15 May 2023
Recording of the week: Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)
Many of you will have seen a fictionalised version of comedian Lenny Bruce in the streamed comedy-drama The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Although the series has no pretensions to documentary accuracy, actor Luke Kirby has clearly done his research. He gives an impressively convincing and charismatic performance.
Working in the late 1950s to the mid-60s, the real Lenny Bruce was one of the most influential stand-up comedians in US history. His discursive style, based on semi-improvised routines, was a hip and exciting contrast to the tired format of traditional jokes with corny punchlines.
In the liner notes to the LP The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, jazz critic Ralph Gleason drew parallels between Bruce’s approach to comedy, and jazz:
He is colossally irreverent - like a jazz musician. His stock in trade is to violate all the taboos out loud and to say things on stage which would get your nose bashed in at a party. But his outrage at society is not represented by shrill screams or loud protests. He does not pose. His is a moral outrage and has about it the air of a jazz man. It is strong stuff - like jazz, and it is akin to the point of view of Nelson Algren and Lawrence Ferlinghetti as well as to Charlie Parker and Lester Young.
But Bruce’s stance did not go unnoticed. In 1960s America, the establishment was in no mood to take a challenge lightly. If provoked, it would strike back. Bruce’s nightclub act, which dealt candidly with sex, drugs, politics, religion and race relations, began to attract police attention. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, up to his premature death in 1966, Bruce faced a relentless string of arrests and subsequent court proceedings, mainly for ‘obscenity’.
The first of these court appearances occurred in 1962, in San Francisco. In his defence, Bruce played a tape of his nightclub act, demonstrating the context surrounding his use of ‘obscene’ language. The judge was asked if those in the courtroom could be allowed to ‘respond naturally', i.e., to laugh, but the judge would allow no such thing, saying, ‘This is not a theatre and it is not a show’. Bruce was acquitted nonetheless.
Bruce subsequently issued the recording played in court as a 10” disc on his own label. The cover featured Bruce dressed as a policeman, and the following notice:
SALE OF THIS ALBUM MAY SUBJECT SELLER TO ARREST FOR VIOLATION OF THE ENDEMIC OBSCENITY LAWS; THE SOLE EXCEPTION BEING SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA (WHERE THE COMMUNITY STANDARDS MAY BE LOWER).
Here is a short excerpt from that recording, which was made at San Fransisco Jazz Workshop on 2 October 1961.
Listen to Lenny Bruce live in 1961
Download Lenny Bruce transcript
It is a measure of how times change that the sexual swearwords or expressions that saw Bruce arrested multiple times for obscenity would pass unremarked upon today, at least in a comedy context.
In contrast, Bruce’s use of various disparaging terms for ethnic minorities, disabled people and homosexuals would be highly likely to outrage many contemporary audiences. While it is an argument unlikely to persuade many today, Bruce maintained that the casual use of these terms could deprive them of their power to wound.
For those who would like to explore further we have digitised and made available online a number of Lenny Bruce shows recorded by Cecil Spiller in 1957-58. From available evidence, the venue for most of the recordings is thought to be the Peacock Lane nightclub, Los Angeles, USA. Please bear in mind that some of the language may offend.
Today’s post was written by Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.
With thanks to Kitty Bruce for granting permission to make these recordings available online.