Lenny Bruce

From Academic Kids

Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925August 3, 1966), born Leonard Alfred Schneider, was a controversial American stand-up comedian and satirist of the 1950s and '60s.



Bruce, like his contemporary Mort Sahl, helped change stand-up comedy from the practice of telling jokes to an intelligent form of entertainment.

His routines took the form of stories, skits, and commentary, often venturing into subject areas considered profane, obscene and otherwise controversial. His penchant for material with high shock value caused his career to be plagued by constant trouble with the law. His obscenity trials are now considered to be significant benchmarks in the case for preservation of First Amendment freedoms.

Lenny's early career including writing the screenplays for "Dance Hall Racket" 1953 (which featured Lenny and his wife, Honey Harlow, in roles); "Dream Follies" 1954, a low-budget burlesque romp; and a children's film, "The Rocket Man" 1954.

In 1959 he performed stand-up comedy on the nationally televised Steve Allen Show. He gave a historic performance at Carnegie Hall in 1961, covering the same ground that had made him famous— politics, religion, the law, race, abortion, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Catholic Church.

Trials and Tribulations

In 1961 Lenny was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, California; he had used the words cocksucker and to come (for orgasm). Although the jury acquitted him, other communities began monitoring his appearances, resulting in frequent arrests under charges of obscenity.

By the end of 1963, he had become a target of the Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, who was working closely with Francis Cardinal Spellman. In 1964, he appeared at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. Undercover police detectives witnessed the show. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested; the complaint again rested on his use of various obscenities. Three judges and no jury presided over his widely-publicized six-month-long trial. Lenny Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon were convicted, in spite of positive testimony and petitions of support from Jules Feiffer, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and James Baldwin as well as Manhattan socialite Dorothy Kilgallen and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced 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.

In his later performances, Bruce was known for relating the details of his encounters with the police directly in his comedy routine; his criticism encouraged the police to eye him with maximum scrutiny. These performances often included rants about his court battles over obscenity charges, tirades against fascism and complaints of his denial of his right to free speech.

He was banned outright from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 was banned from performing in Australia, having already commenced a tour there. By 1966 he had been blacklisted by nearly every comedy club in the U.S., as owners feared prosecution for obscenity. His last performance was on June 26, 1966 at the Fillmore in San Francisco, on a bill with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.

At the request of Hugh Hefner, Bruce (with the aid of Paul Krassner) wrote his autobiography, which was serialized in Playboy in 1964 and 1965, and later published as the book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.

In 1966 Lenny Bruce was found dead from a self-administered morphine overdose, in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home. He is interred in the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.

In 2003, he was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki. Pataki called his decision, the first posthumous pardon in New York state history, "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."

Bruce is survived by his daughter Kitty Bruce, who now resides in Pennsylvania. His former wife, Honey Harlow lives in Honolulu.

Posthumous Credits

In 1971 one of his comedy routines was developed into a short animated film, Thank You Masked Man (often cited as "Thank You, Mask 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.

The 1974 film Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, presents a dramatized account of Bruce's life. Eddie Izzard portrayed the comedian in the 1991 stage show Lenny. Similarly, the comedian inspired songs by Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Nico, Chumbawamba, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and R.E.M.

The 1998 documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth, written and directed by Robert Weide, was nominated for an Oscar. Robert De Niro provided the narration.

On December 23, 2003, Bruce was pardoned by governor George Pataki for the obscenity conviction arising from his New York appearance. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state's history.

In 2004, Bruce was voted #3 of the "Greatest Standup Comedians of All Time (http://www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows/100greatest/)" by Comedy Central behind Richard Pryor and George Carlin. He was also the subject of a six CD retrospective entitled Let The Buyer Beware, overseen by record producer Hal Willner.

External links


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