Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider, was a controversial American
stand-up comedian and satirist of the 1950s and 1960s.
Leonard Alfred Schneider was born in Mineola, Long Island, New
York, but a chaotic family life in which his parents divorced
when he was five, saw him move between relatives over the next
decade. His mother, Sally Marr, was a stage performer who would
have an enormous influence on Lenny Bruce's career. After spending
time working on a farm with a family he saw as providing the stable
surroundings he needed, Lenny joined the US Navy at the age of
17 in 1942, and saw active duty in Europe until his discharge
1947, soon after changing his last name to Bruce, he earned $12
and a free spaghetti dinner for his first stand-up performance
in Brooklyn, NY. From that modest start, he got his first break
as a guest on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show doing impressions
of movie stars. As a "mimic", as these performers were
called, Lenny Bruce was not as talented as many of his contemporaries,
requiring his act to take a new direction.
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), and, unknown to the police, stole
several priest's clergy shirts and a clerical collar while posing
as a laundry man.
was found not guilty due to the legality of the NY state-chartered
foundation, the actual existence of the Guiana leper colony, and
the inability of local clergy to expose him as an imposter. Later
in his semi-fictional 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" 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. 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, politics, patriotism, religion,
law, race, abortion, drugs, the Ku Klux Klan, Jewishness, and
the Roman Catholic Church.
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" LP 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.
growing fame led to an appearance on the nationally televised
Allen Show. On February 3, 1961, in the midst of a severe
blizzard, he gave an historic performance at Carnegie Hall in
New York. Recorded and later released as a three-disc set, the
Carnegie Hall Concert was considered by many to be the zenith
of his creative powers; critic Albert Goldman described it as
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!"
In 1961 Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop
in San Francisco; 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. The increased scrutiny also led to
an arrest in Philadelphia for drug possession in the same year,
and again in Los Angeles, California, two years later.
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. 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.
three-judge panel presided over his widely-publicized six-month-long
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 Jules
Feiffer, 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
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
2003 - 37 years after his death - Bruce was granted a pardon by
New York governor George Pataki, an event met with mixed reactions.
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.
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 and declared 'What a fucking wonderful
audience' and was promptly arrested. By 1966 he had been blacklisted
by nearly every night 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.
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. Hefner, a long-time foe of censorship, had supported
Bruce's career, having him on the debut of Playboy's Penthouse
in October, 1959.
On August 3, 1966, Lenny Bruce was found dead at the age of 40
in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home, lying naked with
a pair of trousers around his ankles. A syringe and burned bottle
cap were found nearby, along with various other narcotic instruments.
The cause of death could not be firmly established, but it is
believed he died of a morphine overdose.
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 attempted to block the ceremony
after ads for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches
was survived by his daughter, Kitty Bruce, who now resides in
Pennsylvania. His former wife, Honey Harlow Friedman, lived in
Honolulu, Hawaii, until her death on September 12, 2005. His mother,
Sally Marr, a comedienne and talent agent, died on December 14,
1997, in Los Angeles, California, aged 91.
In 1971 one of his 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 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.
1974 film Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, presents a dramatized
account of Bruce's life. Eddie Izzard portrayed the comedian in
the 1999 production of Julian Barry's 1971 play Lenny. Similarly,
the comedian inspired or was mentioned in songs by Bob Dylan,
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Nico, Chumbawamba, The Mighty Mighty
Bosstones, R.E.M., Metric, Steve Earle, Phil Ochs, Nada Surf,
Simon and Garfunkel, 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, celebrating his
surviving a fall from a San Francisco hotel window in 1965) and
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.
response to a petition prepared by Robert Corn-Revere and filed
by Ron Collins and David Skover, on December 23, 2003, Lenny Bruce
was posthumously pardoned by New York Republican Governor George
Pataki for the obscenity conviction arising from his 1964 New
York performances in the Cafe Au Go Go. It was the first posthumous
pardon in the state's history. Pataki called his decision "a
declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."
2004, Bruce was voted #3 of the "100 Greatest Standup Comedians
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 an ID at Bruce's 1964
show at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, after the police stopped
the show and arrested Bruce for obscenity). He was also the subject
of a six CD retrospective entitled Let The Buyer Beware, overseen
by record producer Hal Willner.
a Jew, in the dictionary, is one who is descended from the ancient
tribes of Judea, or one who is regarded as descended from that
tribe. That's what it says in the dictionary; but you and I know
what a Jew is -- One Who Killed Our Lord.... And although there
should be a statute of limitations for that crime, it seems that
those who neither have the actions nor the gait of Christians,
pagan or not, will bust us out, unrelenting dues, for another
deuce.... A lot of people say to me, "Why did you kill Christ?"
I dunno ... it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you
know. We killed him because he didn't want to become a doctor,
that's why we killed him."
should be taught what is, not what should be. All my humor is
based on destruction and despair. If the world were tranquil,
without disease and violence, I'd be standing in the breadline,
right back of J. Edgar Hoover."
things are complete superstition and have no validity at all in
the Bible. Yeah. They're just the antithesis of everything that
is correct intellectually."
um -- You know! Uh, I can't think of his name -- [sings] 'A-with
the cross of bumm bum' -- Yeah, Him! That's right! And he brought
a nice looking Jewish boy with him!"
"Did you see
the [Ed] Sullivan show that had Sal Mineo on it? What was he doing?
They had Sal Mineo reading the Bible: "R'rubitz ruther abit
en'go-o-on i'nut." What's that nut doing?
It got even too heavy-handed for Sullivan! because he copped out
later. Dig: Sal Mineo is reading the Bible: "N'enit shubi
sai'nui" -- And I'm looking at this, ahh, it's really strange.
Now Sullivan comes out: "I don't want the people to think
that this reflects the tenor of Exodus."
What he was telling people is: "It's not that dull, boring
crap in the Bible: Ben Hur schtoops Esther a lot, there's a lot
of tits in the picture, and it's really horny, but don't --"
That's what he said! A lot of people get the impression that it's