Arts Review Profile

Lenny Bruce and the Freedom He Went Without

Remembering Lenny Bruce and what he gave, fifty years after his death.

Fifty years ago today, Lenny Bruce, born in Long Island as Alfred Leonard Schneider, died in his home overlooking Los Angeles, California, at the age of forty. He didn’t have a quarter. Over the course of five years he blew through a fortune earned as one of the most famous comedians in the world, defending legal battles over obscenity and drug usage with city prosecutors across the country.

Lenny Bruce reads a newspaper from circa 1970
Lenny reads paper on his back patio.

The depiction of his final moments could not be more pathetic. The house in shambles. The swimming pool dry. His wealth of furniture, hi-fi stereo equipment and records, sold to make ends meet. He was all alone, in his “nob hill mansion,” once rich, but dead a bankrupt pauper.

I am referencing his famous 1959 appearance on The Steve Allen Show, where he performed an endearing song, poem, and comedy sketch about divorce called “All Alone.” He imagines himself in the future as a wealthy man, unencumbered by family life. “All alone, like a near-sighted dog wears the bone.” He expresses the turmoil of divorce that he personally knew about, the internal argument about loving and hating them. “To me she was so petty,” he talk-sings in a low voice. “Sometimes I wish she were dead, but it would probably take her two hours to get ready.” It has come to represent the full personality of Bruce: subjective, sharp, clever, hilarious, vindictive, tender, ambitious, and sad. In the end, he was so sad.

He began his own legal defense procedures in the absence of work. He had all the free time in the world and virtually no income, because club owners were almost guaranteed to be charged with putting on a pornographic show if they booked him. Some clubs, like the Gate of Horn (Chicago, 1962), were ordered to close their doors. He used to joke, “…well, as long as I can get booked for obscenity….”

He couldn’t work in LA, his stomping grounds, without being arrested, despite charges being thrown out routinely, and his final performances were in the Bay Area, notably at The Berkeley Community Theatre (1965) and Fillmore Auditorium (1966). Some might say that San Francisco in the sixties was the most liberal audience in the world. Only there did he enjoy the right to perform his brand of social commentary as comedy.

It was in New York, 1964, that his career was dealt its death blow during a series of engagements at Cafe Au Go-Go, where he and the club owner were arrested for obscenity, and eventually convicted. Just three years prior, at midnight on February 4, 1961, during a grave blizzard, he was packing Carnegie Hall for a midnight show. His act was almost clean, with hardly a dirty word spoken. The work illustrated modern social ills, criticized religious leaders, segregationists, fellow comedians, homophobia, and observed an emergence of American fascism.

The First Amendment Center holds Lenny as a great defender of free speech stating that, “one way or another, he was almost always vindicated. A jury in San Francisco exonerated him. In Los Angeles, his cases were dismissed. Although he was convicted in Chicago, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed that conviction.”

Lenny was a drug user. In between getting busted for obscenity, he was charged for possession of heroin. His doctor provided prescriptions for intravenous methedrine, providing access to clean needles and amphetamine. His mother Sally called him melancholy, lethargic, while close friend Jojo D’Amore described him as “naturally tired.” This is what the doctor was treating. Lenny talked on a radio program about it, saying that for 20% of his day, there was some depression, and that he was happiest while on stage.

Lenny did have health issues, but he was definitely using narcotics recreationally along with so many artists of his day. The medical assistance he sought helped manage the habit to where he was a highly functional entertainer, earning $108,000 in 1960, able to support his mother, ex-wife, and daughter. But without work, his income could hardly maintain his lifestyle, and he fell into a deep depression.

In the Berkeley Concert, he analyzes the anti-drug craze in a hilarious sketch where three informants are the last standing junkies and they just keep busting each other. He goes on to say that the societal danger of the drug is the source: The source is the pharmaceutical industry. The people affected by the law are those who can’t afford a prescription. So actually, politicians “legislate against poor people, which is really schmucky.”

His final shows at the Fillmore Auditorium on June 24 and 25, 1966 were not very well received. Lenny’s mind was not so sharp, as he wasn’t working on his material consistently any longer. His body was deteriorating from narcotics addiction, and leading into the last weeks of his life, clumsy track marks ran across his arms and legs, according to comedian Lotus Weinstock, his girlfriend at the time. It was a dose of heavy morphine delivered to him that did it.

The police department invited the press to take pictures of his home and his body laid out nude in the bathroom with arm tied and the needle by his side. On the typewriter that he had become attached to in the final months of his life, a final unfinished thought, “Conspiracy to interfe re with the FourthAmendment const,” with some kind of gibberish legal speak about protection from unreasonable search and seizure in the preceding paragraphs.

Many speculate these facts, wondering if the morphine was spiked, if an assailant wrote those last words, whether or not he had killed himself by intention, suicide, or if he was being done in, because despite his failures, he had managed to fend off the charges and make his prosecutors look foolish.

