Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925 – August 3, 1966), born Leonard Alfred Schneider, was an American stand-up comedian, writer, social critic and satirist of the 1950s and 1960s. His 1964 conviction in an obscenity trial led to the first posthumous pardon in New York history.
Leonard Alfred Schneider was born in Mineola, New York
, grew up in nearby Bellmore
and attended Wellington C. Mepham High School
. His youth was chaotic; his parents divorced when he was five years old and Lenny moved in with various relatives over the next decade. His mother, Sally Marr (née Sadie Kitchenberg), was a stage performer who had an enormous influence on Bruce's career. After spending time working on a farm with a family that provided the stable surroundings he needed, he joined the United States Navy
at the age of 17 in 1942, and saw active duty in Europe until his discharge in 1946.
In 1947, soon after changing his last name to Bruce, he earned $12 (equivalent to $116 in 2008) and a free spaghetti dinner for his first stand-up performance in Brooklyn, New York. From that modest start, he got his first break as a guest (and introduced by his mother, who called herself "Sally Bruce") on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts Show, doing a "Bavarian mimic" of American movie stars (e.g., Humphrey Bogart).
In 1951, he was arrested in Miami, Florida, for impersonating a priest. He was soliciting donations for a leper colony in British Guiana after he legally chartered the "Brother Mathias Foundation" (a name of his own invention- but possibly taken from the actual Brother Matthias who had befriended Babe Ruth at the orphanage that Ruth had been confined to as a child), and, unknown to the police, stole several priests' clergy shirts and a clerical collar while posing as a laundry man. He was found not guilty due to the legality of the New York state-chartered foundation, the actual existence of the Guiana leper colony, and the inability of the local clergy to expose him as an impostor. Later in his semifictional autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, he revealed that he had made approximately $8,000 in three weeks, sending $2,500 to the leper colony and keeping the rest.
Bruce's early comedy career included writing the screenplays for Dance Hall Racket
in 1953, which featured Lenny, his wife, Honey Harlow
, and mother, Sally Marr, in roles; Dream Follies
in 1954, a low-budget burlesque
romp; and a children's film, The Rocket Man
, in 1954. He also released four albums of original material on Berkeley-based Fantasy Records
, with rants, comic routines, and satirical interviews on the themes that made him famous: jazz
, moral philosophy
, the Ku Klux Klan
, and Jewishness
. These albums were later compiled and re-released as The Lenny Bruce Originals
. Two later records were produced and sold by Bruce himself, including a 10-inch album of the 1961 San Francisco performances that started his legal troubles. Starting in the late 1960s, other unissued Bruce material was released by Alan Douglas
, Frank Zappa
and Phil Spector
, as well as Fantasy. Bruce developed the complexity and tone of his material in Enrico Banducci
's North Beach
nightclub the 'hungry i
,' where Mort Sahl
had earlier made a name for himself.
His growing fame led to appearances on the nationally televised Steve Allen Show, where on his debut Lenny commented on the recent marriage of Elizabeth Taylor to Eddie Fisher by making his first line an unscripted 'will Elizabeth Taylor become bar mitzvahed?'. He also began getting mainstream press, both favorable and derogatory. Hy Gardner, the syndicated Broadway columnist called Bruce a 'fad' and 'a one-time-around freak attraction,' and Variety declared him 'undisciplined and unfunny.' Influential San Francisco columnist Herb Caen was an early and enthusiastic supporter, writing in 1959:
- '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'.'
On February 3, 1961, in the midst of a severe blizzard, he gave a famous performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was recorded and later released as a three-disc set, the Carnegie Hall Concert. In the liner notes, critic Albert Goldman described it as follows:
This was the moment that an obscure yet rapidly rising young comedian named Lenny Bruce chose to give one of the greatest performances of his career. ... The performance contained in this album is that of a child of the jazz age. Lenny worshipped the gods of Spontaneity, Candor and Free Association. He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there -- from recall, fantasy, prophecy.
A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn't plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up -- as if he were a spectator at his own performance!
On October 4
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 attorney, Frank 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 November 4, 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).
Despite his prominence as a comedian, Bruce only appeared on network television six times in his life. In his later club 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 that he was being denied his right to freedom of speech.
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.
At one point, in 1965, according to Esquire Magazine, he did a Superman imitation, jumping out a window as a character he dubbed "Superjew." He broke an arm and injured his back.
Increasing drug use also affected his health. By 1966 he had been blacklisted by nearly every nightclub in the United States, as owners feared prosecution for obscenity. Bruce did have a famous performance at The Berkeley Community Theater in December 1965 before his last performance on June 25, 1966, the latter at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, on a bill 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.
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.
Death and posthumous pardon
On August 3 1966
, Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills
home at 8825 Kings Road. 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.
He was interred in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, but an unconventional memorial on August 21 was controversial enough to keep his name in the spotlight. The service saw over 500 people pay their respects, led by legendary record producer Phil Spector. Cemetery officials had tried to block the ceremony after advertisements for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches and noisemakers. 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."
Bruce is survived by his daughter, Kitty Bruce, who lives in Pennsylvania as of the 2000s.
On December 23 2003, 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki, following a petition filed by Ronald Collins and David Skover with Robert Corn-Revere as counsel, the petition having been signed by several stars such as Robin Williams. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state's history. Pataki claimed his act was "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."
- 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 (see link below ???). 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 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 sitcom M*A*S*H
- 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 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. Sokolović, who also played the leading role.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
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).
- 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 ("Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart"), Nada 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").
- 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.
- In the 1965 Allan Sherman album My Name Is Allan, the opening song is titled "It's a Most Unusual Play" (A parody of "It's a Most Unusual Day"). One verse goes like this:
Oh, the language is a bit loose
It's decidedly not Mother Goose
Outside on the marquee
This quotation you'll see
"I was shocked!" And it's signed "Lenny Bruce"!
Books by or about Bruce
- Lenny Bruce, Stamp Help Out! (1961 and/or 1965, self-published and sold at his concerts and in hip bookshops like City Lights in SF)
- Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Playboy Publishing, 1967)
- Julian Barry, Lenny (play) (Grove Press, Inc. 1971)
- Kitty Bruce, The (almost) Unpublished Lenny Bruce (1984, Running Press) (includes a graphically spruced up reproduction of 'Stamp Help Out!')
- The Essential Lenny Bruce, compiled and edited by John Cohen (Ballantine Books, 1967)
- Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall & Rise of an American Icon (Sourcebooks, 2002)
- Don DeLillo, Underworld, (Simon and Schuster Inc., 1997)
- Bradley Denton, The Calvin Coolidge Home For Dead Comedians, an award-winning collection of science fiction stories in which the title story has Lenny Bruce as one of the two protagonists.
- Albert Goldman, with Lawrence Schiller, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (Random House, 1974)
- Brian Josepher, What the Psychic Saw (Sterlinghouse Publisher, 2005)
- Frank Kofsky, Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic & Secular Moralist (Monad Press, 1974)
- Valerie Kohler Smith, Lenny (novelization based on the Barry-scripted/Fosse-directed film) (Grove Press, Inc., 1974)
- William Karl Thomas, Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet (first printing, Archon Books, 1989; second printing, Media Maestro, 2002; Japanese edition, DHC Corp. Tokyo, 2001)