Lenny Bruce (1925–1966)

2012-01-11 10:14:38

Lenny Bruce is often considered the most influential figure in modern comedy, a pioneer of the acerbic social satire that would dominate the genre in the latter half of the twentieth century. His challenges to contemporary standards of artistic expression in the 1950s and 1960s also made him a target of authorities and a central figure in the debate over the limits of free speech, inspiring generations of performers and activists while exerting a substantial toll upon his own career and personal life.

Born Leonard Schneider in Long Island, New York, in 1925, Bruce began his comedy career as a vaudeville-style comedian after serving in World War II. After a brief hiatus, he returned to the stage in the early 1950s with an edgier, more experimental style heavily influenced by the emerging beat culture. His comedy routines often tested the boundaries of the decade’s rigid obscenity standards with irreverent, satirical commentary on social mores and institutions, and frequently included jokes about oral sex, bodily functions, racism, and religion.

Bruce reached the peak of his mainstream success with a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1961. However, his exposure to conventional audiences resulted in a series of arrests on obscenity charges in various cities across the United States. Bruce was acquitted of some of these charges but convicted of others; he continued to perform while free on bond and refused to compromise his material despite mounting legal and financial difficulties. Meanwhile, his health—and, critics charged, the quality of his performances—began to decline under the strain of numerous trials and ongoing struggles with drug addiction.

In April 1964, during a series of performances at the Cafe´ au Go-Go in New York City, Bruce was once again arrested and charged with obscenity, inspiring outrage from the city’s formidable community of artists, writers, and intellectuals. The prosecution presented a number of eyewitnesses to Bruce’s Cafe´ au Go-Go performances, whose testimony included graphic descriptions of Bruce’s language and gestures during the performance. The defense, spearheaded by renowned First Amendment attorney Ephriam London, countered with testimony from a series of expert witnesses, including psychiatrists, music and theater critics, and media experts, who testified that Bruce’s material possessed artistic merit and was not obscene according to the community standards of the city of New York. The Court ruled that Bruce’s performances were obscene, found him guilty, and sentenced him to four months of hard labor. He remained free on bond but would not live to complete the appeals process, dying of a morphine overdose in Los Angeles on August 3, 1966.

The performances and legal battles of Lenny Bruce set precedents for subsequent challenges to free speech restrictions, resulting in a gradual relaxation of obscenity standards that allowed subsequent generations of writers and performers to present content more provocative than that for which Bruce was repeatedly arrested. In 2003, in response to a petition from artists and free speech advocates, New York Governor George Pataki issued Bruce a full posthumous pardon for his 1964 conviction.


References and Further Reading

  • Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Rep. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 1992
  • Collins, Ronald K.L., Lenny Bruce and the First Amendment: Remarks at Ohio Northern University Law School, Ohio Northern University Law Review 30 (Winter 2004): 1:15–34
  • Collins, Ronald K.L., and David, Skover. The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Mediafusion, 2002
  • Saporta, Sol. Society, Language and the University: From Lenny Bruce to Noam Chomsky. New York: Vantage Press, 1994

See also Obscenity; Obscenity in History; Pardon and Commutation; Public Figures; Public Vulgarity and Free Speech; Satire and Parody and the First Amendment