The "what should be" never did exist,
but people keep trying to live up to it.
There is no "what should be,"
there is only what is.
Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York, grew up in nearby Bellmore and attended Wellington C. Mepham High School. His youth was chaotic; his parents divorced when he was five years old and Lenny moved in with various relatives over the next decade. His mother, Sally Marr (née Sadie Kitchenberg), was a stage performer who had an enormous influence on Bruce's career. After spending time working on a farm with a family that provided the stable surroundings he needed, Bruce joined the United States Navy at the age of 17 in 1942, and saw active duty in Europe until his discharge in 1946.
In 1947, soon after changing his last name to Bruce, he earned $12 and a free spaghetti dinner for his first stand-up performance in Brooklyn, New York. From that modest start, he got his first break as a guest (and introduced by his mother, who called herself "Sally Bruce") on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show, doing a "Bavarian mimic" of American movie stars (e.g., Humphrey Bogart).
In 1951, he was arrested in Miami, Florida, for impersonating a priest. He had been soliciting donations for a leper colony in British Guiana under the auspices of the "Brother Mathias Foundation", which he had legally chartered - the name was his own invention, but possibly referred to the actual Brother Matthias who had befriended Babe Ruth at the orphanage to which Ruth had been confined as a child. Bruce had stolen several priests' clergy shirts and a clerical collar while posing as a laundry man. He was found not guilty because of the legality of the New York state-chartered foundation, the actual existence of the Guiana leper colony, and the inability of the local clergy to expose him as an impostor. Later, in his semifictional autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Bruce revealed that he had made approximately $8,000 in three weeks, sending $2,500 to the leper colony and keeping the rest.
Bruce's early comedy career included writing the screenplays for Dance Hall Racket in 1953, which featured himself, his wife, Honey Harlow, and mother, Sally Marr, in roles; Dream Follies in 1954, a low-budget burlesque romp; and a children's film, The Rocket Man, in 1954. He also released four albums of original material on Berkeley-based Fantasy Records, with rants, comic routines, and satirical interviews on the themes that made him famous: jazz, moral philosophy, politics, patriotism, religion, law, race, abortion, drugs, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jewishness. These albums were later compiled and re-released as The Lenny Bruce Originals. Two later records were produced and sold by Bruce himself, including a 10-inch album of the 1961 San Francisco performances that started his legal troubles. Starting in the late 1960s, other unissued Bruce material was released by Alan Douglas, Frank Zappa and Phil Spector, as well as Fantasy. Bruce developed the complexity and tone of his material in Enrico Banducci's North Beach nightclub, "The hungry i," where Mort Sahl had earlier made a name for himself.
His growing fame led to appearances on the nationally televised Steve Allen Show, where he made his debut with an unscripted comment on the recent marriage of Elizabeth Taylor to Eddie Fisher, wondering, "will Elizabeth Taylor become bar mitzvahed?" He also began receiving mainstream press, both favorable and derogatory. Syndicated Broadway columnist Hy Gardner called Bruce a "fad" and "a one-time-around freak attraction," while Variety declared him "undisciplined and unfunny." Influential San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, however, was an early and enthusiastic supporter, writing in 1959:
"They call Lenny Bruce a sick comic, and sick he is. Sick of all the pretentious phoniness of a generation that makes his vicious humor meaningful. He is a rebel, but not without a cause, for there are shirts that need un-stuffing, egos that need deflating. Sometimes you feel guilty laughing at some of Lenny's mordant jabs, but that disappears a second later when your inner voice tells you with pleased surprise, 'but that's true.'"
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-disc set, titled 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!"
On October 4, 1961, Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco; he had used the word "cocksucker" and riffed that "'to' is a preposition, 'come' is a verb," that the sexual context of "come" is so common that it bears no weight, and that if someone hearing it becomes upset, he "probably can't come." Although the jury acquitted him, other law enforcement agencies began monitoring his appearances, resulting in frequent arrests under charges of obscenity. The increased scrutiny also led to an arrest in Philadelphia, for drug possession the same year, and again in Los Angeles, California, two years later. The Los Angeles arrest took place in then-unincorporated West Hollywood, and the arresting officer was a young deputy named Sherman Block, who would later become County Sheriff.
In April 1964, he appeared twice at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, with undercover police detectives in the audience. On both occasions, he was arrested after leaving the stage, the complaints again pertaining to his use of various obscenities.
A three-judge panel presided over his widely publicized six-month trial, with Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon both found guilty of obscenity on November 4, 1964. The conviction was announced despite positive testimony and petitions of support from Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Jules Feiffer, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and James Baldwin – among other artists, writers and educators, and from Manhattan journalist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced, on December 21, 1964, to four months in the workhouse; he was set free on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal was decided. Solomon later saw his conviction overturned; Bruce, who died before the decision, never had his conviction stricken.
