One of the most influential stand-ups in history, Lenny Bruce burst onto the stage in the 1950s, forever replacing comedy with his free-form, no-holds-barred performances. His caustic social commentary made him a legend. But it also targeted him for his critics and law enforcement, leading to a notorious arrest in 1964 that put both Bruce and free speech to trial.
Bruce voiced his career early in his career
Born on Long Island, Leonard Schneider, the son of a shoe clerk and a dancer, turned to entertainment during World War II after a teenager’s stint in the US Navy and as an Emmy at a Brooklyn nightclub soon after returning from service Made its first appearance in.
Bruce’s early work was traditional, focusing on ineffective material such as celebrity parodies and impressions that got him bookings on radio variety programs. But Bruce soon became dissatisfied.
An admirer of the beat generation of artists and writers and a music devotee, he was deeply influenced by the free-flowing, improvisational nature of jazz that he felt suited his stage performances, along with his own dark, sarcastic approach. There may be taboo topics like politics, religion, race, gender, and drugs (Bruce began his drug addiction during this period).
After marrying and moving to California, Bruce began to pursue his new assignment, gaining fans and detractors. Many were surprised not only by his vulgar language but also by his subject.
As his career progressed, no subject or person was spared, as he raided against the alleged hypocrisy of establishment figures and triggered sharp criticisms from religious, social and political leaders. Even the first women, like Ellen Roosevelt or Jacqueline Kennedy, would not be spared, making the mainstream media a “sick comic”.
By the mid-1950s, Bruce was performing nationwide and released a series of comedy albums. But his growing notoriety and refusal to conform led to him being blacklisted from several popular television shows, fearing that his provocative work would relieve Eisenhower-era audiences.
He made only a few appearances on national network television during his career, and those shows suggest that the book he did often tried to censor his material. Despite this, he continued to make a name for himself, and in February 1961 he played a landmark gig in Carnegie Hall, New York, which many historians consider to be the biggest part of his career.
A few months after his great success his legal troubles began.
Bruce is involved in his financial fraud due to a troubled marriage to a stripper and showgirl, for which he is not convicted. But his controversial act and lifestyle caught the eye of law enforcement across the country.
He was arrested on charges of substance abuse in Philadelphia and pornography in San Francisco in late 1961, but acquitted. A 1962 drug charge was dropped in Los Angeles, but in 1963, he was convicted of obscenity after being arrested on stage in Chicago. In poor health due to his growing legal troubles and drug addiction, Bruce decided to return to New York.
But powerful forces were already strong against him. Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan begins his investigation of Bruce in conjunction with local church officials, including Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman. When he was booked into the popular Greenwich Village nightclub Café Ao Go Go in 1964, detectives recorded two of his shows, which he presented to a grand jury to receive the indictment. The club owner was also arrested for allowing Bruce to display the material.
Bruce’s trial became a media sensation
Dozens of notable artists signed a petition for Bruce’s arrest, including actors Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, writers Susan Sontague, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, singer Bob Dylan, and fellow cast members, including Woody Allen.
Bruce hired a team of prominent First Amendment lawyers, including Ephrem London, who would later argue several free speech cases before the US Supreme Court. When the July trial began, the jam-packed courtroom listened to the prosecution’s case, including audio recordings of Bruce’s performance and re-enactment of his routine by undercover police, which the prosecution alleged Masturbation was an act of fake on stage.