Was Lenny Bruce funny? Even on his comedy albums of the ’60s (I had just about all of them and knew several by heart — I thought he was deep), the laughs are few and far between.
Then he became a celebrity as a result of his prosecutions for obscenity and came to fancy himself something of a social critic and philosopher. The laughs grew even fewer and farther between. Take, for example, his description of Jackie Kennedy having “hauled ass to save ass” as she climbed onto the trunk of the limousine after her husband had been shot. Not exactly a laugh riot.
He was, however, a source of inspiration to comedians who were funnier than he was, and he erased the boundaries of language and subject matter within which stand-up comedy had operated. His true victory nevertheless seems to me the complete coarsening of public life that makes his legal victimization incomprehensible in retrospect. Last year legal scholars Ronald Collins and David Skover published The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon (with accompanying CD, now out in paperback), recounting Bruce’s legal battles.
Yesterday Governor Pataki issued Bruce a posthumous pardon for his 1964 misdemeanor obscenity conviction, and the New York Times has a good story on the pardon: “No joke! 37 years after death, Lenny Bruce receives pardon.” Governor Pataki got the last laugh, burying his own joke inside his written statement explaining the pardon: “Freedom of speech 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.”
Bruce died of a drug overdose in 1966, mired in the legal problems that consumed his last few years. It seems to me that the real story of Lenny Bruce is the great unwritten story of the ’60s — the waste of so much talent through drug abuse and premature death.
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