No Laughing Matter

Lenny Bruce died for your sins. He died of his, too, taking a header onto the bathroom floor of his Hollywood home after shooting himself with a hotter load of heroin than his body could handle. But what really killed the comic was five years of harassment in which prosecutors in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities who objected to Bruce’s iconoclastic riffs on sex, segregation and the Catholic Church tried to destroy his career. When the end came in August 1966, Bruce was broke, unable to find work and seriously ill. The needle in his vein only did to the body what prosecutors had already done to poor Lenny Bruce’s spirit.

Part biography, part legal brief and part free-speech advocacy, “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” details the stand-up comic’s nightmare journey through the American legal system. Ronald Collins and David Skover are attorneys with extensive experience in constitutional law. They’re also capable of telling a legally complex story with fluidity and grace, guiding us through the maze of depositions, trials, appeals and legal challenges, and painting portraits of the major characters. The book also comes with a CD, narrated by journalist Nat Hentoff, that contains snippets of Bruce’s act, excerpts from secret tape-recordings Bruce made during his trials, and brief interviews with figures from the time, including Hugh Hefner, Paul Krassner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and George Carlin (who as an audience member was arrested at a Bruce show for refusing to show identification and, in essence, acting like George Carlin).

The Lenny Bruce story is full of absurdities and ironies. He started on the Arthur Godfrey show and at the Catskills resorts, but found his comedic home in the strip joints in a hidden corner of mainstream America, where he would do and say anything to get a laugh. He was safe from prosecution there, but became a target when his profile rose and he began appearing in the better clubs. Bruce was considered a threat, but his weapons were words considered so dangerous that vice cops, as many as four at a time, would stake out his performances, noting every use of an obscene word and then arresting him afterwards. The campaign to suppress him took on overtones of a vendetta, conducted slowly across the country as he tried to find work. Police would threaten to pull club owners’ licenses if they hired him. Some cities, like Detroit, simply banned his appearances.

And yet, his act was illegal in the same cities where records containing the exact same words could be openly sold. He was convicted of obscenity in New York City, the last place you’d expect it to happen. “What does it mean to be found obscene in New York?” Lenny asked. “If anyone is the first person to be found obscene in New York, he must feel utterly depraved.”

All in all, Bruce was arrested at least eight times for obscenity in four cities, appeared before eight state trial judges, involved more than 36 attorneys and uncountable numbers of police officers — their frequent appearance, sitting stone-faced in the back and writing in notebooks became one of Bruce’s running gags. All of this effort and taxpayer money, spent on prosecuting misdemeanor crimes under laws that were constitutionally suspect.

It started with the Supreme Court, whose 1957 decision in Roth vs. United States tried to define obscenity as works “without socially redeeming importance.” Roth also set down a four-part formula to determine obscenity: whether to the average person, apply contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appears to prurient interest.

“Taken as a whole.” Four simple words that became impregnated with meaning in legal terms. They meant that standing on the stage and saying dirty words should get you busted for obscenity, but saying dirty words in a socially redeeming way should not. Unfortunately for Bruce, who used four, five and even ten-letter words while mocking the hypocrisies of civil and religious authorities, that formula was rarely fully applied.

There is another irony. Five years of struggle ended in nothing so far as Bruce and the law are concerned. Death ended his legal challenges. “In the world of the law,” the authors wrote, “his life and legal struggles are nothing; it is as if he never existed.”

But socially, Bruce had an enormous impact. His death served as an example and warning of what happens when legal authority runs unchecked. Bruce was resurrected as a free-speech hero, immortalized in plays, documentaries and Dustin Hoffman portrayed him in the Bob Fosse movie “Lenny.” The comics who followed in his footsteps were inspired to move further into talking about sex, race, religion and power. It’s no exaggeration to say that there would have been no George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams or Margaret Cho without Lenny Bruce. There also would be no Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Adam Sandler or Tom Green. Some would consider this a mixed blessing.

And the struggle to keep speech free continues. College campuses attempt to set up “free speech zones” and prosecute “hate speech” that is considered hurtful to minorities, women or any other group. Banning books, even classics like “Huckleberry Finn,” are still a regular occurrence. “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” serves as a history, but also as a warning as to the ease in which free speech can be suppressed.