The Sick Humor
The Original Rebel
Jazz Trumpet Legend Miles Davis was once asked to describe jazz, Davis sarcastically but saliently replied, "You can sweat it down to four words: Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker." If we were to try to apply that same outward thinking or if you will old-school, new-school trailblazer to the field of comedy it does present more of a problem. There are a number of great early comics that spring to mind that could stand in for the "Louis Armstrong" or our old-school entry, among them Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx and George Burns. But when choosing the "Charlie Parker" of comedy, by this we are saying the one who blazed the modern-day trail, the one who influenced all that came after him, the answer is simply and undeniably Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce was comedies reckless visionary, who redefined the genre.The shoot from the hip and tell the truth work of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Richard Lewis, Andrew Dice Clay and a myriad of other modern day comics could never have existed without Lenny Bruce first storming the gates and tearing down the conventional walls of comedy presentation back in the 1950s. This Hub Shows Off My Lenny Bruce Vinyl Record Collection.
Testing The Boundaries of Free Speech
Lenny Bruce was the original rebel testing the boundaries of free speech, taking his "borscht belt" and strip-joint background and turning it to a hipster enlightenment. His style took previously taboo subjects and not only dumped them all in the audience's lap, but did it with a creative verve that made him the wildest, the hippest, the most controversial, and simply the best comic of the time. Those lucky enough to have caught Bruce on an inspired night said it was like a roller coaster ride of thoughts and emotions, free-association ramblings streaming out in a virtual torrent of ideas. Jumping from '50s jazz hipster slang to a liberal dose of Yiddish vernacular that sounded like code to the uninitiated and sometimes with an impish little boys charm letting you in on a big, dark secret, no comic created intimacy with an audience and in almost any environment which has been conclusively proven in Lennys amazing performance at Carnegie Hall
Candor and Free Association
Carnegie Hall Performance
On February 3, 1961, in the midst of a severe blizzard, he gave a famous performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was recorded and later released as a three album set, "the Carnegie Hall Concert". In the liner notes, critic Albert Goldman described it as follows: "This was the moment that an obscure yet rapidly rising young comedian named Lenny Bruce chose to give one of the greatest performances of his career. ... The performance contained in this album is that of a child of the jazz age. Lenny worshipped the gods of Spontaneity, Candor and Free Association. He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there -- from recall, fantasy, prophecy. A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn't plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up -- as if he were a spectator at his own performance"
Lenny Bruce Record Insert Poster 1972
I Am Lenny Bruce
I Am Not A Comedian
Although Lenny Bruce rode in on the crest of that late-'50s wave known as the "sick comics," Bruce distanced himself from the pack, both in ideas, outlook, and demeanor, quickly proving that he had much more to offer philosophically than some tasteless one-liners whose comedic value was usually based on shock value alone. Not that in the early days Bruce wasn't above drawing on items in the news to pull a "quickie sickie" observation to get a fast laugh, but the simple fact that Bruce quickly outgrew the medium that launched him was already apparent by the live recorded performances he was laying down that were appearing on albums by 1959 and 1960. While Mort Sahl the most popular and digestible of the new comics would take aim at political sacred cows, Lenny came from a hipster's background and - fueled by endless nights of honing his craft in California strip joints, where the audience couldn't have cared less what he said or did - was out to violate the nightclub taboos by dealing with sex, race, and religion, using words that had seldom been uttered on cabaret stages up to that point.
Lenny Bruce "The Palladium"
Steve Allen Censorship
The Steve Allen Show
Lenny Bruce first burst upon the national consciousness in the spring of 1959 with two riotous appearances on the Steve Allen Show. There had never been a comedian like him before: He was handsome, smart and as hip as they come; A real finger snapping, urban bon vivant; A combination sage rabbi and verbal kamikaze, Lenny Bruce was the real thing. The facets of his psychological make up, including his all-too-obvious personal vulnerabilities were there, for all the world to behold, bravely exhibited on the nightclub stage. That he was a troubled, tormented soul, there can be no doubt. Unhappiness and insecurity dogged him his entire life. Close friends would remember him as a basically sad and lonely man. But, damn! When he walked on stage he was funny, Screamingly funny!
