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The free speech education of Lenny Bruce

The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, Ronald K.L. Collins & David M. Skover, Sourcebooks Inc.: 546 pp., $29.95

October 27, 2002|Paul Krassner | Paul Krassner is the author of "Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities." He is working on a novel inspired by his association with Lenny Bruce.

I originally met Lenny Bruce in 1959 at the Hotel America in New York. He was scheduled to perform at a midnight show at Town Hall. I had already published an interview with him in The Realist that was conducted by mail, and now I handed him the succeeding issue, which featured an interview with psychologist Albert Ellis, including a discussion of the semantics of profanity. The problem words were spelled out rather than using asterisks or dashes, as was the practice in mainstream media. Bruce had been resorting to euphemisms on stage, and he was amazed that I could get away with it. "Are you telling me this is legal to sell on the newsstands?"

"Absolutely," I replied. "the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity is that it has to be material which appeals to your prurient interest." Bruce magically produced an unabridged dictionary from the suitcase on his bed, and he looked up the word "prurient."

"Itching," he mused, "what does that mean, that they can bust a novelty-store owner for selling itching powder along with the dribble glass and the whoopie cushion?"

I explained, "It's just their way of saying that something gets you horny." Bruce closed the dictionary, mock-clenching his jaw and nodding his head in affirmation of a new discovery: "So it's against the law to get you horny!"

We became friends and, a few years later, when Playboy planned to publish his autobiography, "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People," I was appointed his editor. There have been other books since, but "The Trials of Lenny Bruce," written by a pair of diligent attorneys, Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, is the first fully recorded history of Bruce's relationship with the 1st Amendment.

Compared to the traditional stand-up comics of the 1950s who told mysogynist jokes about their wives' cooking, driving and frigidity, Lenny Bruce was a cultural mutation. With empathetic irreverence, he would create mini-theatrical dialogues -- about racism, sexuality, nuclear testing, teachers' salaries, drug laws, abortion rights, organized religion -- peppered with improvised spoken-jazz riffs. He loved to play show-and-tell with his audiences. When Gary Cooper died, he brought the New York Daily News on stage to share a headline: "The Last Roundup!" And after he heard "Spanish Harlem" on the radio, he bought the record, came on stage with a phonograph and played it. "Listen to these lyrics," he said. "This is like a Puerto Rican 'Porgy & Bess.' "

When John F. Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960, a young unknown impressionist, Vaughn Meader, seized the opportunity. He began to comb his hair with a flamboyant pompadour that dipped across his forehead. He consciously regressed to the Boston accent that he had tried so hard to lose. And he produced a comedy album, "The First Family," that broke sales records and turned him into a star. A week after the assassination of JFK, Lenny Bruce kept his commitment to perform at the Village Theater on the Lower East Side. The country was still in a state of shock, and the atmosphere at the theater was especially tense. The entire audience was anticipating what Bruce would say about the assassination. He walked on stage and removed the microphone from its stand. When the applause for his entrance subsided, he just stood there for several seconds, milking the tension. "Whew!" he finally whistled into the microphone. "Vaughn Meader is screwed." Although Collins and Skover meticulously researched "The Trials of Lenny Bruce" -- finding the transcripts for each one of the trials took years -- one error via a secondhand source must be acknowledged here. Referring to Bruce's classic opening line at that post-assassination show, the authors incorrectly write: "With a paranoid fix on the jam-packed audience, he broke the silence: 'Don't shoot!' "

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