I caught up with the wonderful Kitty Bruce — daughter of the late great comedian and fighter for Free Speech and the First Amendment, Lenny Bruce — for a chat on comedy, freedom of speech, truth, media, addiction, her work with the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation (which helps those in the throes of addiction afford treatment by providing scholarships), the new exhibit all about her father and his myriad, profound contributions to comedy and his fight which did so much to ensure that we all have the right to speak freely — opening soon at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY. The Center is also holding a “Comedy and the First Amendment” round-table with Kitty, Lewis Black, and First Amendment attorney-of-record Paul Cambria who has represented everyone from DMX to Marilyn Manson and even Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt.
Tickets for the grand opening and the round-table at the Center can be purchased here.
Lenny Bruce is arguably the single most important figure who held sway over the development of my love of barbed, satirical comedy — and more importantly my profound respect for our individual rights as enumerated in the US Constitution. Lenny Bruce did so much to make me a small “l” libertarian in my views on civil rights, and to make me question social norms and structures. The man’s work really opened my mind, while making me laugh hysterically along the way.
I remember first hearing Lenny’s “The Berkeley Concert” when I was a political science student. I thought, here was a guy who said some profound stuff in the parlance that was common in his day (the early ’60s) — he spoke those hard truths to his audience in a way that made his audience howl with laughter but also reflect profoundly on what they’re hearing. Lenny was further the picture of authenticity in his act: looking world-weary but always excited to speak truth in his infamous trenchcoat (one piece which will be in the Comedy Center’s Lenny Bruce exhibit) and jazz hipster garb, cigarette hanging from his mouth.
Lenny Bruce spoke with a ferocious but graceful and jazz-like rhythm. He was hypnotic but much, much more than the typical comedian I was used to as a 20-year-old. The quote that totally sold me on the substance of the man’s message was, “take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’“
You see, Lenny Bruce was worlds apart from your average, arm chair political critic — or even your above-average satirist. The man was embroiled in the thick of it, having been arrested four times for obscenity (that is, for the CONTENT of his act, an idea that is supposed to be a strict no-no under the auspices of America’s First Amendment) between 1961 and 1964. He was subsequently convicted in Illinois (which was overturned by the State Supreme Court) and in New York in 1964 and was only pardoned in 2003.
Yet, Lenny Bruce would not be around to enjoy that pardon. He died August 3, 1966 of a morphine overdose. This is a huge part of what drives Kitty to keep her father’s memory alive through the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, which helps those struggling with addiction to be able to afford treatment by providing scholarships. Donate to the Foundation’s incredible, timely, and vital work here — or pick up a t-shirt with Lenny and one of his penetrating insights on it here. Proceeds completely benefit the people the Foundation helps.
Kitty I wanted to start by thanking you for what you do for the First Amendment in furthering your dads legacy first in the right for all of us to think and act freely; and also for the work you do to help others who desperately need it in the hell that is their addiction (I’ve been there I know just how brutal it is). Your dad once said, “I don“t have an act. I just talk. I’m just Lenny Bruce.” Where did that quote come from?
You see in the beginning of his career, he was a comedian. One of his definitions of “comedy” was that you get a laugh every 15 minutes, and the reason that people laugh is because they can identify with it.
I think that the role of comedy now is to make people think — to make people reflect because the times have changed — we’re talking severe how it’s changed.
So after his court cases, after he had literally been through the grinder with the court system, after just trying to exercise his First Amendment… He went through so much at that point that it changed him to where he was no longer on stage to “ha ha”, to make people laugh. He was there because he wanted to make a point. He was there because he wanted to talk — he wanted to bring things to light.
He brought things to light which nobody talked about in 1958 and 1959, because at that time, it was a chicken in every pot, a white picket fence — it was all an idea and a facade — very Ozzie & Harriet: women standing with a strand of pearls around their neck, a pair of pumps and a very beautifully-pleated dress, waiting for her husband to come home with his pair of slippers and a cocktail.
