Exhausted and depressed from virtually nonstop prosecutions of his nightclub act that left him unemployable and bankrupt, Lenny Bruce—pioneer of a no-holds-barred style of stand-up comedy—died at age 40 of a drug overdose in Los Angeles on August 3, 1966.
It’s become almost a cliché to say that few would bat an eye today at Bruce’s so-called “sick” style of humor, especially when compared with the likes of Eddie Murphy, Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison. And perhaps it might well be true that Bruce’s humor would not seem as extreme as theirs.
On the other hand, it’s safe to say that these and other raunchy comedians of today will never step as remotely out of the mainstream as Bruce did, at the height of his career—or pay for it so dearly.
After gaining attention in the late 1950s for his often brilliant satiric monologues, Bruce began to attract attention from a more unwelcome source: prosecutors angered by foul language used as part of his act. Starting in 1961, the comic suffered under an unrelenting series of obscenity arrests.
Cleared in San Francisco, say, he would immediately be charged in Chicago. So systematic was the harassment that sometimes he would be in trouble in one court because another prosecution required a court appearance on the other coast. Vice cops even went to the length of bringing along Yiddish interpreters so they wouldn’t miss a bit of the exotic lingo that Bruce used to spice his act.
What motivated these prosecutions, and what certainly increased the animus with which they were pursued, were the comic’s often scabrous assaults on public authority and religious figures, including New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman. One of his friends had predicted accurately that he was offending so many people simultaneously that he was asking for trouble.
But the ultimate example of this--a routine that angered not merely large numbers of groups, but an entire mass audience--occurred after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, when the late President and his widow had reached a level of adulation almost never seen before, and probably not since. It was precisely at this point that a Bruce routine, “Hauling --- To Save Her ---,” suggested that photos of the First Lady scrambling out of the limo in Dallas showed her not trying to secure help for her bleeding husband, but to save her own skin.
The firestorm that greeted Bruce was not dissimilar to the reaction caused by Malcolm X when he noted that the JFK assassination represented a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” That remark, though not the sole cause of the rift between himself and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, represented the point at which the relationship never improved again.
Likewise, events in the life of Bruce—though hardly serene before his remark about Mrs. Kennedy—assumed unstoppable downward momentum afterward. In the spring following the JFK assassination, Bruce’s announced appearance at Café au Go Go in New York led to a crackdown by the Manhattan U.S. District Attorney’s office. As soon as Bruce made his comment about Jackie Kennedy, he was arrested at the Greenwich Village venue.
Bruce’s antagonist was Manhattan D.A. Frank Hogan, who had built a reputation as the nation’s most famous prosecutor through cases involving labor racketeers, corrupt political bosses, fixed college basketball games, and rigged TC game shows. Now, however, Hogan would diminish his reputation by listening to the urging of his assistant, Richard Kuh, who had prosecuted more than 100 obscenity cases--and saw the Bruce case as a particularly high-profile one.
Despite support from a variety of intellectuals show-business figures, even an Episcopalian minister who felt his work was “in some ways helpful, and even healing,” the court convicted him by a two-to-one vote. That conviction would be overturned on appeal more than three years later.
The appellate judges noted correctly that Bruce’s act didn’t fulfill one of the tests of obscenity--that it be utterly without social value--because the comic certainly commented on all kinds of social and political situations.
By this time, however, his routine had stopped being funny. Nightclub owners, warned by vice cops that they’d close their establishments if they allowed Bruce to appear, shut him out. When he did manage to appear somewhere, “It was painful to see the wreckage of Lenny’s talents,” noted John D. Weaver in a November 1968 article for Holiday Magazine:
“It was like watching Joe DiMaggio muff a fly ball. The legs were gone. Lenny stumbled around in dark, airless cellars, chanting a lewd litany that had long since lost its capacity to shock or edify. The once-startling words could be found in any popular novel or family magazine, with the possible exception of Casket and Sunnyside.”
Bruce told a book editor concerned about the direction of his act that he was changing: “I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”
Part of his new act involved being an unrelenting, obsessive First Amendment advocate. He was now bankrupt and getting by day to day on shots of Methedrine that were designed to relieve his growing depression and lethargy.
He was found with a needle in his arm for injecting morphine (not, as some erroneously reported, heroin), bearded, naked and paunchy, at the time of his death.
It was not until 2003 that a New York State governor, George Pataki--not a liberal Democrat, but a conservative Republican-- finally got around to pardoning the comic. But the entertainment industry had, long before, judged him not merely a First Amendment martyr (a view endorsed by the play Lenny and its subsequent film adaptation starring Dustin Hoffman) but also a seminal influence on the generation of comics to follow.
To see what a change he produced, consider the case of Richard Pryor. An upcoming PBS documentary, “The Ed Sullivan Comedy Special,“ includes an astute Arsenio Hall comment concerning Pryor’s appearance on the long-running, career-making variety show: “People forget that in the beginning, Richard’s voice was kind of an offshoot of (Bill) Cosby’s. He idolized Cosby. They had the same representatives, and he wanted to be Bill.”
The example of Bruce, another member of a group victimized by prejudice, showed Pryor how he could comment on society in a unique way. The experience “changed my life,” Pryor observed, not long before his own death: “So I played his record over and over, every night. It was him who said comedy wasn't about telling jokes - it was about telling the truth."