America’s First Stand-Up Philosopher

Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce

If Lenny Bruce were alive today, what would he make of the vulgar language, explicit sexuality and ethnic jokes that are the stock in trade of so many popular comics? How would he respond to what some observers perceive as escalating checks on freedom of speech under the guise of “political correctness,” particularly on college campuses?

Recognized for his impact on comedy, as well as on censorship and the contours of satire, Bruce — who died 50 years ago at age 40 from a morphine overdose — was persecuted and prosecuted as he pushed against the limits of free speech and acceptability. Yet he remains an enigma, a complex character whose place in entertainment and First Amendment history is neither fully understood nor appreciated.

Brandeis’ recent acquisition of Bruce’s personal papers — a 10-foot-long trove of photos, recordings, news clippings, scripts, correspondence and legal transcripts — promises to change all that. This fall, Brandeis will host a Lenny Bruce conference and permanently open the archive to scholars and students.

Though Bruce had no direct connection to Brandeis, his controversial work and life make his papers a natural fit in the university’s archives, says Sarah Shoemaker, associate university librarian for archives and special collections.

“The issues raised by Lenny Bruce’s legacy, not just his comedy, are provocative,” Shoemaker says. “And Brandeis has a history of welcoming the challenging conversation.”

A symbol with staying power

In the 1950s and ’60s, Bruce was part of a diverse group of entertainers who reshaped the way stand-up comedy was created and performed.

The previous generation of comedians — men like Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman and Bob Hope — told rapid-fire jokes, a brief setup followed by a punch line. Theirs was comedy without depth, or social significance, or controversy. It produced reliable laughs, and had its roots in vaudeville, the radio shows of the ’30s and ’40s, and the Borscht Belt.

Consider the following Hope joke from the 1950s: “Eisenhower admitted the budget can’t be balanced, and McCarthy says the communists are taking over. You don’t know what to worry about these days ... whether the country will be overthrown or overdrawn.”

On the other hand, Bruce and his cohort of “hip” new comedians — including Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Tom Lehrer, Jonathan Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Dick Gregory — wrote their own material, rooted in their personal experiences. They satirized and deconstructed daily life, made fun of phoniness and hypocrisy, and addressed the changes engulfing the U.S.

No one embodied this approach as completely as Bruce, says Steve Whitfield, the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, who helped Brandeis acquire the comedian’s papers.

“He made performative art a medium of personal expression, a way of exploring American society and even human nature,” says Whitfield. “And it became as distinctive as a signature, burying forever the rat-a-tat-tat one-liners devised by teams of gag writers, which Bob Hope exemplified.”

Though Bruce was not always the most popular, most successful or even the funniest member of his generation of comics, he left the most enduring legacy, thanks not only to his innovative, often outrageous material, but also to his premature death and the legal battles that shaped the sad closing act of his life.

In fact, Bruce achieved more fame in death than in life, through tributes like the 1974 biopic “Lenny,” starring Dustin Hoffman. Bruce’s biographer Albert Goldman described this posthumous revivification as “the electric resurrection of Saint Lenny Bruce.”

Bruce has influenced an eclectic mix of performers, artists and intellectuals, from legendary comedians like the late George Carlin to contemporary comics like Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman; from magician Penn Jillette to musician Keith Richards, who said the first thing he did when the Rolling Stones first came to the U.S. was go to a record store “and buy every Lenny Bruce album I could find,” because “from there I could get a thread to the secrets of [American] culture.”

The comic has been referenced in songs by Bob Dylan, Brooklyn punk band Doubting Thomas Cruise Control, Paul Simon, Genesis and the British rapper Scroobius Pip. Bruce is one of the notables pictured on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover and was a character in the Don DeLillo novel “Underworld.”

Social critic Camille Paglia even recently suggested that the incendiary comments of billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump are reminiscent of Bruce’s penchant for entertaining audiences by startling them.

‘I could try anything’

But as a young comedian, Bruce did not set out to buck the system.

In his early 20s, trying his hand at stand-up in small New York City nightclubs, he drew on the broad-comedy tradition of entertainers like Jerry Lewis, says Robert Weide, director of the award-winning 1998 documentary “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth.”

Bruce later said he didn’t get many laughs during those years because “the audience knew it was dishonest. It wasn’t me.” So he began to change his style. His comedy became more free-form, and his material more risqué and risky, filled with off-color language, sex jokes, even fake phone calls to the wives of men in the audience.

“I could try anything,” Bruce said. “Every night, doing it, doing it, getting bored and doing it different ways.”

The success of Mort Sahl, who was just breaking loose with a new improvisational, topical style of comedy, hastened Bruce’s transformation, says Weide. “When Lenny saw that you could do something so different as a comedian, he ran with it.”

Performing in Beat-era clubs in New York and San Francisco, Bruce began making a name for himself. His new style might best be described by a phrase coined by Mel Brooks in his 1981 movie “History of the World, Part I”: “stand-up philosopher.” Although Bruce’s subjects — television, the movies, advertising and modern society, as well as edgier topics like race and religion — weren’t that different from what his contemporaries were talking about, he pushed the boundaries of satire and acceptability.