Indeed. Post-War America in a nutshell right there.
This was the picture that America was painted.
You take that picture, as my father did, and you take things like, say, the discussion of President Kennedy and that administration, and the assassination — he was trying to make a point that — and he had full respect by the way — what upset him was the fact that Jackie Kennedy turned around. She wasn’t going to go for help. She was going to haul her ass outta there — like any human being would do: fight or flight…
…they would run if they were being attacked by guns.
He [Lenny] came out with that, and now we’re starting to poke at the American Dream and Camelot in Washington at the same time. Now he’s starting to rip down the very fabric and the whole package that was sold to the American people at that time.
He was threatening what was being sold, the story that was being sold to all of us at that time: the War was over, America was strong, new dishwashers — everything new — and there were a lot of good things about that period, but there were also a lot of things that just were not true.
Absolutely. Interesting how those false narratives get constructed — and ultimately torn down.
So, when he was bringing light to these subjects, regarding the Church, regarding the Kennedys, regarding homosexuality, regarding violations of Free Speech, it got to the point where he just said, I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.
That’s what that meant.
Definitely. The authenticity there too, just incredible. Reminds me of where Lenny called himself “a surgeon for false values.”
I listened to Lenny the other day describing what was in essence the concept of “fake news” about 60 years before the term became so common in our parlance. He was getting into a thorough study of the truth how the media conveys it and how we see it. How has censorship and fake news changed from 1959 to 2018? Or has it?
I do believe it has changed and stayed the same.
The difference between 1959 was, all the things that were going on: we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have social media, we didn’t have on the spot — like really on the spot — like CNN break or other news alerts. We had Walter Cronkite.
When I was allowed to watch TV, ’cause I wasn’t — when I would look at the news and Walter Cronkite, I used to watch that news and the information was just different. It was transmitted differently.
Today, we have a lot of the same situations that are transmitted and you can’t get away with as much bullshit as you could in 1959. That’s one.
There’s much more exposure — much more of the ability to get on the spot answers, on the spot news, all of that has changed exponentially.
With that being said, at that I do believe that — and I still do believe in 2018, the same as it was in 1959 — I believe that two things have stayed the absolute same. One, my personal belief is that all news media, all newspaper media — actually no, I can’t say newspaper media, because they have standards, they have ethics, and they have morals — so thank God for newspapers and thank God for the CNNs, Special Reports, and Anderson Coopers, and people like that, who are not willing to alter what they’re told to do because we must remember the whole reason that they’re on the news and the news has that slot, is because a commercial is coming up — and in order to buy that space, you have to sell product.
So, in 1959 — and today — I believe that the news over the media — especially news like evening news, what’s on television perhaps, I think that there are guidelines that are set up. I believe that there is censorship in a lot of the things that should come out, and my dad used to say, “there is no should, there’s only what is”.
But it does happen. There are journalists that take their life in their hands, they want to get the truth out there.
Heroic journalism indeed — REAL journalism. Those types of journalists alas don’t always get their fair due.
Journalists and newspapers are the biggest freedom fighters I can possibly attach to Lenny Bruce. Seriously. Because they go out and they are trying to get the truth and at every turn, they are running into walls: you know you can say this, but camera 5: move over there please. Alright, you can take this, we’re not gonna run that. Especially if it’s not a live broadcast. Ok?
Absolutely. Editorial gatekeeping.
We’ve got news that’s being decided upon before we get to see it. Then the capper is, did you ever notice — I just want to put this out here — have you ever noticed that any time the following has happened, what I’m about to say follows it right after… [Laughs]
[Laughs]… uh huh?
