Lenny Bruce (born Leonard Schneider on Oct. 13, 1925) was labeled a “sick comic” by the media. No subjects were off-limits for his honest, off-the-cuff observations and social commentary, including “taboo” topics like politics, religion, race, sex and drugs (average fare for comedians now).
Most of his routines sounded straight out of the dialogue of today. Bruce played Anderson, a phony liberal white man who finds himself standing next to a Black man at a party in a 1961 skit with his friend Eric Miller. In his every attempt to prove his good will to Miller, Anderson further digs himself into a bigoted hole — if this concept makes you think of people today flaunting their wokeness, you can see where Bruce was going.
In another routine called “Religions, Inc.,” Bruce criticized organized religion by impersonating various religious television personalities like Oral Roberts and Billy Graham meeting at the headquarters of “Religions, Inc.” for a sales report. “Catholicism’s up nine points, Judaism’s up 15. The Big P, the Pentecostal is starting to move up finally,” he said.
Authorities did not appreciate the comparison of religion to big business. When Bruce went to perform at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago, a police captain threatened the club’s owner. “If Lenny Bruce ever says anything against the Pope again — and I’m speaking here as a Catholic — I’m going to arrest you, him and everyone else in this place,” he said.
Bruce was arrested numerous times — four times between 1961 and 1964 alone. The third and fourth arrests were at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in 1964, where undercover agents reported that he said over 100 obscene words.
Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, working with local church officials including Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman, had been conducting an investigation of the comedian. In his April 1964 arrest, Bruce was charged with violation of New York Penal Code 1140, which “[barred] obscene material” that could “[corrupt the] morals of youth and others.”
Notable artists like Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Taylor, James Baldwin and Bob Dylan signed a petition calling for Bruce’s release. “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 petition stated. After three months of deliberation, Bruce was required to spend four months in a workhouse.
Bruce often questioned semantics, especially around the word “obscenity.” He once posed the question of why a Catholic president like John F. Kennedy could call businessmen “sons of b——” but a Jewish comic saying “motherf—–” was offensive.
By the mid-1960s, certain states and countries had banned him, including Australia, England and Scotland. Legal fees and drug abuse left him in debt, and the police continued to harass him. He was paranoid and broken. Near the end of his life in 1966, he said, “I’m not a comedian anymore. I’m Lenny Bruce.”
Bruce echoes in George Carlin’s quick wordplay and Richard Pryor’s wry observations. He opened the doors for comedians everywhere.