Leonard Alfred Schneider was born on this date in 1925.
You probably never heard of him, but maybe you’ve heard of Lenny Bruce. He was once known as “America’s dirtiest comic.”
It is not easy to talk dirty. Many people try and fall flat. The trick is to do it and still stay cool, not come off as crude and juvenile. It’s a very subtle thing and the first master of this art was Lenny Bruce.
Before George Carlin could be George Carlin or Richard Pyror could really let loose with his raucous comedy, Lenny was out there making the world safe for “sick” humor. He paved the way for those guys and many others. If it hadn’t been Lenny, someone else surely would have blazed the trail. Yet, Lenny was the man, and there is hardly a comedian or satirist around today who doesn’t owe him a lot.
When Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s Kramer) had his infamous incident with the N-word at the Laugh Factory, I bet he was thinking about Lenny. It’s a reasonable assumption. Richards is of a certain age and of a liberal bent (I don’t think he’s racist) and no doubt very familiar with Lenny’s work. He probably thought, maybe I can pull-off a Lenny Bruce kind of thing here. Because Lenny did stuff like that. Only Lenny was making a statement, not merely reacting to a heckler.
One time Lenny Bruce used the N-word 22 times in short piece of shtick that lasted about 30 seconds. He said at the end of the routine, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”
In hindsight, I am not sure that line of reasoning has proved valid. We have used the N-word ad nauseam and nothing has changed. It still hurts people. But Lenny’s heart was in the right place and a lot of the other blows he struck against the status quo were solid punches.
At the same time, it’s naive to think that his primary motivation was to change the world and the First Amendment. Lenny used “dirty” words to attract attention, get chicks, get drugs and make money. Probably in that order. Social criticism was more or less a by-product of the route Lenny had to take. That’s not to say, though, that he didn’t believe in what he was doing.
Lenny Bruce was arrested four times for obscenity between 1961 and 1964. Fighting his legal battles became such an obsession with him that it contributed to his destruction, or rather his self-destruction.
There’s a wonderful quote on the back of the great Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller biography, Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!:
George Carlin once said, “He was really a force for exposing hypocrisy . . . he prefigured the free-speech movement and helped push the culture forward into the light of open and honest expression.”
Bob Dylan wrote, “Lenny Bruce was bad. He was the brother that you never had.”
I wrote the following poem in 1971. Lenny had been dead for over five years but I was just getting into him.
what a schmuck
haunted by honeyed nymphs
and sexless judges
he fell off the toilet
with a needle in his arm
busted for the final time
how to talk dirty
and end up lying on the bathroom tile
murdered by the american dream
just because you believed
in the freedom of words
in the future
history will remember lenny
as a famous english teacher
and students will learn to recite
his immortal words on grammer:
“to is a preposition,
come is a verb”