"Lenny Bruce is a menace. He uses dirty words for shock value. He's a junkie who wants to pollute civilized conversation. He's gone too far."
"He just died."
"Oh. What I meant was, he was a poet and a prophet."
Lenny Bruce, who died 40 years ago last week, was the Elvis of comedy. Like the Big E, he had a brilliant, volcanic prime, which unquestionably changed pop culture, and a bloated, drug-addled "maturity." Elvis died at 42, Lenny at the age he had predicted he would: 40. The difficult, self-destructive pathos of their last years only added to their legends; modern saints must also be sinners, to prove they're human as well as divine. And another similarity: a temporary grave marker misspelled Lenny's name, as Elvis' had been on his grave stone. Cue the theremin music.
There were lots of differences, too. Lenny (first name only, please: it's no easier to refer to Lenny as "Bruce" than it is to call Woody "Allen") enjoyed nothing like Elvis' celebrity, though the prototype "sick comic" had a unique notoriety. His corrosive comedy routines, and the occasionally raw language he used to make his satirical points, landed him in the docket on obscenity charges in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. "Factually, the show is indecent," he acknowledged. "The areas that I discuss are not pleasant. However, I do think they have the freight of substance." Dirty words or no, Lenny's real crime was criticizing organized religion in cities where many of the police, prosecutors and judges were conservative Catholics. Cops threatened nightclub owners who booked Lenny. Two owners had their liquor licenses suspended. Another, when Lenny performed at his place, was tried and convicted of sponsoring an obscene show.
The threats and trials had their impact on the comic tagged by New York Daily News columnist Bob Sylvester as "the man from outer taste": no one dared book Lenny. At the end of his eight-year career doing inspired satire, he couldn't get... I was going to say he couldn't get arrested, but that was about all he could get. What he couldn't get was a job. He was a prophet without honor — and, worse, for a would-be-working comedian, without profit. On his 40th birthday he declared himself bankrupt, and nine months later he was dead. People who may have known only vaguely of Lenny Bruce were treated to the indelible image of a bloated, naked man splayed on the floor with a syringe in his arm. For more than five hours after discovering the body, police had allowed reporters and photographers to record the gruesome, demeaning scene. In the matter of Lenny Bruce, the cops had finally granted freedom of the press.
For all his failings, many of which he discussed in his act, Lenny had a persecution complex — because he was so often persecuted! — and a martyr fixation. He identified with one of the few historical figures he unconditionally revered: Jesus. The Christ analogy can be pushed too far (Jesus was not a junkie, though he was a Jew), but there's no question that Lenny was relentlessly and unfairly hounded by the judiciary system. Record producer Phil Spector, who championed the comedian in his last year, claimed that Lenny "died from an overdose of police." Think that's an exaggeration? Well, Martin Garbus, one of Lenny's many lawyers, quotes a prosecutor in the the Manhattan D.A.'s office as saying, "I feel terrible about Bruce. We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him.... We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him."