending up doing time in ordinary jail cells for his obscene daring in targeting the holy cows of society in his routines.
Being an evergreen optimist, he actually believed that the Law would eventually come through on his behalf. For all his intelligence, he failed to understand one basic truth of human existence - you can coin all the well-intentioned and wonderful-sounding laws in the world, and they will still get turned into empty platitudes or twisted into favoring the party in power.
He was arrested 15 times in the space of two years - for possession of narcotics, for saying 'cocksucker' at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop and thereby violating the California Obscenity Code, for saying 'Where is that dwarf mother-fucker?' at Hollywood's Troubador Theater and so on - and, aside from this unwelcome treatment in his own country, he found himself deported on arrival from the UK and banned from performing in Australia.
He began spending more time studying legal transcripts than working on his comic material. As it was, the anger of the establishment had scared off potential employers - some night-club owners were actually threatened with a revocation of their licenses if he was allowed to perform his 'sick comedy routines' on their premises - and so his career was pretty much on Skid Row. Still, he persevered. The US Constitution, after all, had specifically granted him Free Speech Rights - "These are mine," he announced. "I will not relinquish them unto anybody."
When his 'lack of remorse' prompted Richard Kuh, the Attorney for New York District, to request the court to show him a total lack of mercy, Lenny Bruce retorted, "I'm not here for remorse, but for justice. The issue is not obscenity, but that I spit in the face of authority."
His many initial acquittals may have spelled landmark preservative victories for First Amendment Rights, but they did him no good. He was convicted of obscenity in 1964 and set free on bail. He was now an unemployable pariah and he had spent practically all his fortune in paying the legal fees of his lawyers.
Also, his trials had dented his sense of humor to an understandably large extent and, in the few gigs he managed to get, the audience failed to find him amusing. They wanted a comedian that would make them forget their troubles, not one that would stand there and give them a dose of his by reading aloud from his trial transcripts.
On 26 June 1966, Lenny performed for the last time and unsuccessfully at the Filmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Five weeks and four days later, on 3 August 1966, he had overdosed on morphine.
Playboy magazine, which had backed him and the publication of his book 'How to Talk Dirty and Influence People', gave him a heart-felt obituary that he would have loved -
"Finally, one last four-letter word concerning Lenny Bruce: Dead. At forty. That's obscene."
A movie on his life 'Lenny', starring Dustin Hoffman, went on to garner six Academy Award Nominations in 1974, and later the establishment didn't stint an Award from Meryl Streep for saying 'Cocksucker' in 'Sophie's Choice'.
And finally, in 2003, when many of his shockers had more or less become a daily habit with the New York Public, he was formally pardoned by George Pataki.
1. "I'm a gadfly. I compromise, so actually I have no belief. Rather, I follow what satisfies me and what pleases me and what does me good: and if it doesn't, I compromise with it."
2. "If something about the human body disgusts you complain to the manufacturer."
3. "All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover."
4. "If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little Electric Chairs around their necks instead of crosses."
5. "Take away the right to say "fuck" and you take away the right to say "fuck the government!"
6. "(The) greatest respect we can have for law and order is to question and challenge the people who are enforcing it."