Despite his prominence as a comedian, Bruce appeared on network television only six times in his life. In his later club performances Bruce was known for relating the details of his encounters with the police directly in his comedy routine; his criticism encouraged the police to subject him to maximum scrutiny. These performances often included rants about his court battles over obscenity charges, tirades against fascism and complaints that he was being denied his right to freedom of speech.
He was banned outright from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 was banned from performing in Sydney, Australia. At his first show there Bruce took the stage, declared "What a fucking wonderful audience" and was promptly arrested.
Increasing drug use also affected his health. By 1966 he had been blacklisted by nearly every nightclub in the United States, as owners feared prosecution for obscenity. Bruce did have a famous performance at the Berkeley Community Theatre in December 1965. It was recorded and became his last (live) album, titled "The Berkeley Concert"; his performance here has been described as lucid, clear and calm, and one of his best. His last performance took place on June 25, 1966, at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, on a bill with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. The performance was not remembered fondly by Bill Graham, who described Bruce as "whacked out on amphetamines"; Graham thought that Bruce finished his set emotionally disturbed. Zappa asked Bruce to sign his draft card, but the suspicious Bruce refused.
At the request of Hugh Hefner and with the aid of Paul Krassner, Bruce wrote an autobiography. Serialized in Playboy in 1964 and 1965, this material was later published as the book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Hefner had long assisted Bruce's career, featuring him in the television debut of Playboy's Penthouse in October 1959.
Death and posthumous pardon
On August 3, 1966, Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 N. Hollywood Blvd. The official photo, taken at the scene, showed Bruce lying naked on the floor, a syringe and burned bottle cap nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia. Record producer Phil Spector, a friend of Bruce's, bought the negatives to the photographs to keep them from the press. The official cause of death was "acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose." Oh, the language is a bit loose
He was interred in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, but an unconventional memorial on August 21 was controversial enough to keep his name in the spotlight. The service saw over 500 people pay their respects, led by Spector. Cemetery officials had tried to block the ceremony after advertisements for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches and noisemakers. Dick Schaap famously eulogized Bruce in Playboy, with the memorable last line: "One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That's obscene."
Bruce is survived by his daughter, Kitty Bruce, who lives in Pennsylvania.
On December 23, 2003, 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki, following a petition filed by Ronald Collins and David Skover with Robert Corn-Revere as counsel, the petition having been signed by several stars such as Robin Williams. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state's history. Pataki said his act was "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."
In 2004, Bruce was voted No. 3 of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time by Comedy Central behind Richard Pryor and George Carlin, both of whom cite Bruce as an influence (Carlin was arrested as an audience member for refusing to show identification at Bruce's December 1962 show at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, after the police ended the show and arrested Bruce for obscenity. They were placed together in the back of a paddywagon). In a similar survey conducted during 2007, Bruce was voted No. 30 of the 100 Greatest Comedy Stand-Ups by a public poll for the British Channel 4.
Bruce was the subject of a 1974 biographical film directed by Bob Fosse and starring Dustin Hoffman called Lenny, based on the New York-based stage play of the same name, written by Julian Barry. A new documentary about Lenny, called "Looking for Lenny" is currently in production.
Lenny Bruce in song
In part because of his freewheeling, jazz-like style, Lenny Bruce has always had fans in the music community.
Bruce is one of the celebrities immortalized on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The musical "Rent" includes the song "La Vie Boheme," with the lyric "Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham, and Cage. Lenny Bruce! Langston Hughes!"
The clip of a news broadcast featured in "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" by Simon & Garfunkel carries the ostensible newscast audio of Lenny Bruce's death. In another track on the album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert MacNamara'd Into Submission)", Paul Simon sings, "... and I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce, that all my wealth won't buy me health."
Nico's 1967 album Chelsea Girl includes a track entitled "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce", written by Tim Hardin. In it she describes her sorrow and anger at Bruce's death.
Bob Dylan's 1981 song "Lenny Bruce" describes a brief taxi ride shared by the two legends. In the last line of the song, Dylan recalls: "Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had."
Sections of the famous sketch "Thank You, Masked Man" were quoted by Frank Zappa's band during the band's 1984 tour (and can be heard on "You Can't Do That On Stage Any More Vol 3" on CD; "Does Humour Belong in Music?" on DVD).
Keith Richards (another fan) adapted a line from Lenny Bruce's "The Palladium" for the Rolling Stones song "Little T&A", where it became "the pool's in but the patio ain't dry".
Lenny Bruce's "'to' is a preposition, 'come' is a verb..." controversy inspired the 1992 song "Big Mouth Strikes Again" by anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba. It includes a chorus which states that "TO is a preposition, COME is a verb, COME is a verb intransitive, TO COME, TO COME, Don't come in me," and a verse which details both the event and the subsequent legal proceedings.
