Fifty-one years ago today, comedian Lenny Bruce was found guilty of obscenity by a panel of three judges in a widely publicized trial that would come to define free speech in stand-up comedy. Departing radically from other comedians of the era, Bruce was critical and profane, and openly discussed topics, like religion and sexuality, which were considered taboo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s often said that his material wouldn’t be considered radical by today’s standards, but it’s because of his willingness to be fearlessly outspoken that today’s standards are in place.
The case made against Bruce drew solely on material that had been unknowingly transcribed by undercover officers at the Cafe au Go Go in New York City in April of 1964. His act over those two nights included many of his well-known routines, and, as always, contained graphic language and explicit subject matter. The second night, he was arrested while leaving the stage before being charged with obscenity, thanks to then-Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan.
The trial that followed would bankrupt Bruce, who by then had been blacklisted by all but a few clubs in the U.S., and in some cases, banned by whole towns. On November 4, 1964 he was found guilty of obscenity, and while he appealed the decision, he was found dead in August of 1966 from a morphine overdose before the case reached the appellate court. Vincent Cuccia, at the time an Assistant District Attorney and one of the case’s prosecutors, would later confess their intentions.
[Bruce] was prosecuted because of his words. He didn’t harm anybody, he didn’t commit an assault, he didn’t steal, he didn’t engage in any conduct which directly harmed someone else. So therefore he was punished first and foremost because of the words that he used. It’s wrong to prosecute anybody because of his ideas. It was the only thing I did in Hogan’s office that I’m really ashamed of. We drove him into poverty and used the law to kill him.
Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider, began his career as a comedian performing in New York City in the late 1940s, a notable talent who quickly gained a reputation for harsh and vulgar criticisms woven into his typically profane performance. While prosecutor Richard Kuh openly admitted years later that an act like his wouldn’t have been controversial at all today, he says in 1964, they “had a state obscenity statute” and it was his job to enforce it.
Bruce’s performances, as mentioned in his 1966 obituary, were “sprinkled with four-letter words and pungent social satire,” relying heavily on free-association and improvisation. For that reason, he’d rarely be asked to appear on TV, and when he did, his material had to be typed-out and pre-approved by the networks. His routines were more theatrical in delivery than traditional comedy, and his in-your-face approach to the establishment set him apart as one of the founders of the counterculture movement.
Prior to the arrest in New York City that led to his trial, he was charged with obscenity multiple times, once in San Francisco in 1961, then three more times in 1962. Once in Chicago and twice in Los Angeles, all of which were overturned. Afterwards, he returned to New York to book a series of shows at the Cafe au Go Go. Two of them would be attended by Inspector Herbert Ruhe, a former CIA agent, who gathered enough material to formally charge Bruce with violation of New York Penal Code 1140, “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure dram, play, exhibition, and entertainment… which would tend to the corruption of the morals of youth and others.”
When taking the stand, Ruhe would recount his notes taken during the performance, and Bruce realized it wasn’t wasn’t his own performance being considered, but rather he was “going to be judged by [Ruhe’s] bad timing, his ego, his garbled language.” Cuccia and other lawyers in Kuh’s bureau had pleaded with him to listen to Bruce’s own material in context, which he refused to do, warning them to “stay out of this unless you want to be switched to the rackets bureau.” With the deck stacked against him, his defense attorneys, free speech advocates Ephraim London and Martin Garbus worked to sway the panel of judges in his favor. A petition of support signed by performers and critics from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor was created in Bruce’s defense, as well, all citing the importance of the First Amendment.
After all the arguments were made, 99 days would pass before a decision was to be read. It was on that day that Bruce, who had by then fired his attorneys, stood before the court in desperation and appealed to the presiding judges:
“Please let me testify. Let me tell you what the show is about… Finally to talk to the court… Please, your honor, I so desperately want your respect… Don’t finish me off in show business. Don’t lock up these 6,000 words.”
Ignoring his plea, the court ruled against him, sentencing him to four months in Rikers Island for obscenity charges. The comedian had been beaten by the very system he openly criticized on stage.
While most club owners wouldn’t hire Bruce for fear of prosecution themselves, he did give a memorable performance in December of 1965 at the Berkeley Community Theater, which was recorded for his final album, The Berkeley Concert, widely considered one of his best works. His last appearance ever was June of 1966 at the Fillmore opening for Frank Zappa, where he was “whacked out on amphetamine,” according to club owner Bill Graham’s book. Both broke and broken by the trial against him, and already having a long history with drug abuse, Bruce fatally overdosed two months later.
After almost four decades, Bruce was finally given a gubernatorial pardon by George Pataki in 2003, (the first in the state’s history), who called it “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment. I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”
David M. Skover, co-author of The Trials of Lenny Bruce, credits the performer for his influence, but his willingness to stand up for creative freedom.
“There really are very, very few topics or very, very few ways of speaking about those topics that comedians are not allowed to do today in the private comedy club, and that’s thanks to Lenny. His obscenity story changed the First Amendment environment in a very practical way. Thus, it’s really Lenny’s legacy that he opened up the comedy club as the greatest free speech zone in America.”
These days, Bruce is remembered as a groundbreaking and influential comedian who stood up despite persecution by the system. “My dad had so much to say and so little time to say it,” said his daughter, Kitty, adding that his 2003 pardon “was what America is all about.”