A syndicated television nostalgia series, "Instant Recall," recently aired a show about Lenny Bruce. It's a timely idea, since the kind of language for which Bruce was arrested, convicted and made largely unemployable 25 years ago has now been found by most courts to be protected by the First Amendment.
Even before the verdicts in the Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew trials, such comedians as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay were using language that, in the time of Lenny Bruce, would have landed them in a courtroom where an undercover cop -- as used to happen to Bruce -- would perform their acts from notes taken in the dark and with no sense of timing.
Unlike nearly all the current conjugators of "dirty words," Bruce did not use such words for shock value or to titillate. "I use them," he said, "when they fit the characters in my 'bits.' "
His "bits" were unlike those of any other performer -- except Richard Pryor -- before or since. Bruce delighted in exploring why certain words were forbidden -- and then demystifying them.
During one arrest in San Francisco, an earnest police sergeant who was disturbed by a word -- about a form of sexual pleasure -- that Bruce had used in his act, said: "I can't see any way you can say this word in public. Our society is not geared to it."
"You break it down," said Bruce, "by talking about it."
He didn't give lectures in the nightclubs and theaters he worked. Bruce was an entertainer.He could make people laugh and roar, even as they themselves were his targets. He made fun of "politically correct" liberals long before the term came into existence.
Bruce worked with zooming manic energy and had learned to use the microphone as a multiply expressive instrument. He liked to entertain, but he also liked to make stinging moral points.
There was his "bit" about Christ and Moses returning to Earth and standing in the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Christ, looking toward the altar as the late cardinal Francis Spellman was officiating, says to Moses:
"We went through Spanish Harlem, and I saw 40 Puerto Ricans living in one room. What were they doing there when this man has a ring on worth $10,000?"
Some of the police brass didn't like that one, nor did the late Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan. "Once Bruce started criticizing about the church," a then assistant district attorney told me, "it was only a matter of time before he got busted."
And so he was in 1964 -- for using prohibitedsexual words in a New York club. Bruce was convicted and at the sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Richard Kuh, the prosecutor, demanded prison time for the defendant, because both during and after the trial, Bruce had shown "complete lack of any remorse whatever." The sentence was a year in prison -- stayed during his appeal.
From that point on, Bruce became a First Amendment scholar. When I'd visit him in the kind of Greenwich Village hotel that used to be called a fleabag, on every area of the room -- floor, chairs, beds, tables -- there were heaps of trial transcripts, law books and law journals.
Because of the New York conviction, his bookings had been drastically reduced. "The club owners," Bruce pointed out, "figure that if I've been busted in the most sophisticated city in the country, prosecutors will be waiting for me everywhere else. I've got to beat this New York rap."
And he devoutly believed that he would be redeemed by the First Amendment. He said it was inconceivable that a higher court would not recognize that he had been convicted for speech, speech alone and indeed serious speech. Sure he wanted to make people laugh, but his "bits" had other purposes too. "I am not a comedian," he said in one courtroom. "I'm Lenny Bruce."
When he did work in his last years, his act was almost entirely about his arrest and trials in various cities. He was very funny in telling about his failing career in the courts. Even some of his former prosecutors in the audience broke up.
Finally, Lenny Bruce was redeemed. In 1968 a New York appellate court reversed his public obscenity conviction; and two years later, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, affirmed the reversal. The First Amendment had come through, but rather late. Lenny Bruce had died in 1966 of an overdose of morphine.
His death was as disturbing to some as his life. The cemetery would not allow a public service to be held for fear of a demonstration that might, like his language, get out of bounds. So for the last time, Lenny Bruce was denied an audience.