Lenny Bruce

Biography

Revisionist history has deemed comedian-cum-satirist Lenny Bruce a martyr of free speech, and while that seems to confer great import to the life of such an irreverent entertainer, it is too narrow a construct to thoroughly explain the effect he had on culture. Along with his contemporary -- but not equal -- Mort Sahl, Bruce helped to change the face of stand-up comedy in the 1950s and '60s from merely just telling jokes to a thought-provoking form of entertainment. Instead of resorting to the then-usual template of telling jokes about wives, mothers-in-law and bad drivers, Lenny Bruce used offensiveness as a sharp social saber, plunging into areas considered profane, obscene and controversial; he expounded on such topics as racism, religion, bigotry and sex, leaving a torrent of expletives in his wake and suffering hugely for it. His brainy stream of consciousness rants and outrageous observations made him a favorite of college students, hipsters and literati, but although his irreverence and emboldened style pushed the boundaries of what you could actually utter from the stage, it just as often led to arrests, obscenity trials and virtually being barred from performing anywhere. A rude watershed came in 1961 when he was arrested at the Jazz Workshop and charged with violating the California Obscenity Code, followed by similar arrests on obscenity or narcotic possession in Chicago, Hollywood, San Francisco and New York. While these didn't crush the comic, they did embitter him, as did his deportment from Britain and a performing embargo in Australia. By 1964, he declared bankruptcy and stopped performing in clubs, moving to concert venues and recordings -- Phil Spector was the last producer who captured his rude brilliance on vinyl. Bruce also wrote screenplays, including Dance Hall Racket in 1953 (which featured the comedian and his wife Honey Harlow in roles), Dream Follies in 1954, and a children's film, The Rocket Man. At the request of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, he wrote (with the help of Paul Krassner) his autobiography How To Talk Dirty And Influence People, which was serialized in Playboy, then later published in book form in 1965. His last performance was on June 26, 1966, at San Francisco's Fillmore, on a bill with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. His drug use was an open secret throughout show business, but it still came as a huge shock when he died of a self-administered morphine overdose in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home at age of 40, on August 3, 1966. Whether he was a sacrificial victim for modern day comedy is debatable; he did change to face of it, helping to make it more topical, intelligent, confrontational and psychically dangerous, inspiring a new breed of comic in his wake. Bruce's spiritual decedents range from comic provocateurs like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis, Eddie Murphy and legions of others who don't just choose to play it safe onstage.
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