Lenny Bruce  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Leonard Alfred Schneider (October 13, 1925 – August 3, 1966), better known by the stage name Lenny Bruce, was an extremely influential and controversial American stand-up comedian, writer, social critic and satirist of the 1950s and 1960s, whose comedy revolved heavily around the social stigmas and taboos of the era in which he lived. His 1964 conviction in an obscenity trial was followed by a posthumous pardon, the first in New York state history.

Contents

Career

Bruce's early comedy career included writing the screenplays for Dance Hall Racket in 1953, which featured himself, 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, politics, patriotism, religion, law, race, abortion, drugs, 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 1950s, 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 he made his debut with an unscripted comment on the recent marriage of Elizabeth Taylor to Eddie Fisher, wondering, "will Elizabeth Taylor become bar mitzvahed?"Template:Citation needed He also began receiving mainstream press, both favorable and derogatory. Syndicated Broadway columnist Hy Gardner called Bruce a "fad" and "a one-time-around freak attraction",Template:Citation needed while Variety declared him "undisciplined and unfunny".Template:Citation needed 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, titled The Carnegie Hall Concert. In the liner notes, Albert Goldman described it as follows:

Template:Blockquote

Legal troubles

On October 4, 1961, 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", that the sexual context of "come" is so common that it bears no weight, and that if someone hearing it becomes upset, he "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. The Los Angeles arrest took place in then-unincorporated West Hollywood, and the arresting officer was a young deputy named Sherman Block, who would later become County Sheriff. The specification this time was that the comedian had used the word "schmuck", an insulting Yiddish term that is also an obscene term for penis.Template:Citation needed

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 pertaining to his use of various obscenities.Template:Citation needed

A three-judge panel presided over his widely publicized six-month trial, with Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon both 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, and from 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 later saw his conviction overturned; Bruce, who died before the decision, never had his conviction stricken.

Last years

Despite his prominence as a comedian, Bruce appeared on network television only 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 subject him to 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 was banned from performing in Sydney, Australia. At his first show there Bruce took the stage, declared "What a fucking wonderful audience" and was promptly arrested.

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 Theatre in December 1965. It was recorded and became his last (live) album, titled "The Berkeley Concert"; his performance here has been described as lucid, clear and calm, and one of his best. His last performance took place on June 25, 1966, 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 and with the aid of Paul Krassner, Bruce wrote an autobiography. Serialized in Playboy in 1964 and 1965, this material was later published as the book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Hefner 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 N. Hollywood Blvd. 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. Record producer Phil Spector, a friend of Bruce's, bought the negatives from the photographs to keep them from the press. The 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 Spector. Cemetery officials had tried to block the ceremony after advertisements for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches and noisemakers. Dick Schaap 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.

At the time of his death his girlfriend was comedienne Lotus Weinstock.

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.

Legacy

Bruce was the subject of a 1974 biographical film directed by Bob Fosse and starring Dustin Hoffman, Lenny, based on the New York-based stage play of the same name, written by Julian Barry.

The documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, directed by Robert B. Weide and narrated by Robert De Niro, was released in 1998.

In popular culture

Template:In popular culture

  • The musical "Rent" includes the song "La Vie Boheme," with the lyric "Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham, and Cage. Lenny Bruce! Langston Hughes!"
  • Nico's 1967 album Chelsea Girl includes a track entitled "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce", written by Tim Hardin. In it she describes her sorrow and anger at Bruce's death.
  • Bob Dylan's 1981 song "Lenny Bruce" 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."
  • Sections of the sketch "Thank You, Masked Man" were quoted by Frank Zappa's appear on the CD You Can't Do That On Stage Any More Vol 3 and the DVD Does Humour Belong in Music?
  • Allen Sherman's 1965 song "It's a Most Unusual Play" (a parody of "It's a Most Unusual Day") includes the following verse:
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

By others:

  • Barry, Julian. Lenny (play) (Grove Press, Inc. 1971)
  • Bruce, Kitty. The (almost) Unpublished Lenny Bruce (1984, Running Press) (includes a graphically spruced up reproduction of 'Stamp Help Out!')
  • Cohen, John, ed., compiler. The Essential Lenny Bruce (Ballantine Books, 1967)
  • Collins, Ronald and David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall & Rise of an American Icon (Sourcebooks, 2002)
  • DeLillo, Don. Underworld, (Simon and Schuster Inc., 1997)
  • Denton, Bradley. 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.
  • Goldman, Albert, with Lawrence Schiller. Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (Random House, 1974)
  • Josepher, Brian. What the Psychic Saw (Sterlinghouse Publisher, 2005)
  • Kofsky, Frank. Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic & Secular Moralist (Monad Press, 1974)
  • Kringas, Damian. Lenny Bruce: 13 Days In Sydney (Independence Jones Guerilla Press, Sydney, 2010) A study of Bruce's ill-fated September 1962 tour down under.
  • Smith, Valerie Kohler. Lenny (novelization based on the Barry-scripted/Fosse-directed film) (Grove Press, Inc., 1974)
  • Thomas, William Karl. Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet (first printing, Archon Books, 1989; second printing, Media Maestro, 2002; Japanese edition, DHC Corp. Tokyo, 2001)

Filmography

Films

Year Title Role Notes
1966 The Lenny Bruce Performance Film Himself includes animated short film Thank You Mask Man by John Magnuson Associates
1974 LennyBiography starring Dustin Hoffman as Lenny BruceHoffman was Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor,

Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama

Partial Discography

1961.
Year Title Notes
1959 Interviews of our times Works by Bruce; and Henry Jacobs and Woody Leifer.
1959 The sick humor of Lenny Bruce
1959 Togetherness (Elect me, I am not a nut)
1960 American
1961 Carnegie Hall concert Recorded in 1961.
1961 Live at the Curran Theater Recorded Nov. 19, 1961.
1964 To is a preposition, come is a verb
1965 Berkeley concert Recorded Dec. 12, 1965.
1966 Lenny Bruce is out again Produced by Phil Spector.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Lenny Bruce" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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