On February 4, 1961, Lenny Bruce performed before a full house at a midnight show at Carnegie Hall. Outside that cold night, a blizzard was blowing through the city, and there was also something powerful going on inside.
The Carnegie Hall Performance
Although Lenny Bruce’s career had been slowly building, the performance at Carnegie Hall launched him further into a career of breaking comedy and language barriers that would bring fame, legal troubles, and ultimately his death on August 3, 1966.
Below is the beginning of his performance at Carnegie Hall.
Persecution and Death
Before the end of the year, Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity for one of his performances. Although he was acquitted in that case, police officers in other cities began monitoring him more closely.
Here is part 2 (and you may continue listening to the concert on YouTube):
The close scrutiny led to other similar arrests and arrests for drug possession. In 1964 after a performance in New York, Bruce was again charged with obscenity. This time, he was sentenced to four months in a workhouse.
While out on bail during the appeals in 1966, he died of an accidental overdose. Phil Spector said it was an “overdose of police.”
Five years after Lenny Bruce’s death, a similar story would be repeated. Another star would face an indecency conviction, dying while the appeal was pending from an apparent death by drugs: Jim Morrison, who died in exile in Paris on July 3, 1971.
It would be almost 50 years after Bruce’s death before New York Gov. George Pataki pardoned Bruce in 2003.
Lenny Bruce’s Influence
Lenny Bruce influenced many performers who came after him. Richard Pryor said, “Lenny changed my life,” noting that “[i]t was him who said comedy wasn’t about telling jokes – it was about telling the truth.”
George Carlin has often discussed how Lenny Bruce was his hero. One may see the Bruce connection to Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bruce also has been mentioned in a number of songs, including R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce” from his Shot of Love album:
They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had.
A bio-pic about Lenny Bruce was made in 1974 starring Dustin Hoffman, who gives an excellent performance. Lenny, which was directed by Bob Fosse and was based on a Broadway play by Julian Barry, appears to be out of print on DVD, but you may watch it streaming on Netflix.
Although Lenny leaves out some background about Bruce’s tragic life, the movie is a good introduction to Bruce. And Hoffman presents what Bruce’s “shocking” performances were like.
It amazes me that Lenny Bruce was constantly harassed and faced prison for using words we hear all the time today. But I still remember seeing the Dustin Hoffman movie when I was a kid when we first got cable in our house.
I had never heard anyone speak like that. My education on movie profanity would continue with Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon. But Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce was quite eye-opening. Many of Bruce’s intelligent points about censorship have stayed with me throughout my life. So, thank you Lenny and Dustin (and Richard Pryor and George Carlin).
Bonus Website: The Official Lenny Bruce website, approved by his daughter, also sponsors a link to donate to Lenny’s House, a non-profit charity for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.
Bonus Quote and Movie Reference : One of the Lenny Bruce quotes on the website is: “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.” In one of Woody Allen’s best movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors, a character played by Alan Alda says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Allen was a supporter of Bruce and even signed a petition on Bruce’s behalf after an arrest, so I wonder if the line was inspired by Bruce?
What do you think about Lenny Bruce and his influence? Leave a comment.