October 13, 1930 – Lenny Bruce:
“Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government’.“
He was one of the first outspoken straight allies of the LGBTQ community. Bruce was a standup comedian, social critic, and truly great satirist. He is best known for his free-style, vulgar comedy, taking shots at politics, religion, and sex. He was arrested several times for obscenity. His most famous arrest was when he defended the civil rights of a gay teacher, who was fired for his sexual orientation. He served in the Navy during World War II and in May 1945, after a performance for his shipmates in which he dressed in drag, he was kicked out of the military and given a dishonorable discharge for being gay. Since he had not admitted to or been found guilty of any breach of naval regulations, his discharge was changed to honorable by reason of unsuitability for the naval service.
He was born Leonard Alfred Schneider. His parents divorced before he was 10 years old, and he lived with various relatives over the next decade. His British-born father was a shoe clerk, and the two hardly ever saw each other. Bruce’s mother was Sally Marr (born Sadie Kitchenberg), a performer and had an enormous influence on Bruce’s career.
Marr started out in showbiz as a dancer. She had a nightclub act where she impersonated movie stars and told jokes. After World War II, her son launched his own career in stand-up comedy, imitating his mother and then developing his own routines, many of which dealt with his life with his mother.
Joan Rivers, who was influenced by the comedy of Bruce, co-wrote and starred in the play Sally Marr…and Her Escorts, a play “suggested by the life of Sally Marr” and featuring the voice of Young Bruce. The play ran on Broadway for 55 performances in 1994. Rivers was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Sally Marr.
In 1989, Marr wrote:
“People are always saying that everything in comedy stems from Lenny — that everything touches him. What can I tell you? He took after me!“
Marr was as a talent spotter. She discovered Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin, Pat Morita, and Sam Kinison. Marr took her final bow in 1997, just two weeks before her 91st birthday.
Bruce was roommates with fellow comic Buddy Hackett in the 1950s. They appeared on the Patrice Munsel Show (1957–1958), calling themselves the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”, 20 years before the cast of Saturday Night Live.
In 1957, Bruce did a gig where he was fired the first night for what Variety ran a headline about his “blue material”. “Blue” comedy is an old timey term for material that is risqué, indecent or profane, mostly about sex, that might shock and offend some audience members. “Working blue” refers to the act of using certain words and discussing things that people do not discuss in “polite society”.
Bruce’s first solo was The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1959). He released four albums of original material with rants, comic routines, and satirical interviews on the themes that made him famous: Jazz, moral philosophy, politics, patriotism, religion, law, race, abortion, drugs, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jewishness.
Bruce was essentially blacklisted from television, and when he did appear, it was thanks to sympathetic fans like Hugh Hefner and Steve Allen. Jokes had to be typed out and pre-approved by network officials. On his debut on Allen’s show, Bruce made an unscripted comment on the recent marriage of Elizabeth Taylor to Eddie Fisher, wondering: “Will Elizabeth Taylor become bar mitzvahed?”.
Bruce wrote an memoir that was serialized in Playboy in 1964 and 1965, and later published as the book How To Talk Dirty And Influence People.
On August 3, 1966, Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home. The official photo, taken at the scene, shows Bruce lying naked on the floor, a syringe and burned bottle cap nearby, along with various other drug paraphernalia. Crazy music producer Phil Spector, a friend of Bruce, bought the negatives of the photographs to keep them from the press. The official cause of death was “acute morphine poisoning caused by an overdose.”
An unconventional memorial two weeks later was controversial enough to keep his name in the spotlight. Over 500 people came to the service to pay their respects, led by Spector. Cemetery officials had tried to block the ceremony after advertisements for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches and noisemakers. Playboy eulogized Bruce with:
“One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That’s obscene“.
Bruce is the subject of the film Lenny (1974), directed by Bob Fosse, starring Dustin Hoffman, in an Academy Award-nominated role. The film is based on the 1972 Broadway play of the same name written by Julian Barry and starring Cliff Gorman who won a Tony Award. A fictionalized film version of Lenny is a major plot point in Fosse’s 1979 Academy Award-nominated All That Jazz (1979); Gorman again plays the role of the famous comic.
His 1964 conviction in an obscenity trial (for using the word cocksucker; in San Francisco no less) was followed by a posthumous pardon, the first in the history of New York state, by then-Governor George Pataki in 2003. His trial for obscenity is seen as a landmark for freedom of speech in the United States of America.
Bruce had a serious drug habit which became part of his act, including this zinger:
”I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”
”I’m not a comedian. And I’m not sick. The world is sick, and I’m the doctor. I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values.”
A version of Bruce is played by Luke Kirby on the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Kirby won an Emmy Award for his work on the show in 2019.