He was a targeted man for discussing topics that comics didn’t discuss, but the technicality became words, especially cocksucker and motherfucker. He never got to enjoy the world where Buzzfeed uses the word fuck in their headline about a Presidential candidate who refers to their own penis during a live televised debate.

When you really listen to his material, even up to the end, he is clearly not someone patently offensive. People knew he was being made an example of. Although his financial and spiritual security were drained to the very last drop, he never served prison time. His New York conviction was posthumously pardoned by Governor George Pataki, in 2003, thanks to a petition from The First Amendment Center.

He was a targeted man for discussing topics that comics didn’t discuss, but the technicality became words, especially cocksucker and motherfucker.

Bruce’s legal example amounted to an extraordinary argument in favor of free speech, building case law that would later defend artists inspired by him. He influenced music groups, journalists, and many others until a landslide of voices had emerged in the sixties that refused to be censored.

Bruce’s strongest influence, of course, is felt in comedy. He gave rise to George Carlin, who protested the arrest in New York as an audience member, refusing to show his ID and therefore got thrown into the van with Bruce. Although no such synchronicity occurred with Richard Pryor, their careers were cross-fading over one another in the early 1960s, in Los Angeles. Pryor would have the same instinct as Bruce, to reflect society, not simply entertain it with jokes.

Bruce’s final performance poster from the Fillmore (with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention as the opening act) can be seen on television, hung in the fictional homes of Louis CK and Marc Maron. Jerry Seinfeld has credited Lenny as the pioneer of modern standup. The list of those who credit his contribution is well documented.

Complaints rarely came from the audience — they typically came from the police department who were sent by prosecutors. NYC License Inspector Herbert Ruhe admitted that Lenny was made an example of because they didn’t want to “have people paying two dollars to hear some character say motherfucker five times in ten minutes.” Carlin, Pryor, and Louis CK are precisely the realization of that fear.

Lenny challenged everything that civil leaders at the time believed maintained society, such as religion. It became pretty clear that Catholics were his most powerful foe, as he had made them the butt of so many jokes, and they were all in government. He blamed Vietnam on the Catholic Church, opening The Berkeley Concert with a simple observation, “There are more churches than court houses, and more priests than judges,” suggesting that Communists were taking their jobs in Vietnam. For those who don’t know, communism is irreligious and the South Vietnam government was an oppressive minority Catholic government over a majority Buddhist population, backed by the United States.

1957, LA Times
Lenny the fighter, 1957, LA Times

Lenny was also a true rascal. Even before felony drug possession and misdemeanor obscenity charges were brought against him, he had developed a routine with police departments, just for horsing around, getting into fights and so forth, throughout the fifties.

Band leader Dave Pell worked with Lenny at The Crescendo for years. He described the night club scene at the time as something familial, and of course illicit, recollecting Lenny as someone crucial to the energy of the time. One time, they dressed up in blackface and entered an amateur show together, the equivalent to an open mic, doing an absurd show they didn’t audition with. Pell recalls, Lenny “got put in jail 50 times because they were trying to clean up the nightclub circuit.”

In Lenny’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, he admits that in the early fifties, he had posed as a priest and filed a charter to raise money for charity, to send money to a leper colony. He was nearly busted for it, but those who knew him defended his character and they couldn’t dispute the legitimacy of his charter. Of the several thousand he raised, about a quarter of it went to the leper colony. By today’s standards, that is no less ethical than standard practice at The Clinton Foundation or Goodwill. He joked that he actually provided therapy for old housewives. If he just listened to them earnestly, they wrote a check.

Early in his life, before trying out acting, before joining the Navy at the tail end of World War II, after dropping out of school, he went to live on a farm. He used to throw dirt and straw into the egg cartons so that middle-class customers would say, “It’s so authentic.” As a second gunmen actually seeing naval combat, he served his role. But always the clown, he received an early discharge from the Navy for entertaining the troops in drag.

His first appearance on television was one of his first experiences performing standup comedy, at all. His mother was a comedian and she got him his first gigs. He managed to win Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts with bad impressions and mimicry, but the hit was especially a sketch about Bavarian Vaudeville houses. The 1949 appearance launched him into fame and he was soon an opening act at major theaters across the country.

Even with his early material, you can see someone combining elements into an original comedy style, written and directed by himself. At the time, comics bought material from writers and that was the norm. The core of his talent can be found in sketch comedy, it’s where he got his start, famously appearing on the program, Broadway Open House with Buddy Hacket in 1950.

