The Legacy of Lenny Bruce

Written by Ian Harrison on 17th July, 2014

The Legacy of Lenny Bruce

They said that he was sick 'cos he didn't play by the rules,
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools.
- Bob Dylan, "Lenny Bruce"

He was brash. He was abrasive. He was doggedly, almost resolutely, hostile. He was divisive and hated in his time by many, but posthumously pardoned by a Republican governor 37 years after a fatal drug overdose. The 1974 biopic about his life is one of only a handful of films to have been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay Oscars.

Exploring the ongoing influence of the trailblazing comedian and archetypal rogue...

Leonard Alfred Schneider was 'that Jewish kid' from Long Island, a Navy veteran and a professional troublemaker. If he were alive today and lucid enough (he'd be pushing 90), that's probably what Lenny Bruce would tell you, only with a few more four-letter words thrown in.

But throughout the course of a career that saw him blacklisted by almost every nightclub in the United States for telling the truth as he saw it, that Jewish kid from Long Island paved the way for George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Without Lenny Bruce there is no Jon Stewart, no Howard Stern, no Chris Rock, no Dave Chappelle, no Sarah Silverman, no Louis C. K., no Eddie Izzard.

Speaking truth to power, calling out institutionalised hypocrisy, blurring the lines between social criticism and comedy - often in terms we define as profane - takes enormous guts, often more than the public realises or gives credit for. If it didn't, someone would have done it before Lenny Bruce openly riffed on homosexuality and grade schoolers getting high on aeroplane glue before a live audience on The Steve Allen Show in the late '50s. Like many mould-breakers, Bruce was ahead of his time.

Here are some things worth knowing about the man who once said, 'Life is a four-letter word':

Lenny Bruce changed Richard Pryor's life. Pryor never hid the fact that Lenny Bruce had a profound impact on his career. The man many consider to be the greatest stand-up of all time once said: 'Lenny changed my life. I never heard anything like him before and I remember thinking, "If this is comedy, then what... am I doing?" So I played his record over and over, every night. It was him who said comedy wasn't about telling jokes - it was about telling the truth.'

Lenny Bruce was a pivotal player in the US Free Speech Movement. According to David M. Skover, co-author of The Trials of Lenny Bruce, The Fall and Rise of an American Icon: 'His obscenity story changed the First Amendment environment... in a very practical way.' Skover says that after Bruce's death of a morphine overdose in 1966, 'the very idea of prosecuting a comedian for off-colour language ended. Thus, it's really Lenny's legacy that he opened up the comedy club as the greatest free speech zone in America.'

Lenny Bruce's tirades were not confined to America. Bruce spent a fortnight in Sydney in September 1962. While never banned or arrested on an obscenity charge (rumours to the contrary are rife), Bruce was in trademark form one night at Aaron's Exchange Hotel on Gresham Street. From a transcript in Bulletinmagazine at the time:

'Projection!' cried a lank-haired interjector.
'Projection. Project your voice!' 'Give us something new,' cried an actress currently in "Once Upon a Mattress".
She stood up to be seen and heard.
'What do you want to hear about America?' Mr. Bruce asked.
'Nothing,' she said, loud and clear.
'F*** you, madam,' Mr. Bruce said, loud and clear.

It was all over the morning newspapers.

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