…anything that shines darkly on the powers that be, and the public is starting to get wild with it, and they’re feeling pressure — all of a sudden there is a gay night club in Florida and boom! It exploded. Takes your eye off the ball. Anytime where our eyes and ears are going for something uncomfortable and not safe — so that we feel that we’re safe, so that they’re keeping that painted picture — and it’s not, we are not safe. It’s to take our eye off the ball, every time. There’s something that there’s an explosion, a shooting — a school shooting, it’s endless.
Sadly yeah tragedy seems to be endless in the modern world. And you’re right-on to point out it has a lot to do with what dominates the news cycle and how the news cycle is constructed. Sadly, the “if it bleeds, it leads” aphorism I think says a lot about human psychology and how some try to manipulate it.
You know what? How many things have we had that have corresponded with — not natural disasters — but your headline disasters with shooting, mowing people down with bullets, protests? Let’s see: Mad Cow Disease, E Coli, there’s like 12 of them… the bird flu… anthrax…
You know, you can just fill in the blanks with any disease you want, any epidemic, anything you want. I believe the point of that is to take our focus — that’s what I mean about our eye off the ball — to take the focus off of what is pressuring the powers that be at hand and go camera 3 where we just have news that an epidemic that is clocking the country, and… do you see what I’m getting at?
I do. Controlling the narrative by controlling what truth is presented.
Absolutely. Fear in many ways is their currency.
Of course it is. That’s been going on, Jesus, since gun control. Originally it was, we didn’t want people to have guns, you put the fear of God into them. It’s a messy situation, and I have full faith that people — all people — I believe in every man, woman and child is the deep knowledge that there’s a goodness, and something watching over this universe.
And I believe that my father just wanted to tell the truth. He felt so uncomfortable — it’s like wearing an itchy suit — it’s like being naked and an itchy wool blanket is your clothes. Very uncomfortable.
I can very viscerally empathize with that feeling. Maybe that’s part of what initially attracted me to your dad’s work of bold truth telling. Also reminds me of Lenny’s quote, “everyday people are straying away from the Church, and going back to God.”
Yeah. So, that’s what I have to say on that. I would like to let you know what’s going on today with my father’s memory, how I’m keeping it alive, and how I’m honoring him.
I’ve decided that, instead of a plaque, instead of a star on Hollywood Boulevard — I don’t want people walking on him anyway — awards, all that business, no.
I want to honor my father by changing lives — something that was for the common good. To help — my father was all about love, he was all about kindness. He was one of the most generous, kind, sweet people you’d ever wanna meet.
Like the great Richard Lewis tweeted (while also wearing one of those awesome shirts at the lennybruce.org store which we’ll get into below), “I wish I had a chance to hang with your dad”. Knowing what the man was like in reality, makes me want to hang with him more than before too.
Kitty, I wish I had a chance to hang with your dad.Lenny Bruce was the hippest.
When I first heard his albums in college, I knew the comedic bar for fearlessness, jazz-like genius premises and riffing was established.
— Richard Lewis (@TheRichardLewis) July 11, 2018
He was a good guy. He was a stand-up guy. I don’t mean that in terms of stand-up comedy, I mean a real stand-up guy.
I believe it Kitty.
So, I started the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation in 2008. We were given the right as a public charity and a 501(c)(3) non-for-profit and what we do is provide treatment for those who are in the throes of addiction to drugs and alcohol, who do not have the money to get treatment or the insurance to do so. All the money goes to help those people in need and all donations are tax deductible. ALL of them.
And it isn’t just for rehab. It is for transition — how to live in the real world.
Absolutely vital work there. Especially with the seemingly endless Opioid Crisis and the rise of even more dangerous substances than heroin — likefentanyl — on the streets. That transition part is such a huge part of recovery too: replacing those old destructive habits that caused one to use with new healthy and adaptive habits — which also gets into the Lenny Bruce Module I would suspect.
So, that is what I concentrate on. There’s the Lenny’s House Module — if it was up to me, I’d have a Lenny’s House in every state my father got arrested in [Laughs]
[Laughs] that’d be cool to see. Hopefully can get there with the help of people like our readers.
