Shooting Down Lenny Bruce

Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m.

JUST BEFORE his first appearance on stage, Lenny Bruce threw up three times. A few minutes later the stand-in master of ceremonies at the Victory Club in Brooklyn heard the strains of his intro music and found himself standing in his one-button, bar-mitzvah blue suit, holding a microphone.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen--"

A cry of "Bring on the broads" from a couple of hecklers standing near the bar cut him short.

"Bring on the broads!" The request was more emphatic this time, as if the men sensed the inexperience of their prey. Their two lady friends, with let-out hems and lipstick on their teeth, shrieked their approval.

"I'd like to, but then you wouldn't have any company at the bar."


A laugh. Lenny recalled in his autobiography "it was like the flash that I have heard morphine addicts describe, a warm sensual blanket that comes after a cold sick rejection." He was hooked.

It would be hard to overestimate Lenny Bruce's impact on contemporary comedy and social criticism. Although he performed over twenty years ago, his ideas and even snatches of his routines still appear in plays, movies, articles, and even Harvard Band half-time shows. Lenny's style is blunt, even callous, creating outlandish imaginary situations: the Lone Ranger becomes a lonely homosexual who can't accept gratitude; Adolf Hitler is reduced to a house painter, cast as the Fuhrer by ambitious producers. His delivery is equally abrupt--he bends words, runs phrases together and throws away punch lines like a jazz musician improvising a solo.

Bruce got his first big break on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout show doing standard impersonations. He immediately became a popular young talent because his humor was clean. Anyone could get laughs with toilet jokes; Lenny didn't have to resort to filth. But as his reputation grew, Lenny relied less on prepared bits and began talking to the audience in a sort of stream of conscience. The routines loosened up, too, becoming more frank, explosive, and hard-hitting. The first of this new genre of skits was "Religions, Inc.":

And now we go to the headquarters of Religions, Inc., where the Dodge-Plymouth dealers have just had their annual raffle, and they have just given away a 1958 Catholic Church. And seated around the desks are the religious leaders of our country.

We hear one of them. He's addressing a tight little group in Littletown, Conn. (Madison Avenue is getting a little trite). "Well, as you know, this year we've got a tie-in with Oldsmobile. Now, gentlemen, I don't expect any of you boys to go out there in the pulpit and hard-sell an automobile. That is ridiculous. But I was thinking now. What do you say to this? If just every once in a while, if we'd throw in a few little terms, just little things like, uh, 'Drive the car that He'd drive!'--and you know, you don't have to lay it on, just zing it in there once in a while and then jump maybe to the Philistines.

For tumbling the pillars of organized religion, exposing homosexuality in prison, discussing Lesbianism, and depicting small towns as hopelessly dull (there's nothing to do but visit Woolworth's and the cannon; you get in a cab and the driver turns around and asks you if you know where he can get laid), Lenny was labelled "sicknik" by Time magazine. He had won a cult of followers, but his appeal was by no means universal. And then came the arrests.

The first arrest for obscenity came in San Francisco for using a ten letter word onstage. Lenny was acquitted, but soon he was being arrested in so many towns that he wore an overcoat while doing his act. After all, as Lenny put it, if they arrest you in town A and then in town B, by the time you get to town C they got to arrest you or everyone will wonder, "What kind of shit town are they running?"

Lenny was eager to fight in court, to perform his routines for the judges and defend them, but he found courtrooms and lawyers unsympathetic. What started out as a romantic crusade for freedom of speech soon became an ordeal that drained Lenny emotionally and financially.

LENNY BECAME convinced that the law was trying to get him, to shut him up by revoking his cabaret license. The reason was not that he said things like "Filipinos come quick" or "Are there any niggers out there tonight," but that his satire was directed against the wrong culture and the wrong god. It would have been fine to make fun of the fat, funny Buddha, the god who's sold in Chinatown as a piggy bank. After all, did anyone ever bring Jerry Lewis to court for his buck teeth imitation of the Japanese? But Bruce made the mistake of choosing the Western god, the "right" god, as target, and that was criminal.

For the most part Lenny's paranoia was justified. One of the New York assistant district attorneys who tried the case once told one of Lenny's lawyers: "I feel terrible about Bruce. I watched him gradually fall apart. It's the only thing I did in Hogan's [D.A. Frank Hogan] office that I'm really ashamed of. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him."