In his routine about the Lone Ranger, for instance, Bruce recast the cowboy as a neurotic loser. After saving a town, the Lone Ranger gallops off while a resident complains:

What’s wrong with that putz? The shmuck didn’t wait! Momma made a cake and everything! I got my hand out like some jack-off — and he’s on his horse already! What an asshole. I’m standing there with the mayor and a plaque and everything. I’m gonna punch the shit out of him if I ever see him here again!

‘Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jello is goyish’

A jazz fan, Bruce performed like a jazz musician: the fluid movement between subjects, the seemingly improvisational nature of his routines, the finger snapping, the language (“cat,” “man,” “dig it”). Some of his earliest, loudest backers were Ralph Gleason, Nat Hentoff and other well-known jazz critics.

His performances also had a Jewish sensibility. He used Yiddish phrases, and talked about Jewish concepts and symbols often discussed in the Borscht Belt but rarely outside it. “By making nightclubs a place to reveal and revel in his own ethnicity, Bruce made Jewishness something that no longer had to be hidden,” says Whitfield. “He made it possible for race and ethnicity to become topics of satire.”

Bruce’s use of Yiddish was not, in fact, much different from his use of profanity. “I don’t use words to get laughs,” he said. “I use them for color, like Picasso — a big bold stroke. And people do talk that way. I want the same license Tennessee Williams has. I don’t have a big vocabulary. My conversation is the argot of the gangster, the hipster and Yiddish. But I never use any of them for a punch line.”

One of Bruce’s best analyses of American culture (and one of the few that can be printed here without editing) is his classic bit “Jewish and Goyish.”

Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai B’rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish. Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish, and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish. All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda’s Jewish; macaroons are very Jewish. Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton twirling is very goyish. Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish. “Celebrate” is a goyish word. “Observe” is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (Ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.

Ultimately, Bruce’s use of language — English and Yiddish — altered both his life and his comedy. By the late 1950s, Bruce had gained national prominence as well as notoriety for his off-color language and provocative social criticism.

In July 1959, Time magazine published a feature story about “sick comics,” which charged that Bruce “uses four-letter words almost as often as conjunctions, and talks about rape and amputees.” Bruce responded with his own definition of “sick”: “that school teachers in Oklahoma get a top annual salary of $4,000 while Sammy Davis Jr. gets $10,000 a week in Vegas.”

Bruce’s fans applauded what he was trying to do. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen said, “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 unstuffing, egos that need deflating.”

Not all shirts wanted to be unstuffed, however. In 1961, during a performance at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, Bruce was arrested for the first time, for using an obscene word.

That word, Ralph Gleason wrote, “is familiar to every schoolboy [and] is used at the bar 20 feet away from where Bruce is performing.”

Standing up to the pieties of the time

Bruce was busted many times over the next five years. Sometimes, he would be arrested in one town, go to the next, and be arrested there. It got so bad Bruce asked the FBI to investigate collusion among police and prosecutors in different cities.

At some venues, police waited in the audience with a list of “offending” words, both English and Yiddish. In others, Yiddish-speaking cops would be present.

“It just snowballed,” says Weide. “If he didn’t get arrested, people would wonder what was wrong with their town. He became a marked man.”

Plenty of other comedians performed “blue,” as the use of profanity or off-color language is known. Why was Bruce targeted this way?

“I really do think it was his message,” says Weide, “especially the things he was saying about religion, which stepped on some people’s toes. In this country, blasphemy is not illegal. But obscenity is.”

Before Bruce’s 1962 arrest at Chicago’s Gate of Horn club, the head of the vice squad warned the club manager:

If this man ever uses a four-letter word in this club again, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here. If he ever speaks against religion, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here. Do you understand? You’ve had good people here. But he mocks the pope — and I’m speaking as a Catholic — I’m here to tell you your license is in danger. We’re going to have someone here watching every show.

Bruce was convicted only once, the result of a 1964 appearance at Greenwich Village’s Cafe au Go-Go. All the other prosecutions were either dismissed or overturned on appeal. But the damage was done. The prosecutions, designed to put him out of business, ultimately did just that. Few club owners would hire him because they feared losing their liquor license for presenting an obscene show. Bruce’s infrequent television appearances — on the few shows willing to test the censors — completely disappeared.

His never-ending legal defense bankrupted him. He became consumed with his courtroom battles. He brought court transcripts to his shows, citing the errors and the hypocrisy to his audiences:

I figured out after four years why I got arrested so many times. I do my act at, perhaps, 11 at night; little do I know that 11 a.m. the next morning, before the grand jury somewhere, there’s another guy doing my act who’s introduced as Lenny Bruce in substance. […] A peace officer […] does the act. The grand jury watches him work and says, “That stinks!” But I get busted. And the irony is I have to go to court and defend his act.

