The Trials of Lenny Bruce
8 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2007
Date Written: 2007
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lenny Bruce was the spirit of hipness and rebellion. His underdog, idealistic humor took on every American sacred cow, from capitalism to organized religion to sexual mores. Fans were attracted to Bruce's dark sexiness and brutal honesty. Kenneth Tyson described Bruce as fully, quiveringly conscious.
Bruce's rise to the status of cultural icon began in the mid-1950s in the strip clubs of southern California where Bruce began to develop the iconoclastic edginess that would be his trademark. In his autobiography, "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People", Bruce described the importance of the freedom that came from the burlesque circuit:
Four years working in clubs - that's what really made it for me - every night: doing it, doing it, doing it, getting bored and doing different ways, no pressure on you, and all the other comedians are drunken bums who don't show up, so I could try anything.
On April 9, 1959, Bruce appeared on the nationally-televised Steve Allen Show. Allen introduced Bruce as the most shocking comedian of our time, a young man who is skyrocketing to fame - Lenny Bruce! Two years later, performing before a packed house at Carnegie Hall, Bruce delivered what biographer Albert Goldman called the greatest performance of his career.
In the fall of 1961, however, Bruce's career would begin its downward spiral. Just a week after being arrested in Philadelphia on a narcotics charge, Bruce was charged in San Francisco with violating California obscenity law after a late night performance at the Jazz Workshop. Police found most troubling Bruce's use of the word cocksucker, although his use of the phrase to come (in a sexual sense) also became a major focus of his Jazz Workshop trial. First Amendment lawyer Albert Bendich represented Bruce alone, after the co-counsel he hoped would help turned him down flat saying, You can't win a case based on 'cocksucker.' Win Bendich did, however. In his opening statement Bendich told the jury that Bruce's humor was in the great tradition of social satire, related intimately to the kind of social satire found in the works of such great authors as Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift. Experts from jazz critics to literature professors were called to the stand to offer their opinions on the social importance of Bruce's iconoclastic humor. The jury heard both a tape of Bruce's full performance and Bruce's own testimony on his choice of words before voting to acquit.
Despite the acquittal in San Francisco, the arrests kept coming. In 1962, Bruce was charged again with violating California's obscenity law at a performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. Less than two weeks later he faced charges in Chicago following a show at the Gate of Horn. Then he was arrested in Los Angeles for a performance at the Unicorn. While the Troubadour and Unicorn trial ended in a deadlocked jury, Bruce was not so lucky in Illinois, where he was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. By the summer of 1963, Bruce's troubles were mounting. While free on bond pending appeal of his Chicago conviction, Bruce attempted to do a show in in London, only to be taken to the airport and deported. In June, a California court ordered Bruce confined at the State Rehabilitation Center in Chico for treatment of his drug addiction. By March 1964, following yet another obscenity arrest in southern California, Bruce concluded the last refuge for his controversial brand of humor was New York City.
Keywords: Famous Trials, Trial, Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen, Jazz Workshop, Obscenity, First Amendment, Free speech, Social satire, Comedy, Comic, Stand-up, Iconoclast, Iconoclastic, Gate of Hom, How to Talk Dirty
JEL Classification: K10, K40, K41, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation