Comedians are a breed of performer who tend to have a greater leeway in what they can
say and get away with. Your average public speaker would almost certainly face much harsher criticism for expounding the type of views that a funny man does. In some cases of course, that person pushes the boundaries to such an extent that the authorities will eventually take an interest and one such character was Lenny Bruce,
Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in October 1925 in New York. He saw action in the Second World War after joining the U.S. Navy but in 1942 claimed to be having homosexual urges and was (eventually) given an honourable discharge.
Lenny’s mother was a performer and perhaps it was her influence that persuaded him to take a shot at being a stand-up comedian. He settled back in New York after a spell with his father in California and began to work within the local scene, joining the many others pursuing the same dreams.
Another famous Jewish comedian, Joe Ancis, influenced the young Lenny Bruce more than anyone else and in 1947 he earned $12 for his first stand-up gig in Brooklyn. His mother remained a major influence on his career and apart from introducing him to industry figures, he began to write screenplays in the early 1950s, Dream Follies and The Rocket Man in 1954, to name a couple. He had met his wife, Honey Harlow, in 1951 and was constantly working hard to try and ensure that she didn’t return to he original job as a stripper. Many of his early routines evolved from performing as an Master of Ceremonies at the grimy strip clubs where he found work.
During this period he also released four albums of original stand-up material and it was these which first demonstrated the subjects on which he was to become famous. Fantasy Records was the label used and that company still exists now, albeit owned by Concord Music Group. Many of Bruce’s subjects were the controversial ones of the period – politics, religion, race and abortion – subjects which still provoke argument now. This was the 1950s though, and an American nation which was largely unprepared for satire of this nature.
Carnegie Hall, 1961
Lenny Bruce continued the stand-up career during this period and continued to release records of his performances. In 1961 he performed a stand-up gig at Carnegie Hall in New York, a concert which was possibly the defining moment of his career. It was also in 1961 that he began to come to the notice of the authorities, almost certainly as a result of his increased popularity. His first obscenity related arrest came following the use of the word cocksucker during a routine. The jury acquitted him but he had now come to the notice of the police who began to take an interest in his performances.
More arrests followed, none of which deterred Bruce but which in fact provided more material for his diatribes. He was famously banned from several cities and Australia; his opening line at a gig in Sydney was “What a fucking wonderful audience“, following which he was arrested.
Lenny Bruce influenced many of the comedians which followed, Woody Allen, Denis Leary and Peter Cook to name a few but ultimately his predilection for drugs overtook him and he died of an accidental overdose on August 3rd, 1966.