In New York City, Bruce pleaded with judges to let him perform his act in the courtroom, so they could understand why he used the words he did:

Your honor […] the court hasn’t heard the show. […] Please let me testify. Let me tell you what the show is about. […] Please, your honor, I so desperately want your respect. […] Don’t finish me off in show business. Don’t lock up these 6,000 words.

As his legal battles grew, Bruce lost his comedic edge. He began to preach rather than entertain. “I’m sorry I haven’t been very funny,” he told a San Francisco audience, “but, you see, I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”

On Aug. 3, 1966, Bruce died of a morphine overdose in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home.

Overshadowed by the revolution he led

Today, dirty language, graphic sexuality, racial and ethnic jokes, and even attacks on religion are entirely unremarkable on the comedy stage.

As Ronald Collins, co-author of “The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,” notes, it is “no exaggeration to say that the legacy of Lenny Bruce is that he made clubs free-speech zones. Legally speaking, Bruce will be remembered as the perpetual guardian of the right of comedians to say what they want.”

“Young people who hear the story about Lenny getting arrested and hear his material are totally confused as to what the fuss was about,” says Weide.

Neither Bruce’s routines nor his style sound as sharp or hip as they did 60 years ago, which makes it difficult to fully appreciate his brilliance. “Comedy that was bold for the ’50s is tepid by today’s standards,” says Collins. Moreover, listening to a full Bruce performance or even one of his long routines requires more attention than contemporary audiences are generally willing to give.

Still, Bruce’s comedic bloodline is clearly evident in the work of his immediate descendants, like Carlin (whose “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” owes a debt to Bruce’s legal battles), Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Joan Rivers and David Steinberg. It continued into the next generation of comedians, such as Richard Lewis; Lewis Black; and Jerry Seinfeld, who said he realized he could make a profession out of stand-up after reading a Bruce biography. And younger comics like Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and Sacha Baron Cohen are carrying the Bruce inheritance into the future.

Women comics have an especially strong connection with Bruce, declares Joyce Antler ’63, the Samuel B. Lane Professor Emerita of American Jewish History and Culture, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She says Silverman and Schumer, for instance, “cutting-edge, socially relevant” comics who can shock, “are adding a radical feminist trajectory to what is out there, within the Lenny Bruce tradition.”

One of the strongest links to Bruce was Rivers. Asked a few months before her death in 2014 if another comedian had changed her life, she responded, “Lenny Bruce! Nothing to discuss. Nothing to discuss.” She recalled how, after one of her performances bombed, Bruce sent her a note saying, “You’re right; they’re wrong. — Lenny Bruce.” She carried the note as a talisman in her bra, she said, to keep her moving forward.

During an appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show, Rivers told the story about getting Bruce’s note. George Carlin was also a guest on the show that night. “He sent me the same note,” Carlin said.

Getting Bruce to Brandeis

The collection of Bruce’s personal papers came to Brandeis in a roundabout way. After Steve Krief, a doctoral candidate at the University of Paris, wrote his dissertation on Bruce’s work, he delivered a copy of the dissertation to Lenny’s daughter, Kitty — whom he had used as a resource — at her home in Pennsylvania.

During the visit, Kitty, who was 10 when Lenny died, showed Krief a wealth of materials from and about her father, including photo albums compiled by Lenny’s mother and his wife, Honey Harlow, Kitty’s mother. Some of the documents had begun to disintegrate.

Krief knew Steve Whitfield, who had served on his dissertation committee, so he suggested placing the papers at Brandeis, which could give them the proper care. Kitty liked the idea. Archivist Shoemaker worked with Kitty for more than a year to guide her through a painstaking and, for Kitty, often painful process of letting go.

“We went through the collection piece by piece,” Kitty says. “For me, it was a withdrawal. It was like passing on something very close and sacred to me, and I had to trust that Brandeis was going to do right by my dad’s stuff.”

The acquisition and preservation of the Bruce papers was made possible by a generous gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation. Hefner, a strong First Amendment defender, gave Bruce one of his few national television appearances, on the syndicated show “Playboy’s Penthouse,” and published Bruce’s autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” after serializing it in Playboy magazine. Support for digitizing Bruce’s personal recordings came from a $20,000 grant given by the GRAMMY Foundation.

The collection formally opens during the Bruce conference that Brandeis will host this fall.

One question Bruce scholars will surely ponder is what he would think about the health of freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses.

“The irony,” says Collins, “is that some of Lenny Bruce’s routines could not even be performed on many campuses because of speech codes. If Bruce were alive today, he would be having a comedic field day with political correctness.”

Antler has a slightly different take. “While there certainly is a heightened sensitivity for the distinction between hate speech and free speech,” she says, “I believe young people, including those on the Brandeis campus, would understand what satire is, what mockery is and what self-mockery is, and that they would tolerate and even appreciate Bruce’s material.”

Whichever scenario is more accurate, there is little doubt Lenny would be enjoying the attention.

Alexander Wohl is a writer and speechwriter who specializes in law and social policy. He is the author of “Father, Son and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy” (University Press of Kansas, 2013).

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