The Fall and Rise of an American Icon
Lenny Bruce’s words had the power to provoke laughter and debate — as well as shock and outrage. It was the force of his voice that would place him on the wrong side of the law in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Lenny committed his life to telling the truth. But the truth he told infuriated those in power, and authorities in the largest, most progressive cities in the country worked effortlessy to put him in jail. To them, Lenny’s words were filthy and depraved. But to his friends — the hip, the discontented, the fringe — his words were not only sharp and hilarious, they were a light in the dark to the repressed society of the early 1960’s.
David Skover and Ronald Collins’ book, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, is the first carefully documented account of Bruce’s career and free speech struggles. It paints a vivid, shocking, hilarious and tragic portrait.*
Skover talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about Lenny Bruce, a man perhaps best described as “too honest for his time.”
I really don’t want to be the great wounded bird, flying and trying to break through those weights so we can bring free expression to everybody. I’m a guy who has to work. – Lenny Bruce
JJM What is your background?
DS I am a 1974 graduate of Princeton University. I graduated from Yale Law School in 1978, and clerked for Judge Jon O. Newman, on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Shortly after that I began teaching. I am currently Professor of Law at Seattle University, where I teach Constitutional Law and Mass Media Theory, with a particular bent to the intersection of free speech law and the American popular entertainment culture. That explains my interest in Lenny Bruce and his obscenity trials.
JJM What fascinated you enough about the trials of Lenny Bruce that would cause you to devote a significant part of your life to studying them?
DS For a person who is very interested in First Amendment free speech issues, there really is no story more gripping than that of Lenny Bruce and his obscenity trials. Interestingly, Lenny is a little known name in free speech law because none of his cases went to the United States Supreme Court. But his obscenity story changed the First Amendment environment in America in a very practical way. After his death in 1966, the very idea of prosecuting a comedian for off-color language ended. That is really Lenny’s important legacy. He is for me, and for my co-author Ron Collins, a free speech hero.
JJM Jack Kerouac said of Lenny Bruce, “I hate him. He hates everything, and he hates life.” In your experience of extensively studying Lenny Bruce, did you come to the conclusion that he hated life?
DS No, I myself would not say that Lenny Bruce hated life. I understand what Kerouac was referring to when he made that comment. Lenny was billed by Time magazine, after all, as one of the greatest of the “sickniks,” and the spirit of comedy at the time was really coming out of the Bortschbelt era. If you consider the nature of comedy at the time that Lenny was young (he was born in 1925), it was the era of mother-in-law jokes and one-liners. Out of this burlesque material comes Lenny Bruce, who develops his raw and ribald comedy in the strip joints in Los Angeles, where he is emceeing. His material becomes more sophisticated as he goes from that environment into the more mainstream and “chichi” clubs — the Crescendo in LA, the Jazz Workshop and Hungry i in San Francisco, the Gate of Horn in Chicago, the Village Vanguard in New York. In those venues, Lenny refined his humor into the biting, indicting satire for which he became controversial. Much of his language wouldn’t sound shocking by today’s standards, but consider the fact that in his day, Lenny was speaking about things that would have been deemed shocking. He made people feel uncomfortable with his lampooning of the Establishment at every turn. He dared to speak the unspeakable about race, religion, sexual relations, politics; and he revealed the hypocrisies that were latent in power structures. He never held back in the topics that he chose to discuss or in the style by which he expressed himself.
JJM What was the source of his rebellion and his willingness to offend?
DS That’s a difficult question because Lenny was a very complex man. What you are really asking for is some form of armchair psychoanalysis. To venture boldly, I really believe that offensiveness was part of his DNA profile. He could not be anything other than uninhibited, robust and wide open — in that sense, a true First Amendment comedian. Bruce’s colleagues, including Mort Sahl, begged him to change his routine to avoid his legal problems. What Mort didn’t understand, however, is that what set Lenny Bruce apart from him and the rest of the stand-ups is that Lenny couldn’t be a “play-it-safe comedian” and still be Lenny Bruce. He almost single-handedly turned comedy clubs into free speech zones. This happened because Lenny paid the dues, and stood up to the police and prosecutors. In doing so he stood up for the First Amendment.
JJM He was certainly a revolutionary of his era. I first became aware of Bruce in the late seventies, and was amazed by what I was hearing on his records. To this day, I don’t think people come close. As you point out in your book, comedians like Andrew Dice Clay exploit controversy whereas Bruce created it.
DS Lenny was a person who transgressed social taboos time and again. He was an “in-your-face” comedian, and not at all politically correct. On the other hand, he wasn’t a “shock performer” like Howard Stern or Eminem, or “shock jocks” like the New York radio disc jockeys Opie and Anthony. Nevertheless, he did pave the way for them. The big difference between Bruce and the shock performers is that Bruce had substance. What he said mattered.
JJM How did his humor affect his audiences?
DS It depends on what audience you are talking about. There is a portion of his audience that reveled in his humor. A lot of Lenny’s fans were on the fringe. They were the hipsters of their day. The beatniks, the drug addicts, the pimps, the prostitutes, the gays and lesbians — basically the people who were on the outside looking in, and enjoying his assault on the power structure. But, there was another part of his audience, those who were well established but open-minded, who found Bruce to be incredibly inspiring because he held a mirror to America and asked people to look at the warts on their faces. Those who were willing to be authentic and honest about what they perceived the religious, political and legal authorities to be doing were stimulated by Lenny. They were stimulated to think; and sometimes, they were shocked, no question about it. Then, of course, there was a sector of his audience, particularly in some of the more conservative venues — the very Catholic Chicago, for example — who were very much offended when he revealed his feelings about the church or religions in general.