Testing the Boundaries
Thank You Masked Man !!
A Brilliant Satirist
Lenny Bruce was a brilliant satirist and the object of his early pieces was quite often show business itself, clearly a signal that he was more than willing to bite the hand that was feeding him. Exposing the seediness, pomposity, and insensitivity that existed then - as now - in show business via brilliant routines like "The Palladium," "Hitler and the M.C.A.," "The Tribunal," and "Religions, Inc.," it was obvious that Bruce was going places that no comic had dared to go in front of an audience. Exposing racism and bigotry in routines like "White Collar Drunks," "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties" and his brilliant satire of the movie "The Defiant Ones" was another bold step, paving the way for message comedians like Dick Gregory and later, Richard Pryor and George Carlin to find their voice and audience.
Lenny's work went through three basic phases of development, starting with the bits and routines that lampooned show business conventions and often caused audiences to walk out. Tiring of the sheer drudgery of regurgitating the same material on a nightly basis, Bruce entered his second phase, abandoning all format on-stage, free-forming his entire performance. His final phase at the end of his career was slow-moving, obsessive shows centered around the contradictions in the American legal system. As Bruce kept testing the boundaries of what could be talked about on a stage, other comics heard his basic message and rethought their entire game plan. In effect, he invented modern-day comedy as we know it.
The concept of a comedy concert back then was unthinkable. Up to that time, comics worked in clubs bars, saloons, and strip joints or as part of a stage show. Putting a comedian in a theater all by their lonesome for an entire evening seemed like a crazy idea until Bruce's work justified such a gamble, now a presentation format common to any comedian popular enough to fill a large building.
Came The Heat
Lenny Bruce Live UCLA 1966
With The Trailblazing
But with the trailblazing came the heat. The police busted Lenny at the Jazz Workshop in 1961 for violating the California Obscenity Code. As Paul Krassner said, "Lenny fought for the right to say on a nightclub stage what he felt free to say in his own living room." Bruce's drug use was widely known throughout the business, and after his acquittal on obscenity charges, he was deported from the United Kingdom, barred from performing in Australia, busted for either narcotics possession or obscenity in Los Angeles, Chicago, Hollywood, New York, and San Francisco. In 1964 he had himself declared a legally bankrupt pauper, virtually unable to work anywhere. By this time, Lenny had a lone benefactor keeping him afloat, who was rock & roll producer Phil Spector. Spector was the last person to record Lenny for public consumption. On August 3, 1966, with his career and finances in tatters, Lenny Bruce died of a heroin overdose at age 40. Lenny Bruce's visionary work changed the world of comedy forever. His life story became a 1974 film "Lenny" by Bob Fosse, starring Dustin Hoffman.
The Essential Lenny Bruce Politics Promo Poster 1965
Lenny Bruce A Quintessential American
First Amendment Right to Free Speech
Lenny Bruce certainly paved the way for every taboo breaking comic working today. His sad life and early death have made him a fitting martyr to the cause of free speech. Legal scholars have called Bruce a "Quintessential American", in his passionate defense of the First Amendment, the right to free speech. Of his rights, he claimed, "These are mine", "I will not relinquish them unto anybody". The man who had blown fresh air into comic language spent his last years lost in a quagmire of legal transcripts, often reading them on stage to humor-less effect. All this legal wrangling led his friend, Phil Spector, to say that Bruce "may have died of an overdose of police".
Petition Protesting the Arrest of Lenny Bruce
June 13 1964
We the undersigned are agreed that the recent arrests of night-club entertainer Lenny Bruce by the New York police department on charges of indecent performance constitutes a violation of civil liberties as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. Lenny Bruce is a popular and controversial performer in the field of social satire in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais, and Twain. Although Bruce makes use of the vernacular in his night-club performances, he does so within the context of his satirical intent and not to arouse the prurient interests of his listeners. It is up to the audience to determine what is offensive to them; it is not a function of the police department of New York or any other city to decide what adult private citizens may or may not hear. Whether we regard Bruce as a moral spokesman or simply as an entertainer, we believe he should be allowed to perform free from censorship or harassment.
