Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lenny Bruce: Patron Saint of Stand-up Comics

Lenny Bruce was a fearless Jewish stand-up comic who stood up for what he believed. His act was a scathing commentary on the world around him, and he tackled sacred cows with relish and abandon. Bruce’s honesty and candor had no limits--he used his personal life as “material” with embarrassing honesty.

“All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.”--Lenny Bruce

Bruce arrested for "obscenity" four times

There were no taboos in his biting satire, in subject matter or choice of words. It was his language--specifically “four-letter” words that sometimes had up to twelve--that got him in trouble with the law. Arrested on “obscenity” charges four times between 1961 and 1964, Lenny Bruce was na├»ve in believing that the First Amendment would protect him and his act.

“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”--Lenny Bruce

Bruce was edgy and ahead of his time

Edgy comedy was dangerous in the early 1960s. Nobody said anything like Lenny Bruce on a nightclub stage before. And he paid for it. But Bruce was tenacious--and refused to dilute his act after his trouble with the law began in 1961. It could be said that Bruce’s mantra was that he was only pointing out the differences between the way things are and the way they should be. The Lenny Bruce that comes across on recordings and films of his performances is more of a philosopher than comic. He was very funny, his humor coming from the unusual way he presented the “truth” as he saw it about the institutions he attacked and social mores he challenged.

“A lot of people say to me, 'Why did you kill Christ?' 'I dunno... it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know.'--We killed him because he didn't want to become a doctor, that's why we killed him."--Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall on February 3, 1961.
 The Carnegie Hall concert of 1961

One of Bruce’s most famous performances was at Carnegie Hall in New York City on February 3, 1961. Captured on tape, the concert is available on record and DVD. There was a snow storm that day that began around noon. The snow didn’t stop and New York mayor Wagner proclaimed a “state of emergency” that day; no one would be able to enter or leave New York.

Lenny was shocked when he appeared on stage to see Carnegie Hall packed with people. Albert Goldman writes, “Lenny seized the mike and started off with a burst of energy that did not exhaust itself until well past 2 A.M.” He performed his most recent material and improvised some new routines, lecturing the audience on “moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humor, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease [and] the Internal Revenue Service…”

Comic Jon Stewart on Lenny Bruce

Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's Daily Show, said in 1999 that Bruce, "should be remembered for the substance of what he said, and for the incredibly lyrical way he used the language." Stewart goes on to say that Bruce's remembered more for "certain" words he said rather than the content of his act. "He didn't step over the line just to step over the line," said Stewart. "There was a method to his madness. Nowadays too many comedians are just saying, 'Look at what I can get away with.' "


Goldman, Albert. Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! From the journalism of Lawrence Schiller. Random House, New York. 1971.

Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1963.

Cohen, John (Ed.) The Essential Lenny Bruce. Ballantine Books, 1967.

Bruce, Lenny. The Carnegie Hall Concert.February 3, 1961. World Pacific/Capital Records. © 1995.

Bruce, Lenny. The Berkeley Concert. Berkeley Community Theater, December 12, 1965. Bizarre/Reprise Records (2XS 6329, February 17, 1969).

Keepnews, Peter. “There Was Thought in His Rage.” The New York Times. August 8, 1999.

Lenny Bruce Quotes -- Brainy Quote.

Lenny Bruce Quotes.


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