Yeah. I really would.
So, we scholarship, we pay for, we send, people who need help — I’ve been in recovery for quite some time…
I have been myself for about 3 years now.
…I take a very special interest in each and every person that we help. I follow how they’re doing a year later, and in the process of these scholarships, I will visit the people, I always check every place out before I send somebody there and we cover their stay.
Such vital work.
So we want people to get well, and to have a better life — to know that there’s so many better things to do than destroy yourself.
There’s a great life out there and they just don’t know it. So, that’s what we’ve been doing since 2010.
It’s a calling. It’s a calling. And it’s a joy and it’s my privilege, and it’s why I believe I was kept alive. It is a miracle I’m still alive with all the drinking and drugging I did. Swear.
I know the feeling.
I have no other earthly excuse to explain how I’m still alive. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s a feeling I know as well Kitty, I’m in that same boat.
Do what? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Oh, just said I know that feeling all to well too.
Yeah, it’s something, huh?
I would like to give you our website. Which I so hope you’re gonna promote the shit out of it Wess.
Oh I plan on it. In fact I was about to ask, what can our readers do to help?
To help, your readers can go to http://www.lennybruce.org and they will see what the Foundation does. They’ll see what I do and there is a “Donate” button. They can make donations, we have t-shirts. I’m putting a line of t-shirts out — the first one has my dad’s picture on the front and on the back it says, “in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”
Yeah. Everybody loves that shirt. For now, round 2, the different shirts will be, the first quote will be, “The American Constitution was written not to protect the criminals, it was written to protect the government from becoming criminals.” That’ll be on the second set of shirts.
I’m going to have to get me one of each.
Absolutely! Go to our website. I send them out myself.
Very cool. .
So each person who places an order, they just need to tell me what size they need and what shirt they want, and I go to the post office [Laughs]…
…and put it in an envelope, and I send them a note, and that’s what I do.
I had that “American Constitution” quote in another question too. It’s one I had been thinking about most everyday, especially watching all the news out of Washington…
That leads into another thing that may very well be your dad’s most potent trait: a strong distaste for hypocrisy in religion, politics, everything.
This is also a characteristic that deeply permeates the work of comedians who carried that mantle of Free Speech after your dad, particularly George Carlin, who famously said, “Let“s not have a double standard, one standard will do just fine.” Do you see that profound distaste for hypocrisy as still prevalent in today’s comedy?
I see the distaste for hypocrisy in a very large percentage of the American people. I see a frightening series of events that happen to comedians when they are performing. It used to be, eh your act sucks. Throw tomatoes.
The people have gotten so pumped-up and so wild… the hypocrisy is one thing but what they’re being fed in the media over and over, it sort of reminds me of, do you remember when there was subliminal messaging?
I wasn’t alive in its hey-day but I have studied it some.
Ok. It’s almost as if subliminal messaging is putting into the media so fast to get people pumped up because I’ve never seen anything like this. I mean, I have but not this… it’s violent.
Getting into the panel at the National Comedy Center…
August the 2nd, at The National Comedy Center — a dream of Lucille Ball, to have this place that focused on comedy — it will finally be open August 2nd, the unveiling of the Lenny Bruce exhibit will be there. It’s interactive. My dad’s exhibit is brilliant as are the others. I’m not allowed to say much more about it right now — but, it’s gonna be lovely.
I’m doing a conversation on Free Speech and the First Amendment — and if it was up to me, my poor dad suffered through violations of his Fourteenth Amendment, his right to due process, that really gets to me…
Me too after studying it in college.
So, there’s going to be a round-table discussion. It’ll be at the Robert H. Jackson Center — he was a Supreme Court justice and one of the people who handled the Nuremberg Trials — with Lewis Black who’s another supporter of the Foundation and who’s been just wonderful. Paul Cambria, and myself.
So, that’s what’s going on too.