The signators included theologian Reinhold Neibuhr; psychoanalyst Theodor Reik; Arnold Beichman, chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom; entertainers Woody Allen, Theodore Bikel, Richard Burton, Godfrey Cambridge, Bob Dylan, Herb Gardner, Ben Gazzara, Dick Gregory, Tommy Leonetti, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Rip Tom, Rudy Vallee; novelists and playwrights Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Kay Boyle, Jack Gelber, Joseph Heller, Lillian Helman, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, John Rechy, Jack Richardson, Susan Sontag, Terry Southern, William Styron, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Arnold Weinstein; artists Jules Feiffer, Walt Kelly and Ben Shabo; poets Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Leroi Jones, Peter Orlovsky, Louis Untermeyer; critics Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Malcom Cowley, Les Crane, Harry Golden, Michael Harrington, Nat Hentoff, Granville Hicks, Alfred Kazin, Alexander King, Max Lerner, Dwight Macdonald, Jonathan Miller, Philip Rahv, Mark Schorer, Harvey Swados, Jerry Tallmer, Lionel Trilling, Dan Wakefield, Richard Gilman; editors and publishers Ira Gitler (Down Beat), Robert Gottlieb (Simon-& Schuster), Irving Howe (Dissent), Peter Israel (Putnam's), William Phillips (Partisan Review), George Plimpton (Paris Review), Norman Podhoretz (Commentary), Barney Rossett (Grove Press).
The Trials of Lenny Bruce
One of the most incendiary entertainers in American stand-up comedy, Lenny Bruce was never one to shy away from controversy or a legal fight. Written by a First Amendment scholar and law professor, this is the story of the series of obscenity cases that Bruce had leveled against him and how they played out. Many details from the trials are included here, making the book a literal walking tour of his time in court. An outstanding feature is the accompanying audio CD, the contents of which are all keyed to passages in the book. Narrated by Nat Hentoff and containing performances by Bruce and interviews with other entertainment notables, including George Carlin, the CD gives the text another dimension and allows for a truly different reading experience. The book is best read in tandem with Bruce's How to Talk Dirty and Influence People an Autobiography and William Karl Thomas's Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet. A fine retelling of Bruce's career as well as one of the only books in print to detail his free-speech legal troubles.
Lenny Bruce Receives a Pardon
Lenny Bruce, the pioneering, rebel comedian who died of a drug overdose in 1966, was given a posthumous gubernatorial pardon today for the obscenity conviction that some supporters believe hastened his demise. Gov. George A. Pataki of New York said his decision to pardon Bruce nearly four decades after the fact was "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."
Published December 23, 2003 New York Times
by Kirk Semple
Lenny Bruce "The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce" 1958
Lenny Bruce "I am Not a Nut, Elect Me ! " 1959
Lenny Bruce "Carnegie Hall Concert" Recorded Feb. 4 1961
Lenny Bruce "American" 1960
Lenny Bruce "Live at the Curran Theater" 1961
Lenny Bruce "The Essential Lenny Bruce Politics" 1965
Lenny Bruce "Is Out Again" 1966
Lenny Bruce "Thank You Masked Man" 1967
Lenny Bruce "The Berkeley Concert" 1968
Lenny Bruce "The Story Of Lenny: What I Was Arrested For" 1975
Lenny Bruce "The Real Lenny Bruce" 1975
In Closing ...,
A brilliant satirist, Lenny Bruce aroused much controversy in his time because of his use of so-called "dirty words" in his nightclub comedy act. The satire and blue humor of Bruce's largely improvised shows often overstepped the bounds of what was considered respectable in the 1950s and 1960s. But Bruce ushered in a new kind of stand-up and his influences are still felt today.
