Anyone who has ever ranted to their friends about something they despise, something obscene, something taboo that you just had to get off your chest and broadcast to those around you—- you need to know the story of the legendary Lenny Bruce.
Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in 1925, Lenny was dead by the age of 40. And in that short life, he laid the groundwork for the best comedians of the last fifty years. Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, Jon Stewart—-each has listed Lenny Bruce as an influence.
First, to understand Lenny Bruce’s comedy, you need to have a perspective on what the United States was in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The United States was not politically correct in the way it is today. It was homogenized. In the public sphere, there was much deference to authority, the government, properness, and social restraint. For entertainment, people didn’t go to coffee shops and listen to up-and-coming comedians tell dick jokes. On television, comedians were not even allowed to say the word “pregnant”.
His early stints in comedy were while he was in the US Navy in the 1940s. He was kicked out for dressing in drag and being under the suspicion of engaging in homosexual activities.*** Even then, his wit was splashed in the face of authority.
Fourth Officer: “Do you enjoy wearing women’s clothing?”
Fourth Officer: “When is that?”
Lenny: “When they fit.”
Lenny made light of his Jewishness as part of his routine. One of his more famous routines, Jewish vs. Goyish still bites as hard as it did when he first performed it as a master of ceremonies at the slummiest of strip clubs in Los Angeles.
Lenny was also known to skewer politicians on their hypocrisy and vapid personalities, much like Jon Stewart does today. The big difference? Lenny was only on television six times.
“I could never visualize Eisenhower even kissing his wife. Not on the mouth anyway. He didn’t even go to the toilet either, he just stood there. He didn’t even go to bed, he just sat up all night, with his clothes on, worrying.”
“And even Nixon–well, he kissed his wife, but on the forehead, and only on Thanksgiving, in front of his in-laws.”
But not everyone was laughing with Lenny.
Anyone who has ever touted their First Amendment right to free speech needs to know the story of the legendary Lenny Bruce.
It seemed like the government was the only big threat to Lenny. Still, the audiences were enthralled with his audacity and profane profoundness.
In 1961, Lenny was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity in public. And by public, it was a comedy show. Where people go to see people break social norms for sport. This became a habit for Lenny.
He spent the last four to five years of his life getting arrested for pushing the comedic envelope. Transcripts of the most entertaining parts of the trials can be found in his wildly amusing autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People”. Still, Lenny stood trial, was convicted, and died not long after—way too soon— in 1966.
As a significant side-note, Lenny was a raging heroine addict. If he got his addiction under control, he would likely still be around today.
The system was out to get him. In fact, when he died, the police took his pants off and photographed him as a final smite against the guy who taunted their masters so pointedly.
In a time when comedians were telling straight-up jokes, Lenny Bruce made people THINK. He told stories that made people question the system around them. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, nobody on TV or the radio was talking like that.
Now turn on Comedy Central in the year 2013. Lenny would fit right in.
***To be fair, Bruce would have been reprimanded for this behavior in 2012.
Watch Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award nominated portrayal of Lenny Bruce in the film “Lenny” on Netflix.
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Brian Fishbach is a writer and comedian. You can read Brian’s weekly satire news articles at http://www.TheComedyNews.