Leonard Alfred Schneider, also known as Lenny Bruce, was a comedian, philosopher, and drug addict. Despite being a conventional Jewish child from Long Island, he fearlessly joked about sensitive topics such as homosexuality, drugs, religion, and race. Some argue that he paved the way for modern-day comics, but he faced consequences for being ahead of his time. Due to his addiction to vulgarity and drugs, he found himself frequently in courtrooms across America. It is believed that one incident in which he humiliated a Philadelphia judge contributed to his extensive legal troubles. His death continues to spark theories of murder, rather than simply being attributed to another overdose by a junkie.
Bruce, born on October 13, 1925 in Long Island, New York, had a father who worked as an orthopedic shoe salesman and spoiled his only child. His mother was his closest companion. However, when Bruce turned eight, his parents divorced. In 1936, his father got married again and they lived a regular life together. Nevertheless, the presence of jazz musicians and drug influences in his surroundings affected Bruce’s speech patterns and influenced him overall. Eventually, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Navy.
After fighting fascists for two years, he became tired and went to the medical officers, claiming an obsession with homosexuality. As a result, he was given a dishonorable discharge (Hendra 115). When he returned home, his father gave him a job selling orthopedic shoes. However, Bruce had different dreams – he wanted to be a comedian. At first, he focused on doing impressions but wasn’t very good at it. In 1948, he got his big break when offered a chance to appear on television and showcase his act on the “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Show.” Although this broadcast didn’t lead to many bookings, Bruce’s career started slowly as he performed at strip clubs and other venues.
Harriet Lloyd, also known as “Honey”, was a stripper at one of the clubs where Bruce performed. In 1951, Honey became Bruce’s wife (Kronke). They moved to Los Angeles and performed acts that he directed. Together, Bruce and Honey had a daughter named Kitty. Despite having a family, Bruce still performed at strip clubs. During one of his performances, Bruce stripped naked and provocatively stated, “What’s the big deal? This is what you came for, isn’t it?” (Hendra 116).
Lenny Bruce gained fame in 1955 for his daring performances at various clubs in Los Angeles. He became a regular at the Crescendo, where he entertained the audience with a range of acts, including prank calls to babysitters, pretending their employer had died (Hendra 125). Despite controversy surrounding his shows, Bruce enjoyed engaging with the audience and occasionally playing cruel jokes. However, a pivotal moment came in 1959 when Steve Allen, a fan of Bruce’s and host of “The Steve Allen Show” on NBC, invited him to appear on the program. Although NBC censored Bruce during both appearances that year, this was in stark contrast to the explicit material that made him popular at strip clubs.
These frequent appearances at clubs and television shows helped finance a growing drug habit. In 1959, Bruce was apprehended for possessing narcotics. In order to avoid imprisonment, he struck a deal with the L.A.P.D. and agreed to inform on drug dealers that he was familiar with. Later, while in Philadelphia in 1961, he was taken into custody for possessing prescription drugs like amphetamines (Kronke). Following the trial, Bruce revealed a corrupt Philadelphia Judge who would dismiss charges in exchange for payment. Once he publicly embarrassed this elected official, prosecutors and judges began targeting him. Merely five days later, while in San Francisco, he was arrested again. From that moment onwards, Bruce was unable to get away with his style of conversation being deemed unacceptable public speaking at the time. His candid and occasionally harsh words were labeled as “profanities”. Consistently, he ridiculed topics that were not openly discussed such as homosexuality, drug addiction, and communism.
Lenny Bruce once commented on the changing symbols of his childhood, stating that figures like the country doctor, town whore, village idiot, and drunken family have been replaced with the communist, junkie, faggot, and beatnik. During a performance at the Cafe au Go-Go in 1964, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, Bruce made a joke about Jackie Kennedy’s actions during the gunshots. He described her as “hauling ass to save ass” while trying to exit the backseat of the car where the gunshots were aimed. This remark resulted in his arrest by the N.Y.P.D. Theatrical Crit. Squad members who were present that night. Despite Bruce’s unconventional vocabulary at the time, comedy acts resembling his are now commonplace.
If Bruce had not stood up for his right to free speech, comedians today would have had to fight for that right as well. Bruce’s forward-thinking attitude paved the way for the comedians of the present (Allen 65-68). Tragically, Bruce passed away on August 6, 1966 due to a heroin overdose. The circumstances surrounding his death were suspicious because his usual drug-use paraphernalia was absent. Typically, he would have candles, a spoon, cotton, and blood from injecting the needle, but none of these items were found. Many found the scene to be too clean. On the desk in the adjacent room to where he was discovered was his IBM typewriter, on which he wrote his final words: “Conspiracy to interfere with the fourth amendment const…” (Goldman 554). Bruce frequently faced legal battles, consistently defending his belief in freedom of speech and his personal rights.
Despite facing continuous defeat, he never gave up and was often hailed as a philosopher when it came to expressing his thoughts and unwavering commitment to justice (Allen 77). Lenny Bruce was an exceptional comedian and thinker who not only pushed boundaries but completely disregarded them. While his frequent drug use may have ultimately led to his demise, it provided him with the mental stability he needed. Without it, he may have either lost his sanity or abandoned his career in comedy and the fight for righteousness. By fiercely advocating for freedom of speech and embodying a distinct character, he offered society an unfiltered glimpse into reality, unburdened by any sugar-coating.
Allen, Steve. Funny People. Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day,1981. Goldman, Albert. Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!. New York: Random House,1971. Hendra, Tony. Going Too Far The Rise and Fall of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor.
The text provides information about the source of a book called “Lenny Bruce” written by David Kronke in 1987. It also mentions an article titled “Comic Lenny Bruce Lionized For First Amendment Stands” published in the Los Angeles Daily News on August 9, 1999. Additionally, it includes a link to a website about Lenny Bruce accessed on October 26, 1995, and last visited on September 24, 2000.