You know Lenny Bruce how? From Lenny, the 1974 movie starring Dustin Hoffman as a lovable smack addict? Maybe from the Albert Goldman biography, in which he's portrayed as a despicable con-man? Or from Don DeLillo's 1997 epic, Underworld, in which the "sick" comic's routines regularly interrupt the action? (DeLillo invented all but a few of Lenny's lines for the novel.)
Maybe you just know Lenny Bruce as the dark haired man next to Mae West in the back row of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album cover. No matter.
Listen: Back in the early sixties there was a comedian who, once he stopped censoring himself, stopped being funny to some people. Eventually, the comedian got so unfunny to those people that they had him arrested. Then other people who didn't think he was funny did the same thing. In cities across America it became a fairly dependable routine: The comedian would use "dirty" words to express ideas that certain people did not find funny, then he would be handcuffed and taken to jail. (If this all sounds a bit too much like a scenario Kurt Vonnegut would dream up, well, Lenny Bruce and Vonnegut were born only three years apart.)
Of course Lenny was doing copious amounts of heroin all the while. And he wasn't much of a father. Or a citizen, for that matter: He once broke into a Malibu Beach home to spend a night of his vacation there; the owners returned in the morning to find him passed out inside with a friend.
In The Trials of Lenny Bruce, David Skover and Ronald Collins—legal scholars, law professors, and writers, both—deliver the most even-handed portrayal of the controversial comic to date. "There was a lot about Lenny that was less than admirable," Skover readily admits. "But what was great about Lenny is that he embodied the First Amendment. He had courage. In the face of certain arrest, certain prosecution, and more money going down the toilet to his lawyers, he stuck to the principle which he really believed: that he had a constitutional right to stand up in the comedy club and speak authentically about real emotions, real human relations, and to speak in a real way about them....We're all better off, I think, because there was a Lenny Bruce."
Trials comes with a special CD containing clips from previously unreleased live performances (some recorded on the very nights Bruce was busted for obscenity) and insightful commentary from the likes of George Carlin, Nat Hentoff, Margaret Cho, and others.
"The voice of Bruce springs to life with his memorable comedy routines heard on the accompanying CD," Publishers Weekly raved. "Generating a gamut of emotions, the entire package is an important documentation of a revolution in American culture."
Dave: How long was The Trials of Lenny Bruce in the making?
David Skover: About five years ago, Ron [Collins] and I had a conversation with Nadine Strossen, the national president of the ACLU. Nadine had known us as friends for a good long time and she was also familiar with our work—she was at a conference in Barcelona with us when we presented on The Death of Discourse—so she understood that we had an interest in the intersection between popular entertainment culture and First Amendment, free speech issues.
She said to us, "Given your interest, it seems extraordinary that you haven't written on Lenny Bruce."
At the time, our response was, "We know who he is, but why?" Quite honestly, when Lenny was playing the big clubs, from '61 to '64, I was a child. I never saw him. My exposure to him had been through some recordings, then of course the 1974 movie, Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman. So my coauthor and I bought the Goldman biography [Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!] and began reading it. We were looking at the story through the lens of our interest in the First Amendment, and it became clear to us that Nadine was right: There was an incredible First Amendment, free speech story that hadn't been told.
Dave: Because neither Goldman nor the moviemakers focused on his legal legacy?
Skover: The people writing about him weren't lawyers or scholars; they didn't know that much about the First Amendment environment of the time. They were only telling the story of Lenny insofar as it pertained to his life. But as our book shows, the lawyers and scholars and First Amendment figures that came into his life because of the obscenity trials were amazing, everyone from Thurgood Marshall, before he became a Supreme Court justice, to Ephraim London, who was the First Amendment litigator of his time. Lenny employed and was prosecuted by some of the most incredible figures, some of them little known back then. It's not known by many that Johnnie Cochran, Jr. was Lenny's prosecutor in one of his L. A. obscenity trials. The complex of characters that came through Lenny's life was interesting in and of itself.
