Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925 - August 3, 1966), born Leonard Alfred Schneider, was a controversial American stand-up comedian and satirist of the 1950s and '60s.
Bruce's contributions helped change stand-up comedy from the practice of telling jokes to an intelligent form of entertainment.
His performances took the form of stories, skits, and commentary, occasionally obscene (he coined the term T & A). This penchant for obscene material caused his career to be plagued by constant trouble with the law. His obscenity trials are now considered to be significant benchmarks in the case for preservation of First Amendment freedoms.
Bruce's comedic mission seemed to be an opening of dirty toilet humor, arguing that, as he said, "If something disgusts you about the human body, complain to the manufacturer."
Lenny Bruce gave an historic performance at Carnegie Hall in 1961, covering the same ground that had made him famous—not only the so-called toilet humor, but also politics, religion, the law, race, abortion, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Catholic Church. Interestingly, Bruce made a reference to the social effects of automation, something that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Valerie Solanas did also around the same time.
While in Hollywood, Bruce wrote a (never-produced) screenplay featuring the Lone Ranger.
Trials and tribulations
Less than a year later, Bruce was arrested for obscenity in San Francisco, California. Although the jury acquitted Bruce, other communities began arresting him when he would appear.
By the end of 1963, he had become a target of the Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, working closely with Francis Cardinal Spellman. In 1964, he appeared at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. Undercover police detectives witnessed the show. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested and charged with obscenity. In a widely-publicized case, he was convicted after a six-month-long trial, in spite of testimony or petitions of support from writers such as Jules Feiffer, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and James Baldwin. His case was appealed, and he was to never serve his four-month sentence.
In his later performances, Bruce was known for relating the details of his relationship with the police directly in his comedy routine; such action helped encourage the police to eye him with maximum scrutiny. These performances often included rants about his court battles over obscenity charges, and the right to free speech.
He was banned outright from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 was banned from performing in Australia. By 1966 he had been blacklisted by nearly every comedy 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 also featuring Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.
Death and Beyond
Bruce was a heavy user of drugs such as heroin. He was found dead in his Hollywood Hills bathroom, with a needle in his arm. Lenny Bruce is interred in the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.
The 1974 film Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, presents a fictionalized account of Bruce's life. Eddie Izzard portrayed the comedian in the 1991 stage show Lenny. Similarly, the comedian inspired songs by Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Nico, and R.E.M.
On December 23, 2003, Bruce was pardoned by governor George Pataki for the obscenity conviction arising from his New York appearance. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state's history.
The real story of our times is seldom told in the horse-puckey- filled memoirs of dopey, self-serving presidents or generals, but in the outrageous, demented lives of guys like Lenny Bruce, Giordano Bruno, Scott Fitzgerald--and Paul Krassner. The burrs under society's saddle. The pains in the ass.