Another example was his take on what happened to Jackie Kennedy at the scene of the assassination of the President. Lenny held up a magazine picture of her scrambling atop the back of the limousine, and said the media was portraying her as a heroine reaching to bring an FBI agent on board. Lenny said, this is “BS,” that Jackie was simply “hauling ass to save her ass.” Then he went on to demonstrate that the very act of converting what she was doing — which was a normal human response to violence — into some sort of heroic act was demeaning to everyone else, really. As he put it, if it were his daughter’s husband that had been shot, she might otherwise feel that she wasn’t like the “good Mrs. Kennedy” who stayed. And people never stay, he argued. So, the feature I think that both excited and disturbed his audience is that Lenny consistently took the political, religious, or social “heroes” of the day off of their pedestals, lowering them to the level of the average person.
JJM I guess you could say you either like that sort of comedy or you don’t. It’s possible his behavioral characteristics beyond just his words made people intolerant of his humor. For example, his urinating on stage in LA
DS Yes, that event occurred in one of the strip clubs, very early on, before his obscenity busts. That happened at the Duffy’s Gayeties, when Lenny came out nude except for his shoes and his bow tie, then stood on stage and urinated in a knot hole. The comedic device was that he engaged in a “labor protest” because the club owner wouldn’t fix the knot hole in which the high-heeled strippers were tripping. This kind of antic explains the environment from which Lenny Bruce’s comedy came. But by the time he was at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, or Chicago’s Gate of Horn, the Troubadour in L.A., or the Café Au Go Go in New York, he was not getting busted for conduct like this. He was busted for words alone. The important thing to realize about Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials is that he was ripping into the hypocrisy of contemporary mores, like a buzz saw, and he was doing it with words alone. He was being prosecuted for word crimes. That is what we have to understand. After his prosecutions, when he died in 1966, the prospect of a comedian’s being busted in a comedy club for words alone changed entirely, and it is 180 degrees different today. Now, the most open and free venue in America for expression is the comedy club. Go to the comedy club, breathe in its air, listen to its fare, and you realize there is no freer free speech zone in the United States. That is Lenny Bruce’s greatest legacy.
JJM Many big names in law were associated with his trials — Thurgood Marshall and Johnnie Cochrane to name two. Why did his arrests attract such prominent personalities?
DS In some cases, it was merely by accident. In the early 1960s, the young Johnnie Cochrane was an Assistant DA in L.A., and one of his very first obscenity prosecutions was that of Lenny Bruce. As Cochrane himself admits in his autobiography, he lost the case and probably is happy for it, for certainly he would now defend someone like Lenny Bruce in such a prosecution. In other cases, the big-name lawyers were hired by Bruce to defend him. One of Bruce’s tendencies was that he always wanted to have a big-name defense attorney. He thought that if he had, as he put it, someone who “swung with the First Amendment,” then he would impress the judge and jury, and get off the hook. Often, that wasn’t the case. He had hired Ephraim London as his New York defense attorney. London was one of the most successful First Amendment litigators in the history of America. Yet, Lenny was convicted in New York. The only counsel who, in fact, won an obscenity jury trial for Lenny was the young ACLU attorney, Albert Bendich. Bendich is now the general counsel of Fantasy Studios, the company that still owns a great number of Bruce’s recordings.
JJM Bruce once wrote to his New York attorney, Ephraim London: “You are an appellantophile, possessed with a shameful and morbid interest in finding statutes unconstitutional on their face.” In general, what was his relationship with his lawyers like?
DS Let me explain first, the quote that you read. London was extremely successful as an appellate attorney. It was in the higher state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court where many of his First Amendment victories lay. Lenny wasn’t interested only in winning at the state or federal supreme court level, after having been convicted at the state trial level. He didn’t want to pay for all of these appeals. The attorneys’ fees were killing him financially. They were bankrupting him. What Lenny could never understand is, if he ultimately could win on First Amendment grounds at the state or federal high court level, why couldn’t he win on First Amendment grounds in a state trial court. This was frustrating and puzzling him. He felt that London was not making the best possible record for him in the trial court. London kept on telling Bruce that he would win on appeal, but that isn’t what Lenny wanted. Lenny wanted to win as soon as possible, and get back to work. That explains the letter that Bruce wrote at the time of firing Ephraim London, which is when Bruce took over his own New York defense case.
In general, Lenny’s relationships to his lawyers were very dicey. Most of his lawyers he fired, and those he didn’t were only able to succeed once Lenny agreed not to interfere with the presentation of the case on defense. Albert Bendich would not accept Lenny’s plea to represent him until Lenny agreed not to interfere at all in the way Bendich would conduct his trial. And, indeed, that is the trial in which Lenny was acquitted by a jury, with the help of very liberal instructions on the law from the sitting judge, Clayton Horne, in the San Francisco Municipal Court. When a lawyer could not secure a non-interference agreement from Lenny, he was hell-bent to interfere at almost every turn with the way the lawyer wanted to pursue things.