Even more important, though, was the fact that Lenny had been known as a pop cult icon, a rebel hero in the stripes of James Dean but he was never known as a free speech hero. Not really. And the reason for that is that Lenny's cases never went to the Supreme Court. So unlike Roe in Roe v. Wade for the abortion right, or Gideon in Gideon v. Wainwright for the right to counsel, People v. Bruce wasn't one of those big cases.
His name doesn't appear in legal textbooks or treatises on the subject, yet there is no single figure that has been more prosecuted for his words alone than Lenny Bruce. None. And there has been no single figure that has been more pivotal in changing the First Amendment environment.
Dave: Yet, in many respects, he was his own greatest problem in court. Time and again he jeopardized his chance to win. He hired the best lawyers, then completely undermined their cases.
Skover: You're absolutely right in some sense to say that Lenny was his worst enemy. He emulates the famous aphorism that a man who would have himself for a lawyer is a fool. Lenny was a great comedian. He was a lousy lawyer. And it's true that he wanted to control his trials.
Part of what made him that way was his perception—and he was right about it—that many of his attorneys believed you couldn't win a trial based on the word cocksucker. Jake Ehrlich, one of the famous First Amendment lawyers who in fact defended Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the San Francisco obscenity trial about Allen Ginsberg's Howl, refused to be Lenny's counsel and told the man who wound up taking that case, Albert Bendich, a young ACLU trial lawyer at the time, that you can't win a case based on the word cocksucker—that was his line.
Their perception was that the jury was going to dis Lenny. On appeal, however, when you got out of the context of the impassioned jurors—when you brought this into the light of appellate wisdom and the application of legal principles—they believed that Lenny would win. But this was driving him nuts. He felt that if he could win on appeal, why couldn't he win on the trial level?
He consistently questioned his attorneys' strategies. So that's correct: Lenny was his own problem.
Dave: Was it necessary for him to die for this cause to move forward? Was he as much an impediment to the legal process as the initiator of the argument?
Skover: Did he really need to die? My answer is yes. It would not have mattered if the lawyers had presented the cases the way Lenny had wanted them to or if he had let them proceed. The fact is that Lenny wasn't being arrested or tried for his four-, six-, eight-, and ten-letter words. In Chicago he was arrested for blasphemy, essentially, because he had mocked the Pope.
The day after his arrest at The Gate of Horn in Chicago, the chief of police came back to the club and told the owner, "If you put Lenny Bruce or anyone else up there to mock the Pope, I'm going to pinch you, and I'm going to close you," and in fact The Gate of Horn was closed.
The hook was obscenity; it was the only way they could get to Lenny. There couldn't be a formal charge of blasphemy because it's not a crime in America. But that was the underlying motive in Chicago. When he goes to the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago to be tried on this charge of obscenity, aka blasphemy, the judge walks in, the jury walks in, the bailiff and the prosecutor walk in, and it's Ash Wednesday so they all have crosses on their forehead; they have to wipe these off in order that they can sit in judgment on the dirty-mouth Jew who dissed the Pope. Consider the context.
In New York it wasn't obscenity; it was the fact that Lenny would have the chutzpah to mock Jacqueline Kennedy four months after Kennedy was assassinated. Richard Kuh, the prosecutor, was livid that Lenny had a routine in which he claimed Time magazine had hypocritically represented Jacqueline Kennedy as a heroine, climbing on the back of the convertible to help the F. B. I. agent on. Lenny said, "This is ridiculous. She didn't stay there. She hauled ass to save her ass!" He had this whole riff about how people who haul ass to save their ass from this point forward will think, Well, I wasn't like the good Mrs. Kennedy who stayed. And Richard Kuh was livid.
In New York, I guess it was what we'd call seditious libel, criticism of the government. In Chicago it was clearly blasphemy. My feeling is what Lenny did or didn't do to assist himself ultimately would not have had much impact. It's not like he would have gotten off the hook. In some way, the whole thing was a rigged game. Lenny was the sacrificial lamb for those who wanted to clean up the streets of Times Square or for those who wanted to preserve the sanctity of the Catholic Church in Chicago. The trials, in my mind, wouldn't have turned out any differently if he had just let his lawyers work.
Dave: But there really was no "next" Lenny Bruce. Things did change.
