October 13, 2008
"Life" is a four-letter word.
In the Halls of Justice the only justice is in the halls.
The "what should be" never did exist, but people keep trying to live
up to it. There is no "what should be," there is only what is.
Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the
reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous,
when you think about it.
To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish,
he once said. " It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you
live in New York you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you
are going to be goyish if you're Jewish.
What can you say about Lenny Bruce. He was before his time, he was
irreverant, he spoke the truth as he saw it. Many feel without Bruce
there would have been no George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy
or Chris Rock. He changed the face of comedy. Prior to Bruce
comedians didn't really do topical political humour. Bruce broke this
genre wide open. Some found him funny, to others he was a portent of
the disintegration in the morals of America.
Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York in
1925. His parents divorced when he was five, his mother tried to
support her family working in show business. Even though she was an
enormous influence on Bruce's career she evidently was not very
successfull since Bruce was sent to live with various relatives as a
child. He even spent time working on a farm with a family that
provided the stable surroundings he needed. In 1942 at age seventeen
he dropped out of school and joined the Navy. He saw active duty in
Europe, but evidently didn't like the navy. He got himself discharged
after convincing a team of Navy psychologists that he was
experimenting with homosexual urges in 1946.
In 1947, soon after changing his last name to Bruce, he earned $12.00
(equivalent to $116.00 in 2008) and a free spaghetti dinner for his
first stand-up performance in Brooklyn, New York. In 1948, he
obtained some bookings as a result of his appearance on the TV show
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Lenny married a red-headed stripper
named Honey Harlow in 1951, but they were divorced five years later.
After Honey was arrested and sent to jail for a narcotics violation,
Lenny raised their daughter, Kitty, by himself. Slowly, Bruce begain
working his way up from performing stand-up comedy in seedy New York
City strip clubs and jazz clubs. Gradually his act evolved into
something wholly different from that of other comics.
In 1959 influential San Francisco columnist Herb Caen who was an
early and enthusiastic supporter, wrote: They call Lenny Bruce a sick
comic, and sick he is. Sick of all the pretentious phoniness of a
generation that makes his vicious humor meaningful. He is a rebel,
but not without a cause, for there are shirts that need un-stuffing,
egos that need deflating. Sometimes you feel guilty laughing at some
of Lenny's mordant jabs, but that disappears a second later when your
inner voice tells you with pleased surprise 'but that's true'. In
that same year at the request of Hugh Hefner, Bruce wrote his
autobiography with the aid of Paul Krassner. Serialized in Playboy in
1964 and 1965, this material was later published as the book How to
Talk Dirty and Influence People. Hefner, a long-time foe of
censorship, had long assisted Bruce's career, featuring him in the
television debut of Playboy's Penthouse in October 1959.
Bruce became famous for his off-colour language and his use of comedy
to criticize the injustices in the United States. Onstage, he was a
dark, slender, and intense figure who prowled around like a caged
animal and spoke into a hand-held microphone. His monologues were
peppered with four-letter curse words and Yiddish expressions. In his
act, Bruce liked to expose racist attidudes by forcing his audiences
to examine their own racial prejudices. In another act bashing
religions, Lenny acted out a conversation between Oral Roberts and
the Pope, with both talking in the vernacular of glib show-business
personalities. It seemed nothing was sacred to Bruce.
On October 4, 1961 Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz
Workshop in San Francisco; he had used the word cocksucker and riffed
that 'to' is a preposition, 'come' is a verb and that the sexual
context of come is so common that it bears no weight, and that if
someone hearing it becomes upset, they "probably can't come."
Although the jury acquitted him, other law enforcement agencies began
monitoring his appearances, resulting in frequent arrests under
charges of obscenity. The increased scrutiny also led to an arrest in
Philadelphia for drug possession the same year, and again in Los
Angeles, California, two years later.
By the end of 1963, he had become a target of the Manhattan district
Hogan, who was working closely with Francis Cardinal Spellman, the
Archbishop of New York. The association of Hogan and Spellman led to
the often repeated speculation that Bruce's persecution was actually
fueled by his status as the original comedic Catholic Church-basher.
In April 1964, he appeared twice at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich
Village, with undercover police detectives in the audience. On both
occasions, he was arrested after leaving the stage, the complaints
again resting on his use of various obscenities.
A three-judge panel presided over his widely-publicized six-month
trial, with Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon being found guilty of
obscenity on 4 November 1964. The conviction was announced despite
positive testimony and petitions of support from Woody Allen, Bob
Dylan, Jules Feiffer, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, William Styron,
and James Baldwin, among other artists, writers and educators, as
well as Manhattan journalist and television personality Dorothy
Kilgallen and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced on
December 21, 1964, to four months in the workhouse; he was set free
on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal was
decided. Solomon's conviction was eventually overturned by New York's
highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, in 1970 (People v.
Solomon, 26 N.Y.2d. 621).
