By Noah Harper
The best comedy is often ephemeral, expertly managing to capture and crystallize a certain point of view from an exact moment in time. But as the years go on, we often lose that cultural and sociopolitical context that allows us to “get” the jokes, which is why comedy does not age well. Unlike with literature or film, this artistic medium relies on an involuntary reaction for its effectiveness—you can’t try to make yourself laugh. What remains when a comedian’s sense of humor is lost to time? It’s their achievements, the principles they stood for, the ideas behind their comedy that make them important. Lenny Bruce is a perfect example.
Comedians are hybrid philosopher-poets, wayward souls tasked with trying to distill life to its most absurd and striking elements. Great comedy means something beyond just being funny. Even when the humor aspect is long gone, the underlying ideas from a great joke’s investigation into cultural assumptions and social structures remain. What comedy says about society, about how people think, the absurd aspects of life, do not go away with time.
Brandeis’ Special Collections exhibit, “Introducing … Lenny Bruce!” pays tribute to the legacy of one such comedian, a man who made an immense contribution to civil freedoms through his comedy. The result of a purchase of hundreds of documents from Kitty Bruce, Lenny Bruce’s daughter, the exhibition showcases just a few highlights from the recently acquired archival collection documenting this groundbreaking figure from the 1950s and 1960s.
The exhibit, located on Goldfarb 2 in the library and open Monday through Friday during business hours and on display until July, is comprised of select primary documents, photographs and newspaper clippings from Bruce’s life. It is a small exhibition that provides a brief but detailed foray into the life and legacy of this notable comedian.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bruce’s comedy—as I was—you will not come away with a satisfying understanding of the man’s sense of humor. You will instead learn about who Bruce was as a person and gain a comprehensive understanding of his life and legacy.
Born Leonard Alfred Schneider on Oct. 13, 1925, in Mineola New York, “Lenny-Penny”—as he was called by his father—was heavily influenced by the fact that his mother did stand-up comedy. He joined the Navy when he was 16, serving in Africa and Italy during World War II, first performing stand-up for his shipmates. On display are Bruce’s Navy ID card, school certificate and a picture of him and his father from 1939, among other documents from his formative years.
There’s plenty of memorabilia from Bruce’s career as a comedian. In addition to performing stand-up, he was also a prolific writer. For example, on view is a magazine feature, “Pictures and caustic comics from his secret file” and a short-story collection, “Stamp Help Out! And other short stories” authored by Bruce.
He was known for his spontaneous, often rambling, risque comedy that broke the barriers of what was socially (and legally) acceptable for a comedian to say on stage. Hearing him is kind of like listening to spoken-word jazz: Improvisatory elements collide, compete and combine into ever-shifting jokes about a wide variety of subjects.
To get a sense of him as a performer, I found plenty of his comedy albums on YouTube and Spotify. For those who find those resources lacking, the Library’s Archives & Special Collections Department hosts a surfeit of audio materials from Bruce. It’s worth taking a moment to listen and hear what kind of comedian Bruce was.
He seems to conjure his comedy from thin air. In his “Carnegie Hall” performance, he gets distracted mid-joke by someone playing piano offstage, which then becomes its own material, and when he’s done playing around with that, he goes back and finishes his original joke about the Ku Klux Klan.
Even though the comedy seems to have come easily, it is evident that for Bruce, it was anything but. In a letter to his close friend Ralph Gleason, he writes, “I’ve decided that I’m completely corrupt. My whole act, my economic success, is wholly dependant on the existence of segregation, violence, crime and the other odious counterparts.” It is obvious that he felt a certain amount of guilt about the provocative material he used, but Bruce did not give himself enough credit. He used intentionally off-putting topics or sensitive issues, such as race, to skewer contemporary social structures, societal shortcomings and inadequacies. And people hated him for it.
There is a section of the exhibit, “Obscenity & the Law,” that features pictures of Bruce being arrested. Visible are his mugshot, a picture of Bruce behind bars and newspaper clippings from around the country, reporting on his legal troubles. Headlines include: “The Arrest of Lenny Bruce; California’s new smut law is tested,” “Profane comedy” and “Bruce Bombs in Chi; Also Arrested.” Labelled “the sick comedian,” the first time Bruce was arrested was at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco in 1961. It would not be the last.
His career, however, was short-lived. On Aug. 4, 1966, Bruce was found dead in his home, killed by an accidental heroin overdose. While part of his sporadic performance style might be attributed to his drug addiction, his comedy does seem to have been coming from his naturally vibrant personality. But still, the legal troubles did not help with his mental health. On the wall is a quote from Vincent Cuccia, the assistant district attorney from New York and one of Bruce’s prosecutors, saying, “We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy then murdered him … We used the law to kill him.”
Bruce’s main issue with authorities was over the censorship of his routines, which he decried, saying, “Censorship is unconstitutional according to the First Amendment. I’m a soldier fighting for the Constitution.” He also approached his argument from a more philosophical perspective: “If God created the Body, and the Body is dirty, then the fault lies with the Manufacturer.” As his infamy grew, Bruce ended up being blacklisted from almost every major club in the country.
It is the depiction of Bruce’s private life in the exhibition that is the most compelling. There is a case featuring candid photographs of the comedian, different depictions of him in his most off-guard moments, shaving, reading or walking on the beach. There is a certain weariness apparent in his eyes, and a lonesomeness too—like he knows he is in a battle he cannot win, and that it is going to destroy him.
In the section dedicated to depicting Bruce and his family, we can read of Bruce’s most personal letters in the exhibit: “Dear Father: Why? What happened to Lenny-Penny? … Why couldn’t we relate? Endless restless nights staring at hotel doors that stare back … The restlessness I feel is involved with the guitlts [sic] I have for rejecting my creator my father. I do love you.”
Bruce left behind an American legal legacy of championing free speech. He paved the way for generations of comedians after him, liberating them to describe the world how they saw fit, thereby ensuring that their speech was constitutionally protected. By mocking dominant social structures and flouting authority, however, Bruce may have sealed his fate. But he seemed to have been sacrificing himself for something he believed in.
“Introducing … Lenny Bruce!” is worth visiting because it effectively memorializes the often-overlooked aspects of the comedian. While comedy-lite, we get an excellent understanding of him as a person. The comedian faced many obstacles: court cases, being blacklisted, substance abuse, tense relations with his father, but still, until his death, he persisted in speaking his mind. He continued to champion First Amendment rights, to stick up for what he believed in and to tell things how he saw them. Despite all odds, Lenny Bruce was not afraid.