The man who died from “an overdose of police”

Heard the one about the comedian whom the police seemed duty-bound to keep arresting whenever he swore on stage? Just thinking of such a scenario seems utterly incredible in our times. For all the complaints about political correctness and how We Can’t Say Anything in This PC Age, the truth is that speech today is considerably freer than many realize. It is certainly freer for stand-up comics than it used to be.

Although he would not live to enjoy the much more liberated environment for stand-ups, Lenny Bruce (1925-66), who died fifty years ago today, ensured, arguably more than any other comedian, that no other stand-up would have to fear having their collars felt.

Lenny Bruce developed his act in the 1950s as a relatively unspectacular comedian who was compering for acts in a strip club. Because the audiences were relatively small it allowed him to develop his material and push boundaries, and when he and his wife Honey split up in 1959 he felt able to be even more creative. This creativity led him to take his act to areas hitherto largely untouched by comics, such as war, politics, sex, the law, and religion – particularly religion, as exemplified in this excerpt from a live routine:

Christ and Moses both possessed humility. Why? Wisdom, that’s it. Anybody who is secure, there’s never any hostility, because he’s cool. Anybody who is above you, even… So they’d just stand at the back of St Patrick’s, and they’d listen, look around. Cardinal Spelman would be relating love and giving and forgiveness to the people, and Christ would be confused, because their route took them through Spanish Harlem, and they would wonder what 40 Puerto Ricans were doing living in one room, when this guy had a ring on that was worth $8grand…

Bruce’s live routines (and they were mostly live: he made exactly six televised appearances in his entire life) consisted mainly of his highlighting the hypocrisies in American society. It was a revolutionary approach to comedy: it may well be the case that Bruce thus invented modern stand-up comedy as we know it. It was certainly his making and unmaking, as the problem with being an iconoclast is that the icons in question can react, and strongly. Following a 1961 performance in New Jersey, the police swooped on Bruce’s hotel room and charged him with possession of narcotics – even though they had no evidence for the charge (Bruce did have drugs, but they were prescription ones). The judge demanded a payoff from Bruce, but he refused, and took his story to the papers.

Thereafter, the relationship between the law and the comedian would be a cat-and-mouse one in which magistrates and officers would fall over themselves in searching for something to charge him with – in much the same way that the British establishment tried in the summer of 1963 to find some way of convicting Stephen Ward in order to draw the heat off them in the wake of the Profumo Scandal.

In October 1961 Bruce was arrested after a gig in San Francisco, the reason for which centred on his use of an offensive ten-letter, three-syllable word in one of his routines. Among other things, the case served to give him fresh material, as he would regale his audiences with details of the court proceedings. He explained to the punters that as he wanted to finish his slot without being busted he would have to censor the word for which he had been arrested: cue the famous ‘Your Honour! He said “blah-blah-blah”!‘ routine, in which he suggested that the prosecutors in court seemed to enjoy saying the phrase “blah-blah-blah”!

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)
Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)

The various police cases against Bruce in the coming years would similarly entail the reporting of swear-words that he had used in his stand-up act, only taken wildly out of context. As Bruce himself later commented, ‘I’m being busted for the way these guys are doing my act!‘ An appearance at Peter Cook’s legendary Establishment club in London’s Soho area later led to Bruce’s deportation from Britain, and concurrent classification as an “undesirable alien”. He was also made the subject of lifetime bans from Canada and Australia.

Back in the States, Bruce’s legal troubles continued, culminating in his November 1964 trial for obscenity, after a six-month trial in which he received petitions of support from his many supporters, including Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, and Norman Mailer. As it increasingly transpired that Bruce would be convicted, he made a desperate plea to the judge:

Please don’t finish me off in showbusiness. Don’t lock up these words.

Bruce was sentenced to a four-month stint in a workhouse, but was freed on bail pending an appeal, the outcome of which he would not live to see. He died of a morphine overdose at his Los Angeles home on August 3 1966. His friends and admirers at the time, however, were more perceptive, with one of them stating that he had died of an overdose of police. The pressures of constantly defending himself in and out of the courts, with prosecution followed by appeal and vice versa from one state to another, ultimately proved too much. Essentially, what happened was that the authorities sued him to death. The resulting bad publicity led to fewer and fewer clubs being prepared to hire him.

At least today there is no chance of a stand-up comedian (at least in the Western world) being legally persecuted for things said in a live situation. As the comic Ray Peacock explained in a recent documentary about Bruce:

You know there will definitely be no repercussions, definitely not, come what me. If you were broadcasting on the BBC, potentially there could be, or broadcasting anywhere, potentially there could be, but on a stand-up stage on any given night, you wouldn’t get arrested unless you brought a gun…. [Lenny Bruce] didn’t pull any punches with it; he was told to shut up, and didn’t.

The ironies surrounding Bruce and his career continue to pile up. The powers that be tried and hoped to suppress him because they disapproved of what he was saying. Fifty years after his death, the stand-up comedy industry is continuing to grow and grow, with some comics using even more outrageous material. Bruce’s reputation and legend have grown over the years, with performers such as George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Stewart Lee, Eddie Izzard, Denis Leary, Jerry Sadowitz, John Belushi, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and Frankie Boyle citing him as an influence. As for the issue of offence and taste, Dick Schaap in Playboy magazine offered the following eulogy:

One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At 40. That’s obscene.