In conjunction with the 95th anniversary of the birth of comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) on October 13, we’re republishing Eric Danville’s touching and informative tribute, originally printed in the August, 1988 edition of High Times magazine.
“Marijuana will be legal some day, because there are so many law students that smoke pot, who will someday become Senators and legalize it to protect themselves… And yet at this very moment there are American citizens in jail for smoking flowers.”
—Lenny Bruce, from his autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, 1965
“I don’t know how to define [pornography], but I know it when I see it.”
— Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 1964
The death of persecuted jazz comedian Lenny Bruce from a heroin overdose in August 1966 not only ended the career of one of America’s greatest satiric minds, it also added a pathetic footnote to the life of one of the most revered figures of ’60s counterculture. Lenny has been immortalized in song by Simon and Garfunkel (“7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”), Nico (“Eulogy to Lenny Bruce”), Grace Slick (“Father Bruce”), Bob Dylan (“Lenny Bruce”), and, more recently, REM (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It [and I Feel Fine]”); he’s one of the many faces on the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album (fourth from the left, top row); and he was even the inspiration for Corporal Klinger on the TV series MASH (in his autobiography Bruce claimed to have gotten a discharge from the Navy for dressing up as a WAVE).
Unfortunately, Bruce is remembered more for the narcotics and obscenity busts that cost him his savings, his sanity, and eventually his life, than as one of the most influential and groundbreaking comedians to come out of the late ’50s and early ’60s (a scene which included Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl). Lenny was a sharp and convincing semantic magician who could persuade audiences that cigarettes, not marijuana, should be illegal because cigarettes cause cancer.
Some people believe Lenny was targeted for arrest by vicious “good Catholic” cops who were morally outraged by his attacks on the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church (even though his observations were pointed at religion in general); this is true in part, but he wasn’t just a victim of some Vatican vendetta—he got busted at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood by a Jewish police officer who understood the Yiddish curses Lenny mixed in with his hipster jazz slang, saying at the resulting trial that Lenny was “obscene in English, dirty in Yiddish, and disgusting in both.” Other people think the heat got turned on Lenny after a party in Philadelphia to which he had been invited to fulfill the celebrity quota. Lenny made his feelings known about this social charade by doing the only thing an infamous “sick comic” could do: he pissed on the carpet. And then he got busted.
His first bust, for narcotics possession in Philadelphia in 1961, made news not just for the arrest of the comic called “the sickest of them all” by no less an authority on sickness than Time magazine, but also because Lenny stood on the steps of the courthouse and told a TV news team that the presiding judge offered to acquit him for the small sum of $10,000 (discounted to $3,500 when Bruce refused to pay). His lawyer warned him that he would be asking for trouble from cops around the country if he didn’t pay the bribe, but Lenny had faith in the criminal justice system, and thought he shouldn’t pay protection.
Sure as shit, five days later Lenny got popped after a show at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco for violating Section 311.6 of the California Penal Code—use of an obscene song, ballad, or other words in a public place. It seems hard to believe in these days of Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison, but he was arrested for saying “cocksuckers,” “come,” and referring to a guy’s dick as “it” (and, as the prosecutor noted at the trial, we all know what “it” means!)
By arguing that, in context, Lenny’s words were not obscene or intended to arouse prurient interest in the average adult (that hearing the word “cocksucker” would make someone go out and do it), he was found not guilty in San Francisco; it was his first bust for obscenity, but it wouldn’t be his last. For a guy whose only crime was being smart enough to know the truth and stupid enough to tell it, he managed to rack up quite a rap sheet. He was busted for obscenity in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City; he was busted for narcotics in Los Angeles (seven times in two years!), Miami, and Philadelphia; and he was deported from England and Australia to protect “the public interest.” Negative publicity from the busts, and subsequent convictions in Chicago and New York City, made it impossible for Lenny to get work—club owners who were more than willing to book him after his first few arrests became afraid a bust would cost them their liquor license, since club owners were also taken into custody and booked for presenting Bruce’s lewd performances. By the end of his life, Lenny could only get bookings in San Francisco, and he was so broke (financially and spiritually) that he was supported by various benefactors, including teenage millionaire/record producer Phil Spector, who couldn’t stand to see what the police were doing to him.
Lenny’s humor was politely called “irreverent” in its time. He dealt with topics most comics wouldn’t touch: the discovery that sniffing airplane glue would get you high (a bit which was performed on national TV!), organized religion as big business (“For the first time in 12 years Catholicism is up nine points, Judaism’s up 15, and the big P, the Pentecostals are finally starting to move….”); by the end, though, Lenny was so obsessed with his trials that he spent the few shows he did manage to get reading from transcripts and performing the bits he got arrested for; the various judges hearing Lenny’s cases refused to let him perform for the court, relying instead on the arresting officers’ bad interpretations and inaccurate transcriptions of his act.
