Comedy and the First Amendment: A Look at Lenny Bruce at the National Comedy Center
August 3, 2018 Andrew Buss Features, Lenny Bruce
This weekend is the grand opening of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY. Over the course of the next few days we will be delivering dispatches from the center including panel discussions, exhibits, and showcases.
The legacy of Lenny Bruce is unmatched. When you see a list of the greatest and most influential comedians of all time, towards the top is always Lenny. It’s gotten to the point where he’s almost become more like lore. The whole reason he started wearing the trench coat onstage is because he knew there was a good chance he’d get arrested and they wouldn’t let him go get it. People know that story. People know Lenny. He’s a being that hangs over us all.
And here we are, still talking about Lenny Bruce and his fight for the First Amendment. On August 1st, The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY unveiled its Lenny Bruce exhibit, with the ribbon cut by Lenny’s daughter, Kitty. Afterwards, Kitty, First Amendment lawyer Paul Cambria, and Lewis Black talked about Lenny and the First Amendment on panel moderated by “History of Comedy” producer Stephen Morrison.
“What people don’t understand sometimes is that I can’t violate your first amendment,” says Paul Cambria, who is a famed First Amendment lawyer and probably best remembered for his work on the Larry Flynt case. “It protects you against the government. The Bill of Rights protects you against the government. Not person to person.”
He continues “That’s what that Amendment was designed to do. To allow the people to not be punished for diverse thoughts or thoughts that may not be popular or thoughts that may even be hateful. But nevertheless are protected. And not only that, the Amendment also covers freedom of religion, and also the separation of religion from government.”
Lewis Black is a lifelong fan of Lenny Bruce. He is completely devoted in this. It all began as a young kid. “The first thing was I read the book and listened to his stuff,” Lewis tells the panel. “And I thought as a comic, which I really wasn’t thinking I’d be a comic but I was doing stand up from time to time. And I knew I couldn’t listen to a lot of it because I just would want to be him. And that was a big fucking mistake. You just don’t do that and I realized that would become my persona.”
Lenny Bruce certainly has become the one to be admired, the comedian that all other comics would love to be. There is something about that edge to him, standing right there and staring the conventions directly in the face that is just so enticing.
“He spoke to me so directly on so many different levels,” Lewis continues, “and going after things that are nothing now to us, but at the time, like the Church. Which is still like… the Church. And he did this bit where Christ and Moses are wandering down St. Patrick’s cathedral, they go through Spanish Harlem and he just tells this story. And by the end of it, I’m laughing, crying. And it’s like “Wow. I can’t believe he’s saying this in public.”
Kitty Bruce, the only daughter of Lenny Bruce and Honey Bruce Friedman, is on hand at the event. But the event isn’t about talking about growing up with Lenny. She is here to tell us about what happened from someone who has the best understanding of his legacy possible.
“It was a transition,” Bruce says of his comedy. “There were different levels that my father went through. First it was a “ha-ha-ha”. You had to repeat a joke every 15 minutes and it had to get a laugh every 15 minutes. But when he came home from the Second World War… And there were black soldiers there spilling their blood, just like the white guys. And then he comes home and the same guy that they fought with can’t sit down at a counter. “No blacks.” They had a different water fountain. And he couldn’t believe first of all that it was happening and second of all how unjust it was.”
A lot of these social convictions of the times are things that Lenny Bruce would go on to take issue with and talk about onstage. And as pointed out in the panel, he wasn’t out there fighting the social standards head on (that would come later at the Supreme Court), he was simply lamenting about them to a crowd of 200 like-minded people in a night club. People that came to see him. And he still was getting in trouble for what he was saying and the words he was using. He couldn’t stop getting arrested just for doing his act onstage.
The thing that is so cool about this event, as pointed out by his daughter Kitty Bruce, is the fact that it is happening in the state of New York. The same New York that Lenny Bruce grew up in. The same New York that Lenny Bruce was arrested in 1964. The same New York that conspired against Lenny Bruce and convicted him to merely prove a point. And the same New York that pardoned Lenny Bruce posthumously in 2003.
“Here’s the thing. The same state of which we are in right now brought charges against my father and who were convicting him. And then here’s the beauty of it. The same state in 2003, Governor George Pataki pardons my father. So now the outcome is overturned. And by the way, the pardon is in the National Comedy Center.”
She continues: “And here’s the capper. There’s a comedy center in the same state getting all of this head-nodding. So he’s still talking and he’s still here. And in the end, they still can’t shut him up.”
Lenny Bruce’s exhibit, which includes his trench coat, his typewriter, and a collection of his writings can be seen in the Blue Room at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY. Tickets can be purchased at the National Comedy Center’s website.