It got to the point where Bruce could not get a gig anywhere. He was
banned outright from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 he was banned
from performing in Sydney, Australia. At his first show there, he got
up on stage, declared What a fucking wonderful audience and was
promptly arrested. By 1965, he was broke and in debt. He claimed that
every time he got a gig, the local police, wherever he was, would
threaten to arrest the club owner if Bruce went onstage. He was
depressed and paranoid. His last performance was 25 June 1966 at the
Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco with Frank Zappa and The Mothers
of Invention. The performance was not remembered fondly by Bill
Graham, who described Bruce as whacked out on amphetamines; Graham
thought that Bruce finished his set emotionally disturbed. Zappa
asked Bruce to sign his draft card, but the suspicious Bruce refused.
Bruce by this time was bearded, overweight, and haggard, and his
performance centered on his current obsessions: his constitutional
right of free speach, free assembly, and freedom from unreasonable
search and seizure. When a friend asked him afterwards why he had
turned his back on comedy he replied, I'm not a comedian anymore. I'm
Lenny Bruce. On 3 August 1966, Bruce was found dead on the bathroom
floor of his Hollywood home. The "official" photo, taken at the
scene, showed Bruce lying naked on the floor, a syringe and burned
bottle cap nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia.
His official cause of death was acute morphine poisoning caused by an
accidental overdose. Dick Schaap famously eulogized Bruce in Playboy,
with the memorable last line: One last four-letter word for Lenny:
Dead. At forty. That's obscene.
New York Gov. George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon, a first
in New York state history, for an obscenity charge filed after a
particularly raunchy performance in 1964 at "Cafe Au Go Go" in New
York City's Greenwich Village during which he was said to have used
more than 100 obscene words. [December 23, 2003]
Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on
Never did get any Golden Globe award, never made it to Synanon.
He was an outlaw, that's for sure,
More of an outlaw than you ever were.
Lenny Bruce is gone but his spirit's livin' on and on.
Maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn't work out
But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth and he knew what he
about. Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies' heads,
He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds.
He's on some other shore, he didn't wanna live anymore.
Lenny Bruce is dead but he didn't commit any crime
He just had the insight to rip off the lid before its time.
I rode with him in a taxi once, only for a mile and a half,
Seemed like it took a couple of months.
Lenny Bruce moved on and like the ones that killed him, gone.
They said that he was sick 'cause he didn't play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools.
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts,
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts.
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had.
Copyright ©1981 Special Rider Music
Listen to Bob Dylan's Lenny Bruce
WARNING: There may be language in these clips. If you are easily
offended by language you may not want to listen to them.
Youtube clip of Lenny Bruce On The Irish
Youtube clip Lenny Bruce on Stage Just Before He Died
There are more clips on Youtube if you are interested. Some are from
talk shows of that time.
In 1971, Lenny, a play by Julian Barry based on Bruce's life and work
and starring Cliff Gorman, opened on Broadway. The play was developed
into a 1974 film Lenny by Bob Fosse and starred Dustin Hoffman. Eddie
Izzard portrayed the comedian in the 1998 London revival of Barry's play.
Larry Gelbart has said that Bruce's attempt to be released from
military service in World War II by dressing in a WAVES uniform was
the original inspiration for the character Maxwell Q. Klinger on the
In the 1990 motion picture Pump Up the Volume Mark Hunter (played by
Christian Slater) returns a copy of How to Talk Dirty and Influence
People to the high school library.
The 1998 documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth, written
and directed by Robert B. Weide, was nominated for an Oscar. Robert
De Niro provided the narration.
In 1971, one of Bruce's comedy routines was developed by San
Francisco filmmaker John Magnuson (who also directed 1967's "Lenny
Bruce Performance Film") into a short animated film, Thank You, Mask
Man (often cited as Thank You Masked Man) which parodied The Lone
Ranger. Bruce received credit for co-writing and co-directing this
seven-minute cartoon and providing his unique narration, which
included all of the voice characterizations.
In 2001, Jonathan Goldstein published a novel entitled Lenny Bruce is
Dead. (Coach House Press, 2001)
In 2001, the Slovene National Theatre in Maribor produced the play
Lenny written by Jasna Merc (based on Julian Barry's play), directed
by Zijah A. Sokolovi , who also played the leading role.
A six-CD retrospective titled Let The Buyer Beware, overseen by
record producer Hal Willner, was released in 2004.
Lenny Bruce appears as a fictionalized character in Don DeLillo's
1997 novel Underworld.
In 2004, Rich Vos portrayed Bruce in an episode of the NBC television
program American Dreams.
Lenny Bruce and a Lenny Bruce wannabe appear as fictionalized
characters in Brian Josepher's 2005 novel, What the Psychic Saw.
Lenny Bruce, according to Psychic, was the chronicler of the century,
the Alexis de Tocqueville of the Cold War.
In 2006, Borderline Films began production on Looking For Lenny, a
documentary on Lenny Bruce. Slated for a 2008 release, the film
features Lewis Black, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Jon Lovitz and Paul
Krassner, among others.
