A Tribute to Lenny Bruce

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That is, I want to make the case that Lenny was unfairly, illegally, prosecuted. Want evidence? May it please the court...

A lot of people believe that the provocation for Lenny's obscenity charges was not four-letter words but the irreverent bits he did on organized religion, which to Lenny was not far from organized crime. His most famous early routine, "Religions, Inc.," painted the Pope, Billy Graham, New York's Cardinal Spellman and other other hierarchs as crass showbiz figures. Another bit, Christ and Moses, had the two great figures of Judaism and Catholicism visiting Saint Patrick's Cathedral, appalled by the wealth of the Church and the poverty it permitted in its faithful. Though laced with hipster argot, these pieces were straightforward moral tracts, making the point that the clergy had forgotten their core message and turned their religion into a business.

This observation was not entirely novel, even in the 50s. But it shocked and angered the fuzz. Chicago's vice squad boss visited the Gate of Horn's owner Alan Ribback and told him: "If he ever speaks against religion, I'm going to pinch you and everyone in here... [If h]e mocks the Pope — and I'm speaking as a Catholic — I'm here to tell you your license is in danger." True to its word, the City of Big Shoulders and small minds revoked the Gate of Horn's liquor license for three weekends on the charge of putting on a "lewd show." Lenny's Chicago trial began on Ash Wednesday, 1963; he was not encouraged to see that the judge and the jury all had ash crosses on their foreheads. Convicted; later overturned.

Sometimes the forces aligned against Lenny were secular and corrupt. The night after his first drug bust, in Philadelphia in 1961, a lawyer and a bail bondsman told him that he could get the charges dismissed for $10,000. The wages of justice were high in Philly. (The judge dismissed the case.)

Lenny wanted to perform his act for the judge (or jury). But the prosecution insisted that his words be read aloud by the arresting officer. As he would later recount it: "A peace officer, who is trained to recognize clear and present danger, not make-believe, does the act. The Grand Jury watches him work, and they go, ‘That stinks!' But I get busted. And the irony is, I have to go to court and defend his act."

The cops' minds could often be dirtier than Lenny's. A gesture in which he holds the mic as a Bishop would a censor and blesses the audience was somehow taken as "masturbating the microphone." And the People's transcript of his act had numerous mistakes, some of them distorting innocent remarks into prurient ones. For example, "a suit three sizes too big" was rendered as "a shit three sizes too big"; "the Loew's Pitkins" came out "the lowest tit"; and "Ladies and Gentlemen" was recorded as "Raymond jumps me now"! These changes were socko as comedy, perhaps, but deficient in stenographic competence. Apparently, pornography is in the ear of the behearer.

The 1964 New York trial, in which he and Café Au Go-Go owner Howard Solomon were charged with obscenity, should surely have earned Lenny's derision. He did often joke that, "In the Halls of Justice, all the justice is in the halls." And he could give bitter voice to the campaign of so many Catholics against an obstreperous Hebrew: "I am a Jew before this court. I would like to set the record straight, that the Jew is not remorsefui." But the poignant thing is that Lenny firmly, naively, believed in the majesty of the law. "My intent is not one of contempt," he proclaimed before the bar. "Communication is my desire." To John M. Murtagh, presiding judge of the three-man court that heard his case, Lenny begged, "Please, your Honor, I so desperately want your respect." And then: "Don't finish me off in show business. Don't lock up these six thousand words."

His pleas went unanswered. The Court voted 2-1 to convict him (four months in the Rikers Island workhouse) and Solomon (30 days or a $1,000 fine). The dissenting judge, J. Randall Creel, soon resigned, and later wrote, in a letter to Time, that the majority decision had been a "fatal judicial wrong done Lenny Bruce—a wrong that is one of the reasons for my retirement from the bench." The third judge on the case was Kenneth M. Phipps. According to testimony in The Trials of Lenny Bruce, "Judge Phipps also wanted to acquit Bruce but ... Judge Murtagh threatened to assign him to traffic court for the rest of his term if he did." Maybe Lenny died from an overdose of judges.

The Long Island kid who hadn't graduated from high school did become one of the most scholarly comedians of his time. Now Lenny thought he could prepare labyrinthine judicial arguments on his own. As he got more involved in his own defense, he exasperated his lawyers, some of whom were helping him for free. (On meeting one of his representatives, William Kunstler, the two went into a bathroom and shot heroin.) The Hollywood Hills home of Lenny the "law junkie," as Collins and Skover call him, was filled with law books and legal briefs. Lenny wanted to appeal his New York conviction himself. He dreamed of playing his biggest room ever, the Supreme Court.

But first he died.

In 1967, Solomon's conviction was overturned on appeal, while Lenny's conviction stood. Thus, as Collins and Skover write, "One man stood convicted (Bruce) and the other exonerated (Solomon) — for the same show." Poor Lenny: he fought the law and the law won.

In 2003, responding to a petition from Robin Williams, Margaret Cho and others, New York Gov. George Pataki granted Lenny a posthumous pardon from his 1964 conviction.

In one of his arguments, Lenny made the important point that the important word in the First Amendment is not "speech" but "freedom" — "on the right to say it." OK, now everybody can say it. Thank you, masked man. But the legacy of Lenny the First Amendment martyr tends to obscure the achievement of Lenny the comedian. He wasn't always on his game; like a jazzman, there were nights when the notes came out flat. But when he soared, as he so often did, he took the listener with him into that verdant jungle of ideas, Lenny's mind. That's not sick, folks; that's healing. Oh, and did I say he was funny?

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