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Remembering Lenny Bruce, 50 years after his death

Remembering Lenny Bruce, 50 years after his death
An undated photo of Lenny Bruce. (Museum of Television and Radio)

It's almost 50 years since the death of Lenny Bruce. The groundbreaking comedian died on Aug. 3, 1966 from an overdose of morphine while his New York obscenity conviction was still on appeal. On that same day he received a foreclosure notice at his Los Angeles home.

But his death was an overdose, not a suicide. In the kitchen, a kettle of water was still boiling, and in his office, the electric typewriter was still humming. He had stopped typing in mid-word: "Conspiracy to interfere with the 4th Amendment const" … constitutes what, I wonder?

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Lenny was a subscriber to my satirical magazine, the Realist, and in 1959 we met for the first time in his Times Square hotel. He was amazed that I got away with publishing those profane words for which other periodicals used asterisks or dashes. He had been using euphemisms and asked, "Are you telling me this is legal to sell on the newsstands?" I replied, "The Supreme Court's definition of obscenity is that it has to be material which appeals to your prurient interest."

He magically produced an unabridged dictionary from the suitcase on his bed, and looked up the word "prurient." He closed the dictionary, clenching his jaw and nodding his head in affirmation of a new discovery.

"So," he observed, "it's against the law to get you horny."

When we were about to leave the room, he stood in the doorway. "Did you steal anything?" he asked furtively. I took my watch out of my pocket since I didn't like to wear it on my wrist, and without saying a word I placed it on the bureau. Lenny laughed one loud, staccato "Ha!" and kissed me on the forehead.

Lenny Bruce, right, during a run-in with police.
Lenny Bruce, right, during a run-in with police. (HBO)

We developed a friendship integrated with stand-up comedy. In his act Lenny had broken through traditional stereotypical jokes about airplane food, mothers-in-law, nagging wives. Instead he weaved his taboo-breaking targets — teachers' low salaries versus show-business celebs, religious leaders' hypocrisy, cruel abortion laws, racial injustice, the double standard between illegal and prescription drugs — into stream-of-consciousness vignettes.

In each succeeding performance, he would sculpt and re-sculpt his concept into a theatrical context, experimenting from show to show like a jazz-jargon musician. Audience laughter would turn into clapping for the creative process itself. "Please don't applaud," he requested. "It breaks my rhythm."

Lenny was intrigued by the implications of an item in the Realist, an actual statement by Adolf Eichmann that he would have been "not only a scoundrel, but a despicable pig" if he hadn't carried out Hitler's orders. Lenny wrote a piece for the Realist, "Letter From a Soldier's Wife" — namely, Mrs. Eichmann — pleading for compassion to spare her husband's life.

Lenny was writing an autobiography — "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People" — which Playboy planned to serialize, then publish as a book, and Hugh Hefner hired me as his editor. We met in Atlantic City. At a certain point he was acting paranoid and demanded that I take a lie-detector test — and I was paranoid enough to take him literally. I couldn't work with him if he didn't trust me.

We got into an argument, and I left. He sent a telegram that sounded like we were on the verge of divorce — "WHY CAN'T IT BE THE WAY IT USED TO BE?" he wrote. I agreed to try again, and in 1962 I flew to Chicago.

Lenny was performing at the Gate of Horn. He was asking the whole audience to take a lie-detector test.

He asked, "Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them? Hiroshima auf Wiedersehen. If we would have lost the war, they would have strung Truman up ...  Jim. And Truman said they'd do it again. That's what they should have the same day as Remember Pearl Harbor. Play them in unison.'"

Lenny was arrested for obscenity that night. The cops also broke open Lenny's candy bars, looking for drugs. And the club's liquor license was suspended. Since he often talked onstage about his environment, and since police cars and courtrooms had become his environment, the content of Lenny's performances began to revolve more and more around the inequities of the legal system.

"In the Halls of Justice," he declared, "the only justice is in the halls." But he also said, "I love the law." Instead of an unabridged dictionary, he now carried law books in his suitcase. His room was cluttered with tapes, transcripts. photostats, law journals, legal briefs.

In less than two years, Lenny was arrested 15 times. Club owners were afraid to book him. He couldn't get a gig in six months. On a Christmas day, he was alone in his hotel room, and I brought him a $500 bill. With a large safety pin, he attached it to his denim jacket.

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On Oct. 13, 1965 (Lenny's 40th birthday), instead of surrendering to the authorities in New York, he filed suit at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco to keep out of prison, and he got himself officially declared a pauper. Two months before his death in 1966, Lenny wrote to me: "I'm still working on the bust of the government of New York State." He included his doodle of Christ nailed to a crucifix, with a speech balloon asking, "Where the hell is the ACLU?"

After he died, at a seance his mother brought his old faded denim jacket. That large safety pin was still attached to it. And at the funeral his sound engineer friend dropped Lenny's microphone into his grave before the dirt was piled on. Lenny's problem had been that he wanted to talk on stage with the same freedom that he had in his living room. That problem doesn't happen to stand-up comedians anymore.

Paul Krassner is the author of "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture."

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