To rewrite a method that works and perform subversive material can be a booking nightmare. Lenny Bruce did it anyway. He used dirty humor to challenge the establishment and to tackle injustices. In the process, he became known as a “Sick Comic,” and branded as a “Counterculture Martyr,” losing in legal battles and performance opportunities for his satirical vulgarity, but the guy was also one of the biggest game changers.
In 1925, Leonard Alfred Schneider was born in the neighborhood of Mineola in Long Island, New York. At the age of five, his parents divorced. He ran away at 16 years old and joined the US Navy. By 1945, he was honorably discharged after performing a comedic bit for his comrades while in drag. The Navy was not a fan of his cross dressing ways and let him go.
Schneider returned home to New York to live with his mother. At 22, he started doing stand up in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He went through a couple of different stage names (which was common at the time) before settling on Lenny Bruce. He became a regular at Hanson’s Drugstore where his mother, Sally Marr, a retired stage performer, managed a few stand up comics. Marr actually helped her son get his first TV gig on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.
By 1953, the comic moved to California. He started working at strip clubs as an emcee. This allowed him the freedom to do material normally deemed too dirty and too loose for the comedy clubs at the time. He paid bills by writing impersonations for Al Bernie. 1957 proved to be a big year for Bruce. He started getting gigs at a new club, The Crescendo, playing the coveted upstairs room, The Interlude. In addition to club job, he sold a treatment to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he earned the position to host a tv show pilot. He also had his first appearance on the The Steve Allen Show, and to the surprise of his critics, he performed an all clean set.
In the beginning of Bruce’s career, his act overflowed with impressions and material in the way of the Catskills performers. He was even known to steal bits. His voice really developed once he moved out west. While there in the strip clubs, he was able to push boundaries and experiment. He began to ad lib and deliver jokes in a stream-of-consciousness. One of his main objectives was to try to get the band to laugh. In those days, the comedians were told by the club to not make the band break with laughter, but rock’n’roll was becoming encompassing culture of the youth. Entertaining a musician was actually considered to be quite hip. When older comedians and some of his contemporaries were upset by his improvisational style, Bruce responded, “I’ve done 30 minutes on The Steve Allen Show that I’ll never do again.” He created a complex act. It was unique and unreplicable.
Stylistically, he changed the way the jokes were told, and that evolved into changing the content of the punch. This led to a battle with censorship and several arrests over the language used in his bits. In 1961, he was arrested for saying the word, “c*cksucker.” Bruce broke all the rules, and for fear of the cops showing up, clubs slowly quit booking him.
Sadly, the comedian died without gaining the same notoriety of those whom he influenced such as Joan Rivers, George Carlin, and the founders of The Second City. He died of a drug overdose in 1966. Before he died, he penned a book, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. It chronicles his coming up in the stand up world, from schemes he ran with his ex-wife to the legal troubles to touring around the country. In 2003, the standup was pardoned by the New York governor, George Pataki. A clear sign that decades after his death, his work has made a difference.