“Satire is tragedy plus time,” said Lenny Bruce.“You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.”
It’s been 49 years, but Bruce’s death—a morphine overdose—is still a tragedy. Though he was many things, first and foremost, Bruce was a comedian. Today, when we think of comedians who died of drug overdoses, it’s names like Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, John Belushi, and Chris Farley that come to mind. But, before all those, there was Lenny Bruce.
Ozzie and Harriet
Bruce, who came into the world as Leonard Alfred Schneider, was born on Long Island in 1925. His parents divorced when he was five and then when he was 16, Bruce ran away from home and worked on farms before joining the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. He served aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in North Africa, but after three years, he was honorably discharged—after claiming to be gay—and eventually moved back home with his mother.
Then, at the age of 22, he did his first stand-up show at a nightclub in Brooklyn. After a stint in the merchant navy, he met Harriett Jolliff, the singer and striptease dancer better known as Honey Harlow. According to The New York Times, “The couple’s six-year marriage was Ozzie and Harriet as reimagined by William S. Burroughs … They shopped for wallpaper. They injected heroin. She served jail time for marijuana possession.”
After getting into trouble with the law for a fundraising scam involving a leper colony in New Guinea, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, where they got into a serious car accident. In 1953, they moved to California, and Bruce’s comedy career continued gaining steam.
Bruce’s Style: Talking Dirty and Influencing People
Over the course of his 18-year comedy career, Bruce became known for his stream-of-consciousness style and his wry satire—and also for his obscenity. He stepped away from the family-friendly humor that preceded him and took on serious issues, issues that some people didn’t think it nice to joke about. He said, “All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.”
No topic was sacred. He called out censorship and the government: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’” He poked fun at religion: “If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” He joked about his own Jewishness: “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. We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.” He talked about everything from sex to mothers-in-law to law enforcement.
As Paul Krassner, the journalist who edited Bruce’s 1965 biography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, told Rolling Stone in 2012, “What Lenny did as a performer was break through the traditional targets of humor and talk about things that really mattered. Everything from teachers’ salaries, racism and sexism to abortion rights and atomic testing – all different forms of injustice.”
The willingness to address those topics in and of itself created a new form of comedy. In 2013, The Guardian wrote, “Lenny Bruce was not the first standup comedian, but he did create what we now mean by ‘standup comedy.’ The idea of some guy on a stage, often some guy with problems, who finds himself at odds with the establishment and has only his wits to resist with: that all begins with Bruce.”
“Life is a four-letter word.”
In pop culture, the ’60s are remembered as a time of flowers, acid, and anti-war protests.
For Bruce, the ’60s were a time of obscenity trials and drug arrests. In September 1961, he was arrested after cops entered his Philadelphia hotel room and found methadone, speed, and needles. Although it made national headlines, that particular arrest did not lead to a conviction as the grand jury failed to indict; the comedian had prescriptions for everything he’d been arrested with. At the time, Bruce was convinced the arrest was retribution for his handling of religion in his on-stage performances. That would not be Bruce’s last drug arrest. In 1962, was arrested again for drug possession and in 1963 he was caught with heroin, methedrine, and syringes.
Just about a month after the 1961 Philly arrest, Bruce was arrested for using the word cocksucker at a show in San Francisco. Although he was acquitted, that arrest was only the first in a string of obscenity-related arrests finally culminating in his arrest for a performance at Café au Go Go in Greenwich Village. That arrest resulted in a conviction and a four-month jail sentence, although the sentence was stayed pending appeal.
After firing his attorneys, Bruce began preparing the appeal on his own. One of the fired lawyers later observed that, as the comedian immersed himself in the legal process, ”He was a guy quickly sliding down, into drugs.”
The repeated obscenity charges made him almost unemployable; no one wanted to risk hiring him. Given his lack of work and the cost of repeatedly defending himself against charges in multiple states, Bruce had to file for bankruptcy.
On Aug. 3, 1966, Bruce found out he was going to lose his Hollywood Hills home. Later that day, he was found naked on the bathroom floor, a needle still hanging out of his arm. At the age of 40, Bruce had died of a morphine overdose. Regarding his drug use, Bruce is often credited as saying,“I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”
Although he’d already been a drug user, some blamed his death on the continual legal battles he fought; he later came to be known as a First Amendment martyr. One of the district attorneys who prosecuted him in New York later admitted, “We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him.”
As Bruce once said, “Life is a four-letter word.”
While comedians today can anticipate that almost every performance will be filmed, put on YouTube, and shared on Facebook, that wasn’t true in Bruce’s day. Today, there’s only a handful of videos of Bruce performances, and most recordings are audio-only. Some are available in transcripts—such as those paraded out at his obscenity trials—but the net result is that his era’s technological limitations have diminished our collective memory of him. For many young people today, he’s never been a household name like Chris Farley or John Belushi.
Nonetheless, he’s had a lasting impact on the world of comedy. As Nat Hentoff wrote in Gadfly: “A long and growing list of comedians—actually, social satirists—owe a great thanks to Lenny Bruce. These include Richard Pryor (who came closest to meeting Lenny’s standards), George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and an emerging number of young black and Hispanic fearless, funny commentators. Bruce opened the doors not only on the way we live, but also on the way we often cover it up.”
Posthumously, Bruce’s memory has not been covered up so much as it has been revised—for the better. In 2003—almost four decades after his death—New York pardoned his final obscenity conviction.
This story was originally published at thefix.com.