Skover: As a practical matter, August 3, 1966, the day that Lenny died, is the turning point in American free speech history. From that point forward, no entertainer is that is prosecuted for his words in the privacy of a comedy club. There are still people like George Carlin who are going to be told (later on, in FCC vs. Pacifica) that the FCC can regulate indecent speech on the airwaves during drive time or during prime time hours, but within the private club and the private theater, you don't have prosecutions after Lenny's death.
So much of that was done on Lenny's back. He paid those dues. His courtroom dramas made it possible for our modern comedians—Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chris Rock—to say what they want to say, and say it the way they want to say it. Lenny's legal legacy is his greatest legacy.
Dave: Entertainers working in other forms, novelists and such, were using these words. So why did Lenny become the target? For a certain period of time, he had a large fan base, and the people in the audience certainly weren't complaining.
Skover: Why Lenny? Lenny made it very easy to be attacked. There were other dirty comedians: Red Buttons, Moms Mabley, other comedians who used vulgarity. They weren't arrested because they weren't talking about the subjects Lenny was talking about. Lenny was the most controversial comedian of his day because he dared to speak the unspeakable. He was talking about the most sensitive subjects, associated with extraordinarily strong social taboos, yet he was doing it openly and uninhibitedly. He spoke about race relations. He spoke about religious hypocrisy. He spoke about sexual dysfunctionalities. He spoke about homosexuality.
These were topics nobody touched except very gingerly or in stock ways. For example, if a comedian were to talk about homosexuality he would be mocking the gay prototype, the stereotypical queen. Or if someone were talking about sexual politics it was the one-liner about his wife; it wasn't what Lenny was doing.
Lenny's mission in his comedy was so very different. He openly announced that his role was to expose the lie, to pull the covers back and show the raw truth. He would say, "Respectability means under the covers," yanking those covers right off.
Other comedians played it safe. Lenny never played it safe. Mort Sahl begged Lenny to avoid legal troubles and tone it down. I don't think it was in his DNA profile to do that. Because he was so brazen with his treatment of incredibly delicate subjects, because he slaughtered sacred cows, because he broke social taboos, he would tweak the noses of authorities in ways that these other comedians never would, even though they might be as "dirty."
Dave: You say that it was in his DNA, which reminds me of the story about Lenny pleading his case to Thurgood Marshall and comparing himself to "a nigger trying to use the toilet in Alabama."
Skover: He thought Marshall was going to relate! But there's a part of Lenny that was absolutely naïve and innocent.
There were times I would wonder, "Would I like this man?" There was so much of him that was smart-alecky and mouthy, con-man-like; then on the other hand he had this beautiful sense of the integrity and the justice of the law. Which is remarkable, given what happened to him. He really thought that if he could only explain himself, could only relate to the judges and juries, they would never see him as dirty and they would vindicate him.
So he goes in front of Justice Marshall. He's nervous because by this time he's bankrupt and he can't afford counsel. He's brought a federal civil rights action in federal district court in Manhattan suing the very judges who are sitting in judgment of him—later, he's going to ask them to accuse themselves (amazing chutzpah!)—and now the federal district court throws his case out. So he's going to take this case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, himself. And there he's sitting with two of the great jurists, Henry Friendly and Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall asks him, "Why did you not exhaust your state appeals? Why are you coming to us, the federal system, to do what the state court should be doing?"
Lenny wants to convey the idea that if he waits any longer to do this he's going to be driven out of business. He's not going to get legal relief, so the court should intervene. Time is of the essence for him. And he thinks he's going to relate to Thurgood Marshall, a black man, when he says, "You know, Your Honor, it's just like the nigger in Alabama who can't use the white toilet. By the time he gets to the black toilet it's going to be too late."
Thurgood Marshall's jaw drops, and he says, "You're no nigger!" And Bruce says, "I know, but it's just an analogy!"
[Stover bangs his hand on the table to mimic a gavel dropping.] "Denied!"
There's an incredible irony here. He thinks he's going to be real in the courtroom; he thinks he's going to explain himself to this black man who is going to understand his experience in the context of segregation.
