Encore

He Fought the Law and the Law Won

Lenny Bruce's stand-up act -- A look back at the controversial comedian's 1964 obscentiy conviction

Wild-man comic Lenny Bruce never heard rap music, but his raunchy, freewheeling stand-up act shared rap's desperate insolence and brutally honest language. So it's sadly appropriate that the rap group 2 Live Crew's obscenity trial in Florida coincides with the anniversary of Bruce's obscenity conviction in New York on Nov. 4, 1964.

Bruce's Catholic jokes and scatological themes had made him familiar with courtrooms. He had beaten obscenity charges in San Francisco and Los Angeles and was appealing one in Chicago when he went on trial in New York. For six months scholars and critics testified for and against him. Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and nearly 100 others signed a petition comparing him with ''Swift, Rabelais, and Twain.'' But Bruce forfeited considerable public sympathy by saying in his act that Jackie Kennedy wasn't crawling out of the limousine to bring help when her husband was shot the year before, she was ''hauling ass to save her ass.''

On Nov. 4, atypically dressed in a suit and tie, Bruce unsuccessfully begged the three-judge panel to let him perform for the jury, citing 2,130 errors in the prossecution's transcript of his act. Unlike the thhee acquitted members of 2 Live Crew, Bruce was found guilty of ''obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure'' performances and later sentenced to four months in jail. In his dissenting opinion, Judge J. Creel noted that the vague ''community standards'' test for obscenity — which is still used — forced the trial courts to act as ''absolute monarchs.''

Shortly after his conviction, according to the 1971 biography Ladies and Gentlemen — LENNY BRUCE!! by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller, a naked Bruce fell 25 feet from a San Francisco hotel window. In the emergency room, he rallied his tongue for one of the last times, bombarding a nun with words she never heard in a convent. A doctor taped his mouth shut.

Bruce opened doors for the next generation of comics, including Joan Rivers and Woody Allen. But he himself performed only a few more times, and before his appeal of the New York conviction was decided, he died of a heroin overdose on Aug. 3, 1966.

Originally posted Nov 02, 1990 Published in issue #38 Nov 02, 1990 Order article reprints