Honey, Lenny, and Kitty from left to right

While on tour, he met Honey Harlow, an entertainer in her own right, an aspiring singer turned gorgeous stripper called “Hot Honey.” She was some kind of impetus to him. Soon, he wasn’t satisfied with the clean material that he was widely respected for, so he began to lash out. Together, they entered hard times in his career, especially after bringing her into his act, where they performed an old folk song called “Bake dat Chicken Pie” and the lyrics “Nigger nigger nigger!” She would go anywhere with him, and she stayed despite the difficulties of being with a man who would sabotage his own career.

They had a daughter named Brandy Kathleen Bruce, aka Kitty Bruce, at Honey’s insistence. Drugs got in the way of their family, despite cleaning up at first, it got too difficult for them both. Honey served time for marijuana possession, but she had already left him on an emotional level. He took custody of the child, later incorporating that into his act, joking that it was the only way to get even with your ex. Lenny was more compelled by fun and games than raising a family, anyhow. His daughter, like him, would mostly be raised by grandma.

Despite coloring Honey Harlow as the primary drug addict and terrible mother in the film Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, friend Dave Pell said, “His wife was a very nice gal and a homemaker and tried to make him straight.”

Lenny at Strip City, Circa 1955
Lenny at Strip City, Circa 1955

Lenny didn’t want Honey to be a stripper, but she helped make ends meet. Throughout the mid-50’s, he worked strip clubs in the San Fernando Valley, especially Strip City. There, obscenity was at home, and he was free to make any social commentary he wanted to. He developed his style, his swagger. The material would catch on until notable club owners imported him to Hollywood and San Francisco, where he developed, recorded and published incredible material throughout the late 50’s. Albums like The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, and American, especially mark the period.

Even toward the end, sketch comedy was his truest form. His early bits like “Religions Inc.” and “Father Flotsky’s Revenge” demonstrate the uncanny ability to construct a socially conscious sketch while also performing every role in it. His later work included “Thank You Mask Man,” a raunchy depiction of the lone ranger as a homosexual and animal fucker, and “Eat, Sleep, and Crap,” which illustrates the principle laws that govern us and how they evolved. His new long form work integrated well into the personal narrative of the court cases. He continued to develop material in the most dangerous area: knowledge.

He continued to develop material in the most dangerous area: knowledge.

Somehow, the conditions that made it possible for Lenny to thrive were stripped away from him as soon as he reached a mass audience. Aside from two 1959 appearances on The Steve Allen Show, Lenny was considered too taboo for national audiences and never made it. He appeared soon with Hugh Heffner on Penthouse Party, broadcast only in Los Angeles, and was given a television pilot for a New York station that wasn’t picked up. Despite the roadblocks, by the time of his 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, he was reaching a mass audience, doing it his way one theatre at a time, earning two grand a night. That is precisely when the traps began to snap all around him.

When Richard Pryor erupted into flames, literally, due to his freebasing crack habit, his career was reignited. If this freedom were given to Lenny, then our society would have enjoyed a mature and developed social philosopher for generations. He would not only have paved the way for contemporary satirists like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, but would have seen them to their door.

It is true that toward the end, he began to self-obsess over his court records and his profanity became more of a loose cannon than careful setting of philosophical truths (or canon). Listen to two albums, Law, Language, and Lenny Bruce, and The Berkeley Concert, and tell me that he doesn’t get big laughs with it, and moreover, that he doesn’t go on with a full act of observational jokes, and sketch comedy concerning the social philosophy behind criminal justice.

Nothing could have been more dangerous than a social icon rising through the ashes and becoming a celebrated hero for all that which he was persecuted for. He left the audience armed with knowledge about their constitutional rights, and a reflection about the social purpose of it.

He left the audience armed with knowledge about their constitutional rights, and a reflection about the social purpose of it.

For the 1964 New York trials, he petitioned hundreds of signatures from some of the world’s most respected contemporary artists and academics, admonishing the persecution, testifying in the most legal possible sense that his material was not obscene and that it provided redeeming social value. The world was changing already, people like Lenny were no longer shocking. The world had seen John F. Kennedy’s head blow apart, race riots, and heard the lies about Vietnam. The continued persecution of Bruce was a last gasp of old values that were being wiped clean in the cultural revolution happening at that moment. Americans were already wary of their government, and Lenny sparked those flames early on.

If Bruce had been allowed to work continuously from 1964 onward, had he never been busted there in New York, then he would have survived. This is my assertion. He liked to work. By 1970, nothing about his act would have been considered dirty. He would have fallen into the background as one of those great old artists, and would have finally been accepted into television. He would have co-starred with friend Jonathan Winters in a film, I can almost see it.

There are so many visionaries who don’t make it, and perhaps because of my personal reverence for Bruce, I put his death on the level of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Junior. Perhaps he is more akin to Malcolm X, as someone widely unappreciated in his day but later honored by the majority. There were people to carry on the work of these heroes, and their absence fueled their followers in the vacuum. Progress always wins.

Remembering his death today is recognizing the freedom we enjoy now, Motherfucker.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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