Lenny Bruce: The Legendary Comedian


“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.”

Leonard Alfred Schneider (October 13, 1925 – August 3, 1966), better known by his stage name Lenny Bruce, was an American stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, and screenwriter. He was renowned for his open, free-style and critical form of comedy which integrated satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity. His 1964 conviction in an obscenity trial was followed by a posthumous pardon, the first in New York State history, by then-Governor George Pataki in 2003. He paved the way for future outspoken counterculture-era comedians, and his trial for obscenity is seen as a landmark for freedom of speech in the United States.

“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.” 


1. Personal Life:
At age 22, at a nightclub in Brooklyn, Lenny Bruce began the stand-up career that would define his life. Gigs in the New York–New Jersey area followed, and he once appeared at an "amateur night" for $2 and cab fare home. In 1948, Bruce won Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts Show and began to get booked in bigger and better venues, such as New York's Strand, and make enough money to support himself.

In 1950, however, Bruce signed up for the merchant navy and did tours of Europe. He left the job the following year to marry a stripper he had met and fallen in love with, Honey Harlow. To get away from stripping, Harlow worked on her singing, joining Bruce onstage at some of his shows. Never one to tolerate a dull moment, Bruce soon set up a funding organization to send money to a leper colony in New Guinea. When only $2,500 of the $8,000 Bruce somehow raised went to New Guinea, authorities saw it as a criminal scheme and shut it down, arresting Bruce. The charges were reduced, and Bruce and Harlow moved to Pittsburgh, where they were involved in a serious car accident.

In 1953, the couple moved to Northern California, where Bruce resumed stand-up and began exploring darker themes involving harsh language and controversial topics. His daughter, Kitty, was born in 1955, but he and Harlow divorced soon after. Bruce's reputation began to grow during this time, and he released live albums of his performances, such as The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958) and Togetherness (1958).

2. Obscenity:
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.

“If something about the human body disgusts you complain to the manufacturer.”

3. Drugs:
As the 1960s rolled around, so did trouble for Lenny Bruce. In the fall of 1961, he was arrested for possession of prescription narcotics and for obscenity while performing onstage. He was acquitted of the latter charge in 1962, but the police began monitoring his shows. Also in 1962, the now-controversial comedian was banned from playing Australia and was again arrested for drug possession and on two separate obscenity charges, with figures such as Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg coming to his aid during the trial (in November 1964, a guilty verdict came in nonetheless).

The charges and convictions soon hit a fever pitch. Bruce was arrested in Los Angeles for narcotics possession, and was banned from entering England and Scotland, among other incidents. In early 1965, Lenny Bruce declared bankruptcy, and that summer, on August 3, at the age of 40, he was found dead of a morphine overdose in his Hollywood Hills home.

Bruce was arrested again in 1961, in Philadelphia, for drug possession 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. The specification this time was that the comedian had used the word schmuck, an insulting Yiddish term that is an obscene term for penis.

4. Undesirable Alien:
On December 5, 1962, Bruce was arrested at the legendary Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago. The same year he played at Peter Cook's The Establishment Club in London, and a year later in April, he was barred from entering England by the Home Office as an "undesirable alien".

In April 1964, he appeared twice at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village with undercover police detectives in the audience. He was arrested along with the club owners, Howard and Elly Solomon, who were arrested for allowing an obscene performance to take place. On both occasions, he was arrested after leaving the stage, the complaints again pertaining to his use of various obscenities.

5. The Verdict:
A three-judge panel presided over his widely publicized six-month trial, prosecuted by Manhattan Assistant D.A. Richard Kuh, with Ephraim London and Martin Garbus as the defense attorneys. Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon were both found guilty of obscenity on November 4, 1964. The conviction was announced despite positive testimony and petitions of support from – among other artists, writers and educators – Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Jules Feiffer, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and James Baldwin, and Manhattan journalist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced, on December 21, 1964, to four months in a 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. Bruce later received a full posthumous gubernatorial pardon.


1. Bruce was the subject of the 1974 biographical film Lenny directed by Bob Fosse and starring Dustin Hoffman (in an Academy Award-nominated Best Actor role), and based on the Broadway stage play of the same name written by Julian Barry and starring Cliff Gorman in his 1972 Tony Award winning role.

2. The documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, directed by Robert B. Weide and narrated by Robert De Niro, was released in 1998.

3. In 2004, Comedy Central listed Bruce at number three on its list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All-Time, placing above Woody Allen (4th) and below Richard Pryor (1st) and George Carlin (2nd).

“The role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every 15 seconds.”

A Story:

He began doing stand-up comedy at age 22 and found some success before joining the U.S. Navy during WWII. After an honorable discharge, Bruce got married and moved to California, where he resumed his stand-up career, this time giving edgier, controversial performances. Authorities soon took note of the content of Bruce's act and arrested him numerous times for obscenity. A symbol of free speech as his career advanced, Bruce struggled with drugs, succumbing to a morphine overdose in 1965.

Increasing drug use 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 give 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, whose memoir describes Bruce as "whacked out on amphetamine"; 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.