Dave: He's not an easy figure to pigeonhole in that respect. He brings an unusual blend of naivete and experience to his monologues, which was perhaps especially appropriate for the time.
Skover: Culturally, America was in a period of tremendous change. Lenny was at the forefront. We'd just come out of the age of the Beatniks and were about to enter the age of the anti-war protest movement and the hippies. And Lenny's right there at the center of those two great forces. In fact, after his death, both sides claimed him. He's celebrated as a Beatnik poet in poetry collections today; and The Beatles put him on the cover of an album [Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band].
Dave: Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! paints Bruce as a despicable low life figure. The movie with Dustin Hoffman sugarcoats his life to the point that you might think it's a Disney production. It's been thirty-six years since Lenny Bruce died. Why has there been no even-handed record of his life?
Skover: I think it really takes the kind of special, multidisciplinary interest and skills that Ronald and I brought to this. Not to toot my own horn, but to produce scholarship at this intersection you have to be able to appreciate the intricacies and the impact of the Lenny Bruce obscenity trials and you also need familiarity with the time period and the cultural aspect of his life story. These have to be wed. Goldman was not a lawyer. Certainly Hollywood is not going to present the story in a realistic, nitty-gritty fashion.
I would say this about our relationship to Lenny: We never deified him. We never put him up on a pedestal and made him the patron saint that he's often been made by comedians or by the rebel pop culture that found it economically profitable to paint him in the guise of a James Dean.
There was a lot about Lenny that was less than admirable. He had many faults, more than just the drug addiction (although he fought it his entire life). There was a con-man side to Lenny: for example, his vacation at the beach inside a home he broke into with his friend. And though he loved his family, he was not the best father; his daughter was raised largely by Sally Marr, Lenny's mother.
So there's a lot about Lenny that one wouldn't want to pretend was admirable. But what was great about Lenny is that he embodied the First Amendment. He had courage. In the face of certain arrest, certain prosecution, and more money going down the toilet to his lawyers, he stuck to the principle which he really believed: that he had a constitutional right to stand up in the comedy club and speak authentically about real emotions, real human relations, and to speak in a real way about them.
This was a right he had as an American, and he refused to bend. That to me is an extraordinary man. How many people, knowing that they are going to sacrifice their fortune, their career, and in his case his life, would continue to pursue this path?
And on the day he died did he ever think that Powell's this evening would be hosting a forum for Lenny Bruce to be celebrated as a free speech hero? It probably would have been a dream, but certainly beyond his cognizance.
We ended up loving Lenny for something that he understood he was, but the world didn't. That's why this book had to be written. How he's been portrayed elsewhere is not indicative of his true greatness.
Dave: For a lot of people who only have a sound bite understanding of Lenny Bruce, he's known simply as a vulgar comedian. I certainly didn't understand the depth of his agenda until I started reading. Where does that leave us today? Someone made the comparison between Lenny Bruce and Howard Stern.
Skover: Many, many people will say, "Oh, Lenny Bruce was just another shock performer. He was just like Howard Stern." And on the one hand, it is true that Lenny paved the way for this kind of entertainment. No question. To the extent that he contributed to freeing the culture of governmental repression when it comes to language, when it comes to sexual openness, he's not the only force but he paved the way.
Lenny was never politically correct. He was capable of shocking even those who would call themselves liberals he certainly would shock people who felt that propriety required them to address issues in very delicate, sanitary ways but on the other hand, he was no shock performer. What Lenny said mattered.
I think that Hugh Hefner put it quite well when he said, "What do you get with freedom? Excesses. Exploitation. That's a small price to pay." He said, "If you don't like it, don't read it, don't buy it, don't listen to it. But without free communication we are not a free society, and the First Amendment is there to ensure that."
Well, that's it. The Death of Discourse talks a great deal about the excesses of communication and recognizes that excesses often will swamp the very core value for which we originally extended freedom of expression. But given the context in which Lenny Bruce was being prosecuted versus the context in which Howard Stern is playing today, there's no question where we as authors of this book would stand. We would have to side with Hugh Hefner. Ultimately, we too would not put Lenny Bruce in the same camp as the shock entertainers, but would recognize that Lenny would stand up for their right to be who the are. We're all better off, I think, because there was a Lenny Bruce.
