Before Stephen Colbert, or Jon Stewart, or George Carlin or countless other comedians and satirists of the last 50 years, there was Lenny Bruce.
A pioneer of social criticism, Bruce used stand-up comedy in a way never seen before to expose hypocrisy and injustice while pushing the boundaries of obscenity and freedom of speech in the 1960s. Bruce died of an accidental drug overdose 50 years ago, but his legacy is still felt across popular culture today.
The legacy of his work, as well as a deep exploration of who he was, through personal letters, notes, photographs, audio and more, is the subject of new exhibit and accompanying two-day conference at Brandeis University this week entitled “Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce.”
“What strikes me about the collection is seeing the human side of Lenny Bruce,” said Sarah Shoemaker, associate university librarian for the archives and special collections at the Brandeis Goldfarb Library.
Brandeis acquired Bruce’s personal papers from Bruce’s daughter Kitty Bruce in 2014, thanks to a gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation. Christie Hefner, Brandeis alumnus and daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, is a trustee of the foundation and will be delivering a keynote speech at the conference, which will take place on Thursday, Oct. 27, and Friday, Oct. 28, at Brandeis.
Hugh Hefner was a close friend of Bruce and helped him with his high profile legal battles during the 1960s when Bruce was arrested numerous times on charges of obscenity for speaking about the taboo subjects of sex, race and religion, among others, in his act. Transcripts of his trials, along with a trove of personal photographs, letters, notes and audio recordings are part of the exhibit that will run at Brandeis for the remainder of the academic year.
Shoemaker said that Brandeis employees drove down to Kitty Bruce’s home in Pennsylvania to obtain roughly 10 moving boxes of Bruce’s personal items that comprise the collection. Only a small fraction of the collection, which can be viewed by appointment by any member of the public, will be on display at the exhibit.
She said within the collection, she was drawn to “the romantic notes, the letters written with affection to his father, things that show a sweet side of him.”
The collection includes a vast amount of photographs spanning Bruce’s entire life from childhood to his death at 40.
“The photographs make it feel like you’re stepping into someone’s life,” said Brandeis archivist Surella Seelig, who prepared by the exhibit along with archivist Leslie Reicher.
“The main goal is to show the person as a human being, to be evenhanded and let people learn their own things about the person.” Seelig said. “He was someone who was never not reading or writing or thinking about what was coming next.”
The two-day conference will host a number of panels discussing Bruce’s legacy on everything from censorship and free speech to language and Jewish comedy. Speakers include Kitty Bruce, Martin Garbus, the attorney who represented Bruce in his 1964 New York obscenity trial and even a dinner hosted by comedian Lewis Black.
“The conference will explore the significance of his own career, his personal perspectives on society, culture, human behavior and the degree to which he enlarged freedom of speech and expression,” said Stephen Whitfield, American civilization professor at Brandeis and co-chairman of the conference. “He was genuinely serious about extending the scope of what comedy would consist of.”
For more information about the registration for conference and the free exhibit, visit the event website at brandeis.edu.