enny Bruce – born October 13, 1925, died August 3, 1966 – may not have invented stand-up comedy, but as far as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, and any number of outrageous, on-the-edge comedians are concerned, he was the originator of their version of the genre. The irony, though, is that Bruce really wasn't what you'd call a comedian…not in the traditional sense, anyway; he was more of a social satirist.

Bruce, born in Long Island, New York, did a five-year stint in the Navy before entering into show business; when he finally did his first stand-up performance in 1947, he earned 12 bucks and a free spaghetti dinner. An appearance on "The Arthur Godfrey Talent Show" found Bruce doing impressions…and not very well, truth be told, which led him to seek out a different direction for his comedy.

In the early '50s, Bruce wrote a few screenplays. That none of the films were huge successes is probably best; had they been, then Bruce likely never would've gone on to release the quartet of albums on Fantasy Records in the late '50s and early '60s that cemented his reputation. His reputation for using coarse language and going on political rants was one which led members of the beatnik generation to embrace his work, but he came such a cultural phenomenon that the mainstream couldn't ignore him, either; he was invited to appear on "The Steve Allen Show" and booked into Carnegie Hall. Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy and a man who's never been afraid to stand behind free speech, had him on the premiere episode of "Playboy's Penthouse." (Hefner later invited Bruce to write a serialized autobiography in the pages of Playboy, which led to a full-length version that's one of the best-titled books of the 20th century: "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.")

Unfortunately, by being on the general public's radar, Bruce was in a position to be attacked by the long arm of the law for his use of profanity. In 1961, he was arrested at the Jazz Workshop, in San Francisco, for using the words "cocksucker" and the verb "to come." (He was acquitted.) In 1962, he went to Australia for a tour, walked onstage in Sydney, described the crowd as "a fucking wonderful audience," and was promptly arrested and banned from ever performing in Sydney again. But the worst incident came in '64, when he was arrested after performances at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village and charged with use of obscenity; he was found guilty, even with testimony and petitions of support from authors Jules Feiffer and Norman Mailer, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced to four months in the workhouse, but he was set free on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal could be decided. (In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki granted Bruce a posthumous pardon, a decision Pataki called "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment.")

Still, none of these legal battles ever caused Bruce to calm down; in fact, if anything, they just amused him, leading him to spend many performances simply describing the events of his various arrests and courtroom proceedings. Unfortunately, by 1966, Bruce had pretty much cursed his way out of the business; almost no nightclub in America would book him, lest the owners find themselves arrested right along with their headliner.

In August 1966, Bruce died from what is presumed to have been a morphine overdose; cause of death was never officially determined, but he was lying naked in the bathroom with his pants around his ankles and a syringe not far away, with no sign of foul play, so, y'know, you do the math. The memorial for Bruce, held later that month, was led by Phil Spector, and the event – for which ads were taken out