In 2007, Shmaltz Brewing Company of New York, as the first of its
Tribute to Jewish Stars series, concocted a memorial beer for Lenny
Bruce. "Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A." is a double India Pale Ale with
rye malt, released under Shmaltz's He'Brew label.
The phrase "yaddee yaddee, yadda" which was mispronounced and
immortalized in an episode of the TV show Seinfeld, had its origin in
a Lenny Bruce routine, Father Flotski's Triumph, in which Dutch, the
leader of a prison riot, replies "yaddee yaddee, yadda warden" to all
statements addressed to him. The name "Father Flotski," in fact, was
used as the name of a character on the TV show Soap. He was the young
priest in love with the character played by Diana Canova. "Dutch" was
also used as a Character name in Soap. Donnelly Rhodes played Dutch,
the prison tough who kidnaps Chester Tate in an escape plot, and ends
up falling for and marrying Chester's daughter Eunice.
In 2004, Bruce was voted No. 3 of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All
Time by Comedy Central behind Richard Pryor and George Carlin, both
of whom cite Bruce as an influence (Carlin was arrested as an
audience member for refusing to show identification at Bruce's
December,1962 show at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, after the police
ended the show and arrested Bruce for obscenity. They were both
placed into the back of the same paddywagon together). In a similar
survey conducted during 2007, Bruce was voted No. 30 of the 100
Greatest Comedy Stand-Ups by a public poll for the British Channel 4.
Lenny Bruce In Song
In part due to his freewheeling, jazz-like style, Lenny Bruce has
always had fans in the music community.
Bruce is one of the celebrities immortalized on the cover of the
Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The clip of a news broadcast featured in 7 O'Clock News/Silent Night
by Simon and Garfunkel carries the supposed newscast audio of Lenny
Bruce's death. In another track on the album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary
and Thyme, A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert
MacNamara'd Into Submission), Simon sings, "... and I learned the
truth from Lenny Bruce."
Lenny Bruce is referred to twice in the R.E.M. song It's the End of
the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) including the line Lenny
Bruce is not afraid.
Bruce is mentioned during the musical RENT, in the song La Vie Boheme"
Sections of the famous sketch Thank You, Masked Man were quoted by
Frank Zappa's band during the band's 1984 tour (and can be heard on
You Can't Do That On Stage Any More Vol 3 on CD; Does Humour Belong
in Music? on DVD).
Keith Richards (another fan) adapted a line from Lenny Bruce's The
Palladium for the Rolling Stones song Little T&A, where it became the
pool's in but the patio ain't dry.
Bob Dylan's song Lenny Bruce from the 1981 album Shot of Love
describes a brief taxi ride shared by the two legends. In the last
line of the song Dylan recalls: Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the
brother that you never had.
Lenny Bruce's "'to' is a preposition, 'come' is a verb..."
controversy inspired the 1992 song Big Mouth Strikes Again by
anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba. It includes a chorus which states that
TO is a preposition, COME is a verb, COME is a verb intransitive, TO
COME, TO COME, Don't come in me, and a verse which details both the
event and the subsequent legal proceedings.
In the 1964 version of Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah Allan Sherman made
reference to Lenny Bruce as follows: We're all tired of Mother Goose
here. So next Friday night they're having Lenny Bruce here.
The comedian also inspired, or is mentioned in, songs by The
Stranglers ("no more heroes"), John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Nico
("Eulogy to Lenny Bruce"), The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy,
Mighty Mighty Bosstones ("All Things Considered"), The Boo Radleys
("Rodney King (Song For Lenny Bruce)"), Great Big Sea, Steve Earle
("F the CC," including the lyric "Dirty Lenny died so we could all be
free"), Phil Ochs (who wore one of Bruce's old jackets on the cover
of his Pleasures of the Harbor album), Manic Street Preachers
Surf ("Imaginary Friends"), Tim Hardin (who lived in Bruce's house
for a time), Grace Slick (whose "Father Bruce" with The Great Society
was written while Bruce was alive, in celebration of his surviving a
1965 fall from a San Francisco hotel window), The Auteurs ("Junk Shop
Clothes" and possibly also "Lenny Valentino"), Mickey Avalon ("Dipped
in Vaseline", including the lyric "filthy on the mic like Lenny Bruce
used to be"), The Elastic Purejoy ("If Samuel Beckett Had Met Lenny
Bruce"), MDC ("Long Time Gone"), Allan Sherman, Widespread Panic
("Tickle the Truth Into Submission"), Nuclear Valdez ("Unsung Hero"),
John Mayall ("The Laws Must Change"), Nils Lofgren ("Mr. Hardcore"),
Aesthetic ("Lenny Bruce"), Juice Leskinen ("Lenny Bruce"), Metric
("On The Sly," including the lyric "for Halloween I want to be Lenny
Bruce"), Genesis ("Broadway Melody of 1974," including the lyric
"Lenny Bruce declares a truce and plays his other hand"), and John
Frusciante with The Bicycle Thief ("Cereal Song" aka "Heroin").
Sites used to write this article and for more information
His autobiography is available for purchase. The autobiographical
film Lenny is available from NetFlix.