During this time, Bruce also contributed a number of articles to Paul Krassner's satirical magazine The Realist.

On August 3, 1966, a bearded Lenny Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 W. 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. According to legend, a policeman at the scene said, "There is nothing sadder than an aging hipster", which itself was possibly one of Bruce's lines. Record producer Phil Spector, a friend of Bruce's, bought the negatives of the photographs to keep them from the press. The official cause of death was "acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose."

“I’ve been accused of bad taste, and I’ll go down to my grave accused of it and always by the same people, the ones who eat in restaurants that reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” “I’m sorry I haven’t been funny. I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce.”

His remains were 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 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 (born Brandy Kathleen Bruce), who lives in Pennsylvania.

At the time of his death, his girlfriend was comedienne Lotus Weinstock.

On December 23, 2003, 37 years after his death, New York Governor George Pataki granted Bruce a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction.

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. 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 an interview he was scheduled to give on Australian television was banned in advance by the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

“If you’re from New York and you’re Catholic, you’re still Jewish. If you’re from Butte Montana and you’re Jewish, you’re still goyisch. The Air Force is Jewish, the Marine Corps dangerous goyisch. Rye Bread is Jewish, instant potatoes, scary goyisch. Eddie Cantor is goyisch, George Jessel is goyisch-Coleman Hawkins is Jewish.”

There are various books on Lenny Bruce:
1. Bruce, Lenny. Stamp Help Out! (Self-Published pamphlet, 1962)
2. Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Playboy Publishing, 1967)

His Filmography:
1953 Dance Hall Racket Vincent Directed by Phil Tucker
1960 The Cape Canaveral Monsters
1966 The Lenny Bruce Performance Film
1974 Lenny: Biography
2011 Looking for Lenny: Documentary

“Today’s comedian has a cross to bear that he built himself. A comedian of the older generation did an “act” and he told the audience, “This is my act.” Today’s comic is not doing an act. The audience assumes he’s telling the truth. What is truth today may be a damn lie next week.”

Visit: +Comedy Time +Comedy +Comedy Central's Indecision +Comedy Central 
[Lenny Bruce on Southerners, Religion, Racism, Obscenity, Law, Police, Politics (1966)]

In Popular Culture:

He was very famous in popular culture:
1. Bruce is pictured in the top row of the cover of the Beatles 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

2. 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, "... I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce, that all my wealth won't buy me health."

3. Tim Hardin's fourth album, released in 1968 Tim Hardin 3 Live in Concert, includes his song Lenny's Tune written about his friend Lenny Bruce.

4. Nico's 1967 album Chelsea Girl includes a track entitled "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce", which was "Lenny's Tune" by Tim Hardin, with the lyrics slightly altered. In it she describes her sorrow and anger at Bruce's death.

5. Bob Dylan's 1981 song "Lenny Bruce" from his Shot of Love album describes a brief taxi ride shared by the two men. In the last line of the song, Dylan recalls: "Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had."

6. Phil Ochs wrote a song eulogizing the late comedian, titled "Doesn't Lenny Live Here Anymore?". The song is featured on his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement.

7. R.E.M.'s 1987 song "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" includes references to a quartet of famous people all sharing the initials L.B. with Lenny Bruce being one of them (the others being Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev and Lester Bangs). The opening line of the song mentioning Bruce goes, "...That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane, Lenny Bruce is not afraid."

8. Lenny Bruce shows up as a character in Don DeLillo's 1997 novel, Underworld. In the novel, Bruce does a stand-up routine about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

9. Genesis' 1974 song "Fly On A Windshield" depicts a dystopic New York where "Lenny Bruce declares a truce and plays his other hand, Marshall McLuhan, casual viewin', head buried in the sand" and "Groucho, with his movies trailing, stands alone with his punchline failing".

10. Emily Haines sings in Metric's (band) song "On The Sly" that, "for Halloween I want to be Lenny Bruce"

11. The Stranglers' single "No More Heroes" includes the line "Whatever happened to dear old Lenny?" and although this does not specifically refer to Lenny Bruce, the live version featured on the album Live (X Cert) says "Whatever happened to dear old Lenny Bruce?"

12. Lenny Bruce is listed as a bohemian idol in the song 'La Vie Bohème' from the musical Rent
The British Rapper Scroobius Pip mentions Bruce in the "Introdiction" to the album Distraction Pieces: "If I say fuck a lot well then I may gain more attention. If I say cunt well then with some of you there will be tension. I find this interesting ´cause in the end these are just words You give them power when you cower man it´s so absurd. But all that was covered by Lenny Bruce back in the day. Nothings original now I´m repeating what I say."

13. Joy Zipper's (band) 2005 album The Heartlight Set (album) features a track named "For Lenny's Own Pleasure."

14. John Mayall's album The Turning Point (1969) contains an opening track titled "The Laws Must Change" where he references Lenny Bruce. The lyrics are "Lenny Bruce was trying to tell you, Many things before he died; Don't throw rocks at policemen, But get the knots of law untied".

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