The comedian also inspired, or is mentioned in, songs by R.E.M. ("It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", including the lyric "Lenny Bruce is not afraid"), The Stranglers ("No More Heroes"), John Lennon and Yoko Ono ("We're All Water"), Nico ("Eulogy to Lenny Bruce"), The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Mighty Mighty Bosstones ("All Things Considered"), The Boo Radleys ("Rodney King (Song For Lenny Bruce)"), Great Big Sea, Steve Earle ("F the CC," including the lyric "Dirty Lenny died so we could all be free"), Phil Ochs (who wore one of Bruce's old jackets on the cover of his Pleasures of the Harbor album), Manic Street Preachers ("Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart"), Nada Surf ("Imaginary Friends"), Tim Hardin (who lived in Bruce's house for a time), Grace Slick (whose "Father Bruce" with The Great Society was written while Bruce was alive, in celebration of his surviving a 1965 fall from a San Francisco hotel window), The Auteurs ("Junk Shop Clothes" and possibly also "Lenny Valentino"), Mickey Avalon ("Dipped in Vaseline", including the lyric "filthy on the mic like Lenny Bruce used to be"), The Elastic Purejoy ("If Samuel Beckett Had Met Lenny Bruce"), Kid Rock "E.M.S.P (Early Morning Stoned Pimp"), MDC ("Long Time Gone"), Widespread Panic ("Tickle the Truth Into Submission"), Nuclear Valdez ("Unsung Hero"), Propergol (Two songs, "Initials L.B" and "Our Last Call," include samples of Bruce's voice), John Mayall ("The Laws Must Change"), Nils Lofgren ("Mr. Hardcore"), Aesthetic ("Lenny Bruce"), Juice Leskinen ("Lenny Bruce"), Metric ("On The Sly," including the lyric "For Halloween, I want to be Lenny Bruce"), Genesis ("Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974," including the lyric "Lenny Bruce declares a truce and plays his other hand"), and John Frusciante with The Bicycle Thief ("Cereal Song" aka "Heroin").
In the updated 1964 version of "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," Allan Sherman sang "We're all tired of Mother Goose here / So next Friday night they're having Lenny Bruce here." Sherman's 1965 song "It's a Most Unusual Play" (a parody of "It's a Most Unusual Day") includes the following verse:
It's decidedly not Mother Goose
Outside on the marquee
This quotation you'll see
"I was shocked!"
And it's signed "Lenny Bruce"!
Lenny Bruce, Stamp Help Out! (1961 and/or 1965, self-published and sold at his concerts and in hip bookshops like City Lights in SF)
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Playboy Publishing, 1967)
Julian Barry, Lenny (play) (Grove Press, Inc. 1971)
Kitty Bruce, The (almost) Unpublished Lenny Bruce (1984, Running Press) (includes a graphically spruced up reproduction of 'Stamp Help Out!')
The Essential Lenny Bruce, compiled and edited by John Cohen (Ballantine Books, 1967)
Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall & Rise of an American Icon (Sourcebooks, 2002)
Don DeLillo, Underworld, (Simon and Schuster Inc., 1997)
Bradley Denton, The Calvin Coolidge Home For Dead Comedians, an award-winning collection of science fiction stories in which the title story has Lenny Bruce as one of the two protagonists.
Albert Goldman, with Lawrence Schiller, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (Random House, 1974)
Brian Josepher, What the Psychic Saw (Sterlinghouse Publisher, 2005)
Frank Kofsky, Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic & Secular Moralist (Monad Press, 1974)
Valerie Kohler Smith, Lenny (novelization based on the Barry-scripted/Fosse-directed film) (Grove Press, Inc., 1974)
William Karl Thomas, Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet (first printing, Archon Books, 1989; second printing, Media Maestro, 2002; Japanese edition, DHC Corp. Tokyo, 2001)
Quotes from Saint Lenny:
Oh, the language is a bit loose
"Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it."
"The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it... try to fake three laughs in an hour - ha ha ha ha ha - they'll take you away, man. You can't."
"If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses."
"The only truly anonymous donor is the guy who knocks up your daughter."
"A lot of people say to me, 'Why did you kill Christ?' I dunno, it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know."
"A Jew, in the dictionary, is one who is descended from the ancient tribes of Judea, or one who is regarded as a descendant from that tribe. That's what it says in the dictionary, but you and I know what a Jew is: One Who Killed Our Lord... there should be a statute of limitations for that crime."
"You can't put tits and ass on the marquee!...Why not?...Because it's dirty and vulgar, that's why not!... Titties are dirty and vulgar?...Okay, we'll compromise. How about Latin? Gluteus maximus, pectoralis majors nightly...That's alright, that's clean, class with ass, I'll buy it...Clean to you, schmuck, but dirty to the Latins!"
"Let me tell you the truth. The truth is, what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible terrible lie that someone gave to the people long ago."