Lenny Bruce was hard to listen to, but the ruling class at Brandeis (its students) decided it was unseemly for their campus to hear challenging ideas.
I didn’t go to college. I went to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, but that was just a trade school for fools. When I was 18, I chose to eat fire, juggle, do magic, make jokes, and ruin my voice forever rather than pursue a higher education.
Now I’m 62, and I spend hunks of my spare time chasing what I forfeited to become carny trash. I spend my spare time reading Moby-Dick and Shakespeare. I read grammar, poetry, philosophy, theology and science books. I watch art movies that I can’t laugh at, and listen to hard classical music that I can’t dance to. I shock myself reading Yuval Noah Harari’s kinda sorta defense, or at least explanation, of Nazism. It’s all too hard for me. I’m confused. I cringe. It scares me. I don’t get much of it. But I sure enjoy being challenged in the way that I feel college would have challenged me. Like most autodidacts, I don’t really know what I missed, but I feel its absence all the time.
The last college I decided not to go to was Hampshire College, in my home state of Massachusetts. They were going to let me structure my own curriculum (that was the kind of hippie school I thought I might want to go to) and I wanted to study Lenny Bruce. Lenny was already dead when I was college age, but he was still so shocking. So funny and challenging.
I learned about him when I skipped high school and drove forever to the campus of the University of Massachusetts to see a performance film of Lenny. He sure shocked me. I didn’t know people could talk like that. He made me question many things I took for granted. I decided not to go to college, but I did memorize all of Lenny Bruce. I studied him on my own. I tried to talk like him. I hitchhiked to New York City and decided to try to talk for a living in part because of Lenny Bruce, because of that film I saw on a college campus.
I just read in the news that Brandeis University, one of the real universities that I didn’t go to, canceled a play about Lenny Bruce. Just drink in the irony: A school named for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis — a champion of free speech — censored a play about a satirist of such renown that the school acquired his papers to advance its scholarship funded in part by the Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice and the ACLU of Massachusetts.
The powers that be (I guess that’s the students, right?) thought that some of Lenny’s old material would be offensive to 21st century college students. No kidding. Lenny Bruce invented transgressive modern American stand-up comedy. Lenny didn’t “go there” — he discovered “there.” He lived “there.”
To college-age people in the 21st century, Lenny Bruce is wicked offensive, even rougher than he sounded back in the ’60s. Even the greatest speaker of the 20th century, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., used some language that doesn’t sound quite right to our ears today. But Lenny Bruce wasn’t even right to ’60s ears. He was arrested for what he said and wasn’t pardoned until the 21st century.
I can’t imagine any 18-year-old listening to Lenny Bruce’s words and not being shocked. Lenny is hard. He serves up a lot to think and worry about. That was his gig.
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Brandeis banned this play about Lenny Bruce because students thought it might upset them. Maybe it’s not a good play. Who cares? I don’t have a dog in this fight. I never went to college. I’m not paying for college. College students can choose to spend their money to avoid the risk of being offended. It’s a lot of jingle — family money, scholarships, government loans and personal loans. Maybe they don’t want to pay to be challenged. That’s a lot of debt to carry to be comfortable.
College was too expensive for me when I was 18, and it’s even more expensive now. Students have the right to luxuriate in comfort for their money, if that’s what they want.
The title of the Lenny play is Buyer Beware, and the students are the buyers. It’s their choice to make, and they’ve made it. But I’m no longer envious of their experience. If college is so comfortable and safe — I’m glad I’m not there. Who wants comfortable? Who wants safe? This old piece of carny trash still wants to be pushed and challenged, and I’ve proved I can do that without college. And it’s a lot cheaper than Brandeis.
Penn Jillette, a magician and comedian best known as part of Penn & Teller, signed a letter from a campus civil rights group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, urging Brandeis to reconsider. Follow him on Twitter @PennJillette.