Dave: Early in his career, Lenny was asked, "Do you want to be a First Amendment martyr?" And he said, "I don't want to be the great wounded bird. I'm just a guy who wants to work."
Skover: I think that early in his career that was true: Lenny saw his obscenity trials as a way of actually benefiting himself; he wanted to have a jury trial in San Francisco because he thought the publicity would be great for his career. By the end, he knew he was the great wounded bird and he chose to be.
After his first arrest at the Café Au Go Go, the lawyers and the club owner and Lenny are sitting around and they're all deciding whether it's important for him to go on the next day so that they can provide legal precedent for this kind of thing in New York. They're going to break down the New York obscenity law. Ella Solomon, Howard's wife, who by that point hadn't been arrested, is along with Lenny in the dressing room just before the second performance (for which he gets busted). And she says to him, "Lenny, do you really want to do this?" I think she was sensitive to the fact that he might have been pressured by the attorneys to go ahead. She asked, "Why don't you tone it down a little?" And he said, "Ella, would you tell Picasso which paints to use from his palette?"
He knew he was going to get busted, but he was saying to her, "This is part of my artistry. I'm Lenny Bruce. I'm not a comedian." That was one of the phrases he would use more and more later on in his life. The evening he was first busted in San Francisco, he came back and performed the second show and said, "You know, I'm sorry I've not been very funny tonight, but I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce." At the time, I'm not sure he really understood what that phrase would come to mean, but by the end of his career he understood that he would be the sacrificial lamb, the great wounded bird, and he was accepting that role.
The shame is that it seems as though the First Amendment, which is supposed to be protecting the dissenter during his lifetime, occasionally requires martyrs who really only obtain their freedom after death. An even greater irony is that even Lenny hasn't achieved that. Lenny died a convicted man, and the New York case was never overturned; that conviction stands to this day. In his own case, he's still a convicted man.
Dave: I appreciated the CD, in part because I wasn't looking forward to imagining Lenny Bruce as Dustin Hoffman for the rest of my life. But it was great to hear the words in Lenny's own voice.
Skover: What's so remarkable about the CD is that unexpurgated, uncensored Bruce is heard for the very first time. There are very few recordings out there where you hear it all. Most of the records of Lenny Bruce were censored by Fantasy Recordings. Fortunately, with the assistance of Albert Bendict, Lenny's lawyer in the San Francisco case (which was the only case in which he was acquitted by a jury), we got access and permission to use the tapes that Fantasy Records never released.
People can hear the very routines that got Lenny arrested. The very evenings. You can hear his words and his tones, and sit in amazement that this was the subject of prosecution.
We have a cut on the CD where Lenny is talking about the New York club act that got him into trouble. We have never-before released audio from the trial itself. Lenny had carried into court a custom-made briefcase with what was then a high-tech tape recorder, thinking that he might have to take the appeal himself. We thought those tapes were lost to the world. As it turned out, they weren't, and we were able to obtain possession and use some of the audible material for the CD. Extraordinary stuff.
What is amazing, I think, to the listener—or to the reader—was that Lenny was being prosecuted for misdemeanor offenses. In New York alone we have a trial spanning six months, with twelve prosecution witnesses and eighteen expert defense witnesses—everybody from Nat Hentoff, who has to explain the kaleidoscopic nature of Lenny's comedy (how it isn't linear; it's associative and moves around, and how in fact every bit is essential in the place where it is), to the incredibly pristine, white-gloved, prim and proper Dorothy Kilgallen, who responds to the prosecutor when he is assailing her with all of the language Lenny uses, "But Mr. Kuh, these are words, just words."
It's an amazing thing. Eighteen of them were there. And there are 2100 pages of pre-trial and trial transcripts. I know because I read them all. This is for a misdemeanor trial. It's amazing. In that sense, this book is the tale of what can happen when freedom bows to fear. That's what happened in these court cases.
David Skover visited Powell's City of Books on November 11, 2002.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State