Lenny Bruce was one of the great comedians of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His influence on the world of stand-up comedy is profound. Think Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, George Carlin and, for better or for worse, just about every stand-up comedian of the modern era.
Bruce came out of the Jewish Borsht Belt and the hipster world of improvising jazz musicians. He wrote his own material and then riffed on it as if he was Charlie Parker taking a bebop solo. Bruce was determined to speak like Americans talked. His monologues mixed hipsterisms, Yiddish phrases, and vernacular English with taboo “four letter words” that no one was supposed to use or write in the scrubbed, buttoned-down world of postwar America. With Lenny Bruce, the Emperor was always naked. “I want to take the covers off,” he said. “Whatever you do, you should say the words.”
Ostensibly, it was his use of “dirty words” that got him into trouble. Though he performed only in nightclubs for adults only, the guardians of public morality consistently harassed him. Undercover police agents would tape his shticks and then bust him for obscenity. But only in New York City, in 1964, did the charges stick. Poor Lenny. In court he had to listen to an undercover cop read a verbatim transcript of his stand-up routine without any understanding of the comic craft. “He’s bombing,” Bruce supposedly told one of his lawyers. “And for this I’m going to jail.”
Facing four months in the workhouse, Bruce fired his lawyers, immersed himself in constitutional law, and prepared a legal appeal. A better comedian than he was a lawyer, Bruce botched his case and lost the appeal. Governor Pataki described the pardon as "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment." But in doing so he noted that he probably would not have been a fan of Bruce's humor. "I'm not a great fan of profanity as satire, but it is protected speech, and we certainly cherish all our freedoms," Pataki said.
While profanity was the subject and the obsession of New York’s prosecuting district attorney, it was not the point of Bruce’s nightclub act. While other comics focused on human foibles, Bruce’s subject, his obsession really, was hypocrisy -- the well-manured field between official statements and real-life acts, as well as the self-righteous delusions of everyday life. “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God,” he famously said. And, “In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls.” As civil liberties attorney Floyd Abrams told writer and long-time Bruce supporter Nat Hentoff, “As we look back on the prosecution of Lenny Bruce, it was less about `bad language’ than about supposedly bad thoughts -- thoughts about religion, culture and sex that must be protected in a free society.”
Bruce’s quest for truthfulness struck even the conservative National Review as admirable. After his death, a staffer wrote, “He also had, more than most commentators on the contemporary world, the tragic sense of life, and for many people his relentless honesty about the world as they see it is the closest thing to heroism they have encountered.”
One of the young people who considered him a hero was political activist Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman saw Bruce’s use of language as a liberating and truth-telling force. He wanted to expose the hypocrisy inherent in the Vietnam War. The government and its supporters thought it all right to napalm children or destroy a Vietnam village “in order to save it,” but would not tolerate the public expression of a four-letter word. Freedom of speech, bottom-line, means the right to describe government policy or call an elected official a dirty word.
Lenny Bruce opened the door to public profanity and Abbie Hoffman and his friends blew the door off its hinges. But there was a context to their profanity, a need to break through silence and fear and say publicly what was in a lot of people’s heads. That context is gone. Now we have Hollywood movies in which scripted profanity takes the place of emotionally descriptive words. And comedians now use “gutter language” as a cheap and easy infantile means of getting laughs. As a fan of both Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman, I believe we’re all degraded by the gratuitous use of “dirty words.” If Lenny Bruce were alive today, he’d be satirizing the promiscuous profanity that’s become commonplace.
Obscenity was the excuse but not the real reason that the authorities busted Lenny Bruce, and it is not the reason he should be remembered today. It was his acerbic and accurate social satire that made him dangerous, funny, and brave. Lenny Bruce’s pardon is being described as a “victory for free speech.” Some victory. A citizen says something that offends the powers-that-be and is silenced by the law. Forty years later the law says, sorry, we made a mistake. What’s important is not the pardon but the silencing. Free speech is not something you celebrate in theory or in retrospect. It’s a right to be exercised everyday, without fear or threat of imprisonment, and let the chips fall where they may.
You can hear excerpts of Bruce’s shticks at: http://www.freenetpages.co.uk/hp/lennybruce/.
Marty Jezer is a writer living in Brattleboro, Vermont. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.