Every art form has its share of pioneers who challenge the conventions of the medium in hopes of starting something fresh. With film, it was Orson Welles. For stand-up comedy, the traditions we take for granted today can be traced back to the late, great Lenny Bruce. He transformed stand-up into a serious art form worthy of praise. Today he would have been 90. Defying the customs of comedy, he presented an act that touched on topics like racism, politics, sex, and drugs. This shocking thematic departure paired with controversial language ignited a national dialogue on the nature of free speech. It was this type of boundary-breaking comedy that ignited the fire in future comics like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and countless others. Today would have been Bruce’s ninetieth birthday; he is still just as relevant to stand-up.
In 1946, Bruce began to pursue stand-up, a medium that he would revolutionize in a few years. Before coming to national attention, he performed at clubs and burlesque shows along the East Coast, opening for strippers and intoxicated crowds. It was during these years that he began to experiment with lewd language and controversial topics. He first achieved notoriety after winning Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which was a popular television show at the time. As his career began to take off, he entered the 1950s with an act that helped fuel the social revolutions that were taking place. With the Beat Generation at its prime, Bruce offered a sobering voice to country on the verge of great change. By the mid-50s, he was performing a brand of comedy that assaulted the conventions of the medium. He sparked anger in religious groups and began to catch the eye of law enforcement. One evening in 1961 after performing at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, Bruce was arrested for obscenity. Police officers who were attending the evening’s show were not pleased by the comic’s usage of words like “cocksucker.” Instances such as this became more common for the comedian, and as a result he was booked less at clubs across the country as well as taking on the financial burden to defend himself against accusations and lawsuits, with the opportunity for work becoming increasingly sparse. This brought on further drug abuse which made for a lethal combination. His life ended tragically in 1966 from a drug overdose, but not without paving the way for numerous comedians after him.
What makes Lenny Bruce’s legacy so unique is that he not only had a deep effect on stand-up, but also the first amendment. He made America re-evaluate what it means to be a truly free nation. For stand-up comedy, he was the first comedian to talk about the harsh realities of life in an open and free manner. This alone paved the way for modern stand-up, where so many comics talk about how they digest the world. In 2004, Comedy Central named Bruce the third greatest comedian of all time behind Richard Pryor and George Carlin, which demonstrates how deep his influence runs. After his death, he inspired songs by Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, and Simon and Garfunkel. In the song “Lenny Bruce,” Bob Dylan penned the lyrics:
“They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules. He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools.”
He is also immortalized on the cover of The Beatles iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, joining the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, and Oscar Wilde. Following pressures from fellow comedians, Lenny Bruce earned a posthumous pardon from New York Governor George Pataki in 2003. If you’re a fan of stand-up comedy, you owe more than you think to Lenny Bruce.