Warning: The man of whom you are about to read once offended many, and his words continue to do so today.
Lenny Bruce died for our sins.
Okay, it’s just a joke.
Still, the uninhibited comedian’s legacy did have its redemptive side. After he died, fifty years ago today, no comedian was ever again prosecuted for word crimes uttered in a comedy club. By that cultural measure, Lenny Bruce became the patron saint of standup comedians who freely mock those who trade in hypocrisy.
Before there was Larry David, Penn Jillette, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampanelli, Chris Rock, or George Carlin, there was Lenny Bruce. He was the quintessential take-no-prisoners comedian. His comedic fare was robust; his style avant-garde; his method crude-blue; and his message upset some and delighted others. Did he shock? – yes. Did he offend? – yes. And was he funny? – yes, outrageously so, at least at his best moments. It’s all in a new documentary titled Can We Take a Joke?
Taboo: That was his off-limits destination. En route he tore into hypocrisy with buzz-saw vigor. No matter the subject – race, religion, politics, or sex – Bruce gave no dime to the Sunday-pious crowd. But when one deals in the forbidden, when one mocks the righteous, and when one does so with razor-cutting humor, there are consequences.
Lenny Bruce was prosecuted for obscenity in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for his comedy club bits. At great professional and financial cost, he was nonetheless exonerated in all of the cases except the one in New York. By the time the New York club owner (Bruce’s co-defendant) successfully appealed his conviction, Lenny was dead (broke, and with a needle spiked in his arm). He died a convicted comedian – the last one in our history.
December 23, 2003. On that day New York Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned Lenny Bruce. “Freedom of speech,” he declared, “is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”
The people who must never have power are the humorless. — Christopher Hitchins
Have we remembered that “reminder”? Yes, and no.
On the one hand, we now enjoy an almost unprecedented degree of free-speech freedom. It is our American badge of liberty — that willingness to tolerate that with which we disagree. On the other hand, anything deemed offensive is today banned on many college campuses. The trend is to create “safe zones” where students are protected from ideas or words that might upset them.
At Clemson University, unwelcome “verbal . . . conduct of a sexual nature” constitutes “sexual harassment.” This definition includes a vast amount of protected speech such as a joke or comment that any student subjectively finds to be offensive.
At Clark University, its Code of Student Conduct prohibits “telling jokes based on a stereotype.” Of course, that is something Lenny Bruce often did in order to combat the kind of prejudice lurking behind offensive stereotyping.
Grinnell College bans “bias-motivated incidents,” which include “an expression of hostility against a person, group, or property thereof because of such person’s (or group’s) . . . religion . . .” By that measure, Bruce’s irreverent “Religions Incorporated” and “Christ and Moses” routines could be banned at Grinnell.
Florida State University’s “A Summons to Responsible Freedom” defines “Sexual Misconduct” to include “unwanted [or] unwelcome . . . sexual or gender-based . . . comments.” By that punitive gauge there is much in Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1992, reissued 2016) that would catch the censorial eye.
And then there is the capper: Northeastern University’s acceptable use policy, which prohibits the electronic transmission of any material “which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive.” Lenny Bruce’s prosecutors used much the same subjective yardstick to indict him. If “Saint Lenny” were alive, he would have a devil of a time ripping into campus such speech codes, the ones that cabin the mind in solitary confinement.
When Bruce was posthumously pardoned, the comedian Tom Smothers said: “So many of us today owe so much to Lenny Bruce.” Indeed. Regrettably, it is a debt still owed on far too many campuses across this land. No joke!