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I've had a personal stake in Lenny Bruce for nearly a half-century. I first heard about him in 1959 from the cartoonist Arnold Roth, who was a crucial contributor to the Harvey Kurtzman magazine Humbug, and who lived in Philadelphia, as I did. With a kindness that I think back on with gratitude and bafflement, he befriended this gauche but eager 14-year-old and, in the genial tutorial that was our conversations, recommended that I listen to Lenny's albums.
I got the albums — Interviews for Our Time and The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce — and Lenny, with a hipster snap of his fingers, quickly became my first stand-up crush. I was hooked by the humor, its breadth and pungency, even if I didn't always pick up on the references. Sure, I knew that Orval Faubus was Arkansas' segregationist governor, and I laughed when Lenny had him ignorantly approving of his daughter's engagement to Harry Belafonte ("Nice Italian boy, eh?"), but the allusions to 30s movies and the talent agency MCA sailed over my head. That didn't matter. I memorized some of the routines, and when he appeared on Steve Allen's Sunday night variety show, in the spring of 1959, I preserved the bit on my tape recorder.
I didn't feel part of a vanguard, or more adult for "getting" Lenny. I just thought the guy was funny. Similarly, I found the breadth and pungency of his stuff startling but not really shocking. So far as I recall, it didn't upset other members of my middle-class Catholic family, since the only record player was in the dining room, where anyone could hear or overhear the LPs, and nobody gave me an angry shout to turn that junk off. So, by applying contemporary community standards (our house), I'd rule that Lenny Bruce was not obscene.
I was too young to see Lenny at a night club, but my older brother Paul and his bride-to-be Pat Thompson drove across the Delaware to Pennsauken, N.J., where Lenny was playing at the Red Hill Inn. (Consulting The Complete Lenny Bruce, Daniel V. Smith's devotional and very valuable website, I'd judge that this was either April or November 1960.) After the set, Lenny came over to the bar, where my brother was. When Paul said he had a kid brother who was a big fan. Lenny picked up a paper coaster and wrote on it: "To Richard — Your friend, Lenny Bruce." A relic sadly lost.
On Feb. 11, 1961, I attended his concert at Philadelphia's Town Hall. It would be his last performance in my town except for three appearances at Central Magistrates Court after a drug bust. (Prescription drugs; he was acquitted.) And in 1964 I drove up to New York to see his Easter weekend stint at the Village Theater (later the Fillmore East). Four shows, all 11,000 tickets sold; I caught the late show, midnight, on Saturday. He did plenty of material about his legal vexations, but Lenny was still a spieler who could mesmerize his audience for two hours plus — a great gig. (There was to be another series of Village concerts in November, canceled after pressure from city authorities.) I also followed the installments of his autobiography that Hugh Hefner (like Krassner and Steve Allen, a prime Bruce stalwart) published in Playboy. It was a good time to be a Lenny fan. But not to be Lenny.
I was in Rome in August, 40 years ago, when I read in the International New York Times that Lenny had died. My clear (possibly fallible) memory is that the headline spelled his name "Lennie." Since there were no TVs in the hotel, I was spared seeing those obscene photos of the corpse.
The summer after Lenny's death I walked through Tompkins Square Park in the East Village as the Fugs, the ragged band of Beat poets who had played at Lenny's memorial service, were performing in the bandshell. Words Lenny had been busted for using now were being sung in public, where anyone could hear them. That's how fast the culture changed.