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Collecting The Work Of Lenny Bruce – NPR

The comic Lenny Bruce was brilliant, profane and self-destructive. After Bruce’s death at age 40, his widow and their daughter started archiving all that he had left behind.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That music means it’s time for The Kitchen Sisters series “The Keepers.” And today, we look into the archive of Lenny Bruce, that bold and profane and self-destructive comic of the 1950s and ’60s who waged a one-man battle for freedom of speech.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is the Lenny Bruce collection, box one and box two – photographs. Oh, and there he is. He was so handsome, just epitome of cool, slicked-back hair and cigarettes just kind of hanging out of his mouth. This is Lenny Bruce standing on his head with his little girl, Kitty, 1957.

KITTY BRUCE: My name is Kitty Bruce. The archives – I had schlepped them around for – oh, God – over 40 years. There’s audiotapes…

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LENNY BRUCE: The ecumenical council has given the pope permission to become a nun.

(LAUGHTER)

K. BRUCE: …Photographs, court transcripts. I used to copy the archive in triplicate. And I’d have information in my cousin’s attic in Michigan, another one in LA. If it burns down here, at least we have a plan B.

STEVE KRIEF: My name is Steve Krief. I was the first to write a Ph.D. devoted to Lenny Bruce. He was much more than a comedian. He was the first to speak on stage about sex, religion, drugs, racism, freedom of speech. Lenny Bruce’s archives were kept in Kitty’s house. I went to meet her.

K. BRUCE: Steve said, what are you going to do with these? I said, I don’t know. I need to do something to preserve them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Box 12 – “How To Attack Dirty And Influence People.” This is a draft. This book is hilarious.

KRIEF: I phoned Sarah Shoemaker from Brandeis.

SARAH SHOEMAKER: I’m Sarah Shoemaker, librarian for archives and special collections here at Brandeis.

K. BRUCE: Out of nowhere, Sarah Shoemaker calls.

SHOEMAKER: To raise the question of whether Brandeis might be the right home for her father’s papers.

STEPHEN WHITFIELD: My name is Stephen Whitfield. I teach American Studies at Brandeis University. Lenny Bruce is an inescapable figure in the evolution of American humor. He pushed the envelope of free speech. Much of Bruce’s comedy had an emphasis on his own Jewishness.

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L. BRUCE: Ray Charles is very Jewish. Al Jolson – goyish. The Army is goyish. The Navy is…

SHOEMAKER: Brandeis is a Jewish-sponsored institution. The archives contain the papers of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

K. BRUCE: Then started the letting go. Kitty, we’re going to start cataloging. I said, you know what? It’s summertime. All that stuff is up in the attic. How about we wait a couple months? This went on for a year and a half. Finally, they took all of it in one swoop, 10 linear feet, and brought it to Brandeis.

KRIEF: Hugh Hefner gave money to acquire Lenny Bruce’s archives. When you think about Playboy magazine, you think about naked chicks. But Playboy, from the ’50s till the ’80s, it was on the forefront of the battle for freedom of speech.

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HUGH HEFNER: I’m Hugh Hefner, editor/publisher of Playboy magazine, and this is Playboy’s Penthouse. Come on in and meet Lenny Bruce.

You work areas of humor that are controversial. Do you consider yourself a sitcomic?

L. BRUCE: No. Sit – let’s take the word, you know, semantics, you know. There’s no such thing as sit comedy. It’s a writer’s device.

CHRISTIE HEFNER: My father, Hugh Hefner, first met Lenny in 1958. Hef went out to San Francisco to see him and got Lenny a booking here in Chicago. My name is Christie Hefner. I was chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises for 20 years. Hef and Lenny connected as fellow rebels who understood how the culture in entertainment could be forces for profound social change.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK’S “BLUES FIVE SPOT”)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is Honey Bruce pregnant. Man, she was gorgeous.

KRIEF: He met his wife Honey Harlow, who was a stripper at the time. He calls her the sheikh’s goddess. They did some shows together.

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L. BRUCE: (Singing) Oh, preposition.

SURELLA SEELIG: His stand-up routines were often off the cuff.

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L. BRUCE: To is a preposition. Come is a verb. To is a preposition. Come is a verb, the verb intransitive.

SEELIG: His style really imitated free-form jazz.

SHOEMAKER: There are certainly different views of Lenny Bruce as a martyr to the First Amendment, as this sick comic. He really pushed what is possible to mock.

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L. BRUCE: We take you now to the headquarters of Religions Incorporated – religion big business.

WHITFIELD: The comic assaults that he made against the Roman Catholic Church were crucial to the extraordinary legal difficulties that he faced.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Box 15 – trial transcript material.

SEELIG: Lenny Bruce in court, Lenny Bruce being hauled away by the cops, banned from England.

SHOEMAKER: Lenny Bruce spent the last part of his life prosecuted and persecuted for obscenity.

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L. BRUCE: The bust, what I got arrested for. San Francisco, I got arrested for – what do you think? We can hear that, daddy.

(LAUGHTER)

L. BRUCE: I’m not going to repeat the word because I want to finish the gig here tonight. They said it was vernacular for a favorite homosexual practice, a 10-letter word.

MARTIN GARBUS: My name is Martin Garbus. I’m a trial lawyer. When I first saw Lenny, he was warm, open-hearted, bright, kind. When we went through the trial, it was the same person, but a little nuts.

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L. BRUCE: Here’s the show. I want to do the show for the court, but I’m going to sue your ass and put a lien on the file.

GARBUS: At that point in time, Lenny could not work anywhere. He had lawyer’s fees, including mine.

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L. BRUCE: OK. Now I’ve chucked the attorney, but it’s too late.

GARBUS: When we had the trial, Philip Roth was in the audience, Jules Feiffer. Philip once said, but for Lenny, he couldn’t have written “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Lenny broke down so many barriers.

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L. BRUCE: Now I think what I’ll do is I’ll go to a federal court.

GARBUS: We tried the case in New York. Ultimately, he was convicted. He won in the Court of Appeals after he was dead.

SHOEMAKER: Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose. The headline was “Dead At 40 – Now That’s Obscene.”

SEELIG: This is a quote from Lenny. “I’m not your martyr. Censorship is unconstitutional according to the First Amendment. I’m a soldier fighting for the Constitution.”

K. BRUCE: I will always be the gatekeeper. It’s just natural for me to protect the archives. I wanted the generation now to be familiar with Lenny Bruce. They kept trying to shut my father up. Shut him up, got to make him quiet. Shut him up. Well, it’s 2018, and he’s still talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY’S “AUTUMN LEAVES”)

INSKEEP: The Lenny Bruce archive was produced by The Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. Hear more stories from “The Keepers” series on their podcast, “The Kitchen Sisters Present.”

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