Lenny Bruce is dead. Forty-years-dead. As of today, August 3, Lenny Bruce has been dead as long as he was alive. That’s when you know you’re really dead. Not that the erstwhile comedian turned free-speech martyr would notice. His death was incremental — his life was wrung out of him slowly, by the ham-fisted one-two of censorship and addiction. Perhaps he saw it coming, even hastened it, tired of hanging on the ropes as the courts pummeled him below the belt on obscenities charges.
Doing a blue act in a nightclub, who would’ve thunk? The notion is quaint by today’s standards and Bruce’s sacrifice is, in large part, the reason why subsequent stand-ups to hip-hop artists aren’t routinely busted for word-crimes. Perhaps it was the letter-count in Bruce’s act that was so offensive — he overshot the fabled four-letter standard by more than double:
“I was arrested for obscenity in San Francisco for using a ten-letter word which is sort of chic. I’m not going to repeat the word tonight. It starts with a ‘C,’” Bruce began in a courtroom-borne redux of his act subsequent to his arrest. He substituted the “offending” word with the phrase “blah-blah-blah” so as not to further rankle his oppressors when later performing at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.
The bit Bruce performed was an ersatz transcript of his trial with everyone from the judge to the district attorney and court bailiff finding an excuse to say “blah-blah-blah.” Since the word was allegedly verboten, it seemed they all got a thrill from repeating ad nauseam. As Bruce observed in the routine “Then I dug something – they sort of liked saying ‘blah-blah-blah’ because they said it a few extra times!”
I was in my late teens when I discovered Lenny Bruce. A misguided bookseller in my hometown of Petaluma had decided to curtail shoplifting by letting people simply “borrow” books until they cared to pay. This, of course, was during the early ‘90s when the Berlin Wall had just come down and political trash-talk momentarily mellowed to “don’t get mad, get glasnost.” We were all about to get rich off the Internet (which then-veep Al Gore had just invented) so why not give away books, drink wheat grass and eat activist ice cream? MTV had a generation convinced that some dude named Jesus Jones had ended the Cold War by singing “Right Here, Right Now” to CNN footage and a rose by any other name smelled like Teen Spirit. This was the calm before the storm, my friends.
At the time, I was on the road to completing my independent study in Beat Lit 101, in which Bruce’s name was frequently footnoted (see Bruce, Lenny: paths crossed in North Beach, Greenwich Village, etc.), so it was with a passing familiarity that I thumbed, then pocketed a used copy of The Essential Lenny Bruce. The tome was a collection of Bruce’s standup bits, transcribed and “unexpurgated,” as later editions of his recordings crowed on their covers. Of course, I was smitten — not just by his hilarious social commentary but by his legend. Having been kicked out of high school for staging an NC-17 interpretation of Dr. Strangelove (we’ll discuss this later), I had an affinity for those who suffered at the hands of censorship.
Thousands of fawning eulogies have been penned for Bruce, so I will refrain here. Suffice it to say, however, that it was something of a pyrrhic victory when in 2003, New York’s Governor George Pataki granted a posthumous pardon to Bruce who had been tried and convicted on a misdemeanor charges of “giving an obscene performance” in the Café Au Go-Go in 1964. He died of a morphine overdose before serving his four-month sentence at the workhouse.
“The posthumous pardon of Lenny Bruce is a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment,” the governor said. “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”
Three years later, as the war on terror continues its obscene churn of casualties and media pawns have proven that “news” is also a four-letter word, Bruce’s legacy is all the more important to remember. But let’s not observe a moment of silence for Lenny Bruce — silence is exactly what Bruce’s persecutors sought to achieve by busting him. Instead, I suggest we intone the three-syllable fig-leaf Bruce himself used to point to the simultaneous absurdity and power of words. All together now: BLAH-BLAH-BLAH!