The incomparable Lenny Bruce sharing his characteristic lack of propriety. The comedian paid a heavy price fighting censorship to defend an act largely considered obscene for its time but would have no problem fitting in the mainstream of comedy today. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jordan, carousel photo by Evan P. Cordes.
If you like comedy today, you have Lenny Bruce to thank for it. Those dedicated to the craft revere him as an unwitting revolutionary; others, who may not know him by name, are forever endowed by his voice of ruthless candor. Prohibited by law for everything he did and the words he chose to define himself, Bruce garnered a criminal record merely for telling jokes. He was a pioneer in the ‘50s comedy scene, socially exploring the depth of the American character through his bold, perilous humor and material exposé. For Bruce, no subject was off-limits nor language too explicit. Bruce’s legacy therefore carries influence far beyond the stage where he once took the spotlight, and onto the larger platform of free speech and the right to have a voice.
And as a voice, Bruce was loud! Comedy, to the Jewish-American entertainer from New York, began with shock value or surprise. To make someone laugh, you had to play on the unexpected. He also threw out any racial and derogatory social slur he saw fit with full confidence, and brazen panache.
Karl Thomas, whose memoir of his 10 year collaboration with Lenny is titled Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet, knew Bruce better than most. As his longtime creative collaborator, Thomas and Bruce braved the generally terse field of comedy together, expanding every slate and throwing a wind of excitement into the field of humor and expression. Together, they wrote three screenplays and three comedy albums together, launching the crass jester straight into the public eye.
“We were always writing at my place because Lenny couldn’t concentrate at his own,” remembers Thomas of the late nights Bruce would leave work at an LA strip joint, grab Chinese food, and come to his apartment to work. The comedian’s attention span was limited, an impediment that ultimately proved to be the strength of his routine. “He’d walk around and pore over my books… He’d pick up authors like Ayn Rand, John Steinback, Pearl Buck, and make these snap judgments. You know, he’d say, ‘Ayn – dyke; Steinback – hawk’… He’d make rash conclusions after one paragraph.”
According to Thomas, Bruce became less judgmental when it came to nonfiction works, and often these sources were the foundation of his own jokes. One-liners were his trademark, and from these snarky annotations he would elaborate into larger stories for various platforms of entertainment.
“He’d make some casual observation and then be delighted when it would shock somebody,” explains Thomas. “For instance, at that time, the pope was a man who happened to have a very large hook nose. Lenny once made the observation, ‘You know the pope is Jewish right?’ He shocked his employer who was this Italian mobster, and that delighted Lenny… We took that line and made it into the Religions Incorporated piece.”
Comedy, however, has long been observed to derive from darkness, inner havoc, or hardship, and Bruce’s story was no different. Thomas notes the controversial humorist’s life was always in turmoil as his wife, a stripper, suffered from substance abuse, Bruce was a heavy drug user himself, and not a day went by when the system didn’t try to undermine his very existence. He was constantly tracked, detained, and eventually put on trial for his use of profanity. In 1964, he was found guilty for violating obscenity laws.
Nevertheless, Bruce persisted.
“He broadened the envelope of what we can say and how we can say it, pushing the establishment to tell it like it is,” Thomas points out. “After his obscenity conviction was overturned, many artists squandered the resulting freedom. They would get up on stage and regurgitate four letter words without context or reason. I think Richard Pryor and George Carlin were two that really carried the torch where Lenny left off. They dealt with the distinction of human weakness and insecurity and they did so in a compassionate and comedic way, solely in an environment within the context of a story.”
Bruce died at the age of 40, found lying naked on the floor of his home, a syringe by his side. The death was ruled an accidental morphine overdose, though speculation soon broke out as to whether he had, in fact, been murdered. Thomas remembers the Los Angeles Free Press running stories suggesting Bruce had been assassinated, a supposition he has never ruled out of his mind.
Explains Thomas, “Lenny Bruce made a lot of very powerful enemies, and offended many top floor entertainers and politicians, including presidents, so it’s not hard to imagine. He had quite a formidable array of people who were trying to shut him up.”
The best memory of Bruce, nevertheless, is that of his passionate ability to emasculate the darkness he faced with laughter. Those who’ve followed his trail are now able to tell the truth, as he broke down all boundaries of conformity and censorship.
“He loved to see the shocked expression on people’s faces,” recalls Thomas, “He was also amused by the fact that almost everything in life had a back story, and usually it wasn’t remarkable… Life could have been the result of a failed condom, but if we can live that life with the honesty to tell it like it is and the courage to laugh at ourselves, then it’s a life well lived.”