Lenny Bruce "Playboys Penthouse" (1)
Lenny Bruce "Playboys Penthouse" (2)
Lenny Bruce "Playboys Penthouse" (3)
Lenny Bruce "Playboys Penthouse" (4)
Lenny Bruce The Life & Crimes of
I make no copyright claims on the video content or images of drawings, paintings, prints, or other two-dimensional works of art contained with-in this article, the copyright for these items are most likely owned by either the artist who produced the image, or the person who commissioned the work and or their heirs. Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing.
Keep It In The Groove -- Let Us Know You Were Here Too !!
Fox Music (author) on May 23, 2015:
Bruce ushered in a whole new world of stand-up comedy and his influences are still felt today.
DvdMovieGirl on March 14, 2013:
Nice Lens and full of information! I have enjoyed reading through and learning more about Lenny.
anonymous on February 15, 2013:
there will be no more thank you mask man
John_I on January 13, 2013:
What a great comedian. Nice body of work.
thepollard on April 05, 2012:
Bruce was way ahead of his time. I really enjoyed reading your article thank you
anonymous on February 19, 2012:
What a well done lens! A nice tribute to Lenny Bruce.
KimGiancaterino on February 23, 2011:
Nice work! Blessed by the Entertainment > Performing Arts Squid Angel.
anonymous on January 16, 2011:
I didn't know about the trouble with the law, glad he was finally pardoned. I remember Lenny Bruce being on every variety show. Nice work!
anonymous on July 23, 2009:
Hey, folks, when you have a moment, have a look at the piece I wote three years ago on the fortieth anniversary of his death:
Lenny Bruce: Remembering a Comic Genius
religions7 on April 16, 2009:
Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)
Tonie Cook from USA on April 02, 2009:
Lenny Bruce - One of the first great stand-ups to push the edge. Excellent tribute to a great artist.
drifter0658 lm on April 02, 2009:
Fantastic Tribute to one of the great Artists of all time. Self expression sometimes comes with a stiff price, and Bruce's self expression was cutting to the bone of those who held power, for this he paid.
The Mask Video is a classic. I also liked a routine I saw where he talked about the witness in front of the Grand Jury giving a word for word account of Lenny's act, and that Lenny was going to have to in front of the jury and defend himself against himself. Funny sh!t.
I am lensrolling this to 'I Swear; Therefore I Am'
papawu on November 04, 2008:
Fantastic! I've listened to many of his recordings and seen a couple of videos of his shows, but it was always sad to me that he hadn't been born later in life. He should be dubbed a comic icon, but for the controversy he caused in the time period in which performed. He was way ahead of his time and it was Lenny who blazed the trail for comics like Pryor and the Diceman. Lensrolling this to my lens THE FUNNIEST PEOPLE EVER.
JamesThomasCalho on October 28, 2008:
A really great lens. Thanks. I have been a fan of Bruce for a long time. His ability to cut through false fronts was amazing. His inability to turn a blind eye to these guises added to his pain.. The life and work of Lenny Bruce still commands our attention.
anonymous on August 19, 2008:
He wasn't before my time. I saw Lenny at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966. Sadly, he was well beyond his prime. I'm sure Lenny would have been a Carlin fan.
manxsal on May 29, 2008:
chickadddee on May 09, 2008:
such a tragic end, like a burning star fast and hot.
allsound on May 07, 2008:
I have never seen the mask man cartoon short thanks
boogie101 on May 07, 2008:
Lenny Bruce was before my time - but i hear that George Carlin picked up where Lenny Bruce left off.
Achim Thiemermann from Austin, Texas on April 26, 2008:
Same as Carrie, I never followed up on my curiosity about this guy. Thanks for your comprehensive profile of L.B.
carrieokier on April 24, 2008:
Very nice job, and 5 stars! I'd heard the name, and always intended to check him out. Thanks for this lens!
Robin S from USA on February 01, 2008:
Great info on a funny man.
thekid93 on January 09, 2008:
Thanks - Always wanted to
see the animated short.