Amidst all the commentary and talking-head punditry concerning the Duck Dynasty business of recent days, I’ve yet to read or hear spoken a name that always pops into my head when such controversies arise. That would be the legendary hipster junkie comic (or as Walter Winchell described him “vomic”), Lenny Bruce (1925-1966). Though while Lenny’s travails were notably different from Phil Robertson’s present trouble (which is not a First Amendment issue), it is interesting to note that the latter’s supporters are mostly conservatives, while the former garnered the support of the liberal cultural establishment of his day.
According to Albert Goldman’s celebrity biography Ladies and Gentleman: Lenny Bruce! (1974), during a nightclub engagement in 1960, Lenny (as he was known to all) spotted his friend Sammy Davis, Jr. and the basketball star Wilt Chamberlain taking in his standup routine at a stage-side table. Both sipped drinks and nonchalantly smoked cigarettes. Lenny stepped to the edge of the stage and addressed Chamberlain, whom he didn’t know: “Excuse me sir, can I get a smoke?” Chamberlain put a cigarette in his mouth, lit it, and handed it to Lenny. Lenny smiled and was about to put it in his mouth, when he got a look of faux-maniacal loathing on his face. He hunched over his microphone in a conspiratorial way, and whispered to the crowd: “He [n-word]-lipped it.” A second of dead silence. Then Davis and Chamberlain exploded in a spasm of laughter, followed by the audience. Today that incident would mean a big ratings boost for Al Sharpton on MSNBC. Not to mention that smoking itself is strictly verboten in posh metropolitan nightclubs. And I’m guessing that Chamberlain despite being a smoker was — unlike today’s NBA stars — refreshingly bereft of tattoos.
Born Leonard Schneider in Mineola, Long Island, New York in 1925, Lenny was the son of Myron Schneider and Sally Marr, a burlesque “comedienne.” He was a World War II Navy veteran who was dishonorably discharged for feigning homosexual inclinations. From there he honed his comedic skills in the Catskills Borscht Belt, and jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, Chicago, hipster Los Angeles, and beatnik-era San Francisco. He often opened for big named musicians of his day, and his improvisational comedy was influenced by what those musicians did themselves. Lenny was the hip jazz comedian whose comedy morphed from his Jewish Borscht Belt roots to explore American obsessions with religion, race, sex, and drugs. His sociological satire influenced a long list of comic talent including George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Robert Klein and Jerry Seinfeld. He appeared on television a few times (Steve Allen’s Tonight Show was a big fan), made four comedy albums, and with the help of Hugh Hefner and Paul Krassner wrote a book: How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (published posthumously in 1967).
Lenny’s womanizing was legendary and drug use extraordinary even by the standards of the postwar jazz milieu that he inhabited. Throughout his adult life he consumed prodigious amounts of heroin, morphine, cocaine, methedrine, Dilaudid, barbiturates, marijuana, etc., etc. This, of course, led to two sensational drug busts, court appearances, some abbreviated jail time, hospitalization, and death at 40 by morphine overdose at home in his Hollywood Hills bathroom in 1966. But above all, especially since his death, Lenny is the American Left’s canonized martyr for First Amendment rights. It was a heady time. Remember the Berkeley Free Speech movement? It was a sort of intellectual corollary to the civil rights movement, and spawned the model for the large public demonstrations prevalent in the ’60s in opposition to the Vietnam War.
This was also a pre-politically correct time when liberals actually cared about free speech, even defending the sort of take-no-prisoners vulgarity that Lenny spewed out nightly. But Lenny was a trailblazer, and liberals love trailblazers. One of his favorite targets was the Catholic Church. On his 1961 Carnegie Hall live album is a funny bit about Christ and Moses descending to Earth on an inspection tour to attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with Francis Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Fulton Sheen officiating. Sheen tells Spellman: “Don’t look in the back. They’re here.” Spellman: “Who’s here?” Christ and Moses stand out thanks to their bright halos, and Moses is “a deadringer for Charlton Heston.” The sketch ends uproariously with a parade of bell-ringing lepers wandering through the cathedral to Spellman and Sheen’s horror. This stuff seems tame today, but fifty years ago big city police departments were run by ethnic Catholics, who, after a call from the local chancery, were not amused. Lenny’s legal troubles resulted primarily from his sexually explicit material and his “blasphemous” religious comedy (though he was hard on Jew and Gentile alike). Devout Catholic district attorneys such as New York’s Frank Hogan made his life hell. Lenny lost his cabaret card and by 1965 relied on theater venues because he was barred from working in most nightclubs in the United States.
In mid-June, 1964, the Sunday New York Times ran a story on Lenny’s legal battles that was accompanied by a petition of support signed by over a hundred of New York’s notable cultural figures, including writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Lillian Hellman; actors such as Paul Newman and Theodore Bikel; musician Bob Dylan; free speech advocate Nat Hentoff; and nascent neo-conservative editors Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. It’s an impressive list.
But a list not possible in the Times today, certainly not in defense of a Bible-spouting redneck like Phil Robertson. Not only has the cultural pool become somewhat diluted, dumb, and nihilistic (and reflecting its media amplifiers), but the totalitarian impulse at the core of liberalism continues to develop in our time, as it sharpens its character assassination and muzzle-the-opposition skills. Unfortunately, the Al Sharptons and the GLAAD-Stalinists will be with us awhile. The martyrs are now the inquisitors.
Where’s Lenny when we need him?