This stage of Lenny’s career was documented in John Magnuson’s Lenny Bruce (1965), a.k.a. The Lenny Bruce Performance Film, an hour-long record of his next-to-last nightclub performance, at the Basin Street West in San Francisco. It was meant to be shown in court in lieu of Lenny’s testimony (but was never admitted as evidence), and is currently available on videocassette, along with a cartoon called Thank You, Mask Man, in which we find the real reason the Lone Ranger chose Tonto as his sidekick (“Oh, the masked man’s a f@g! AAAAGGHH!”). Lenny Bruce occasionally plays in revival houses, as does a film Lenny made in 1956 entitled Dance Hall Racket, a cheesy, low-budget saga of a dance hall which doubles as a front for a gang of mobsters. Lenny stars with his wife, Honey Harlowe, and his mother, Sally Marr, who has a laughable scene dancing the Charleston.
Lenny has also been the subject of several video projects. Fred Baker’s Lenny Bruce Without Tears (1973), a documentary originally made for public television, was shelved due to its “controversial nature” but makes rare appearances on cable TV and revival houses. Too bad—this is the best film document about Lenny. It features early TV appearances (including “Airplane Glue” from the ever-hip Steve Allen’s Sunday Night Comedy Show, a clip from Lenny’s failed TV pilot, and an interview for Canadian television station CBC-TV, conducted by noted scribe and Bruce supporter Nat Hentoff shortly before Lenny’s death. Overweight, his skin broken out from a diet of candy bars and Coke, Lenny’s sharp wit and stream-of-consciousness hustle are totally gone; at some points Lenny Bruce Without Tears brilliantly captures its subject with intelligence and compassion. Although it’s not commercially available on videocassette, bootleg copies are floating around, if you can find one.
Lenny (1974), Bob Fosse’s film based on the play of the same name, is most people’s frame of reference into the life and times of Lenny Bruce. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny is as spirited and complex as any he has ever done, and Valerie Perrine is funny and sad as Lenny’s wife, Honey Harlowe. Despite some biographical inconsistencies, Lenny is a good, if somewhat histrionic, film which can be difficult to watch as you realize what the powers that be were doing to him.
For those truly hooked on Lenny Bruce, there is the masturbatory masterpiece A Toast to Lenny (1987), a video release of a 1982 HBO special hosted by the omnipresent Steve Allen at the Troubadour Club, where Lenny was busted in 1962. Comedians Jackie Gayle, George Kirby, and Mort Sahl share memories of Lenny and perform bits in which he is the punch line (along the lines of “Lenny walked into a psychiatrist’s office …”). While some of the performances are a riot, for the most part the interest in this tape lies in the all-too-short interviews with Honey Harlowe, Lenny’s daughter Kitty, Hugh Hefner […] and George Carlin (who talks about getting arrested on a drunk and disorderly charge when Lenny was busted at the Gate of Horn in Chicago in 1962).
Aside from sex, religion, and politics, drug humor was a large part of Lenny’s act. A 1962 booklet designed as a program for Lenny’s live shows, called Stamp Help Out! The Pot Smokers, gives a pre-Cheech and Chong look into the world of the “viper” (hipster slang for “pothead”), offering definitions of “a good count,” “manicuring,” and “getting busted” along with great pictures of Lenny mugging for the camera.
Most copies of the booklet were destroyed, however, as pressure against Bruce mounted. He realized it wouldn’t be in his best interest to have his name on a document that treated marijuana smoking with a hip attitude which might be introduced into evidence at a narcotics trial. Only one copy exists.
Lenny didn’t smoke pot, though; he found it “facilitates ideas and heightens sensations—and I’ve got enough shit flying through my head without smoking pot.” Most of Lenny’s chemical diet came through a needle; but it wasn’t the busts or his heartbreaking marriage to lesbian-tendencied stripper/junkie Honey Harlowe that led Lenny to use the heroin that eventually killed him. He shot crystal meth, Dilaudid, smack, whatever he needed to get some kicks and give him a creative edge, sending his already fertile mind ricocheting like magnesium on water. But as times got tough, he retreated into the syringe looking for solace and insulation from a world that was fucking him over.
On August 3rd, 1966, Lenny found a foreclosure notice in his mailbox. Thanks to the cops and judges who persecuted him and the lawyers who misrepresented him, Lenny had lost his livelihood, his life savings, and finally his house. There was nothing left. Whether Lenny’s death was a suicide or accidental overdose is purely conjecture—some of Lenny’s friends claim he was driven to cooking up a particularly strong shot because he had said if he ever lost his house, he would have nothing to live for. Other people think Lenny loved life too much—even at the end, when he still had fantasies about clearing his name—to take his own life. But it doesn’t really matter. He was committing a slow suicide, like every junkie does when he sticks a spike in his arm. What it boils down to is that Lenny was murdered, figuratively if not literally, by cops, judges, lawyers, and even the newsmen who provided the public with the one truly obscene image of Lenny Bruce; his naked corpse lying in the doorway of his bathroom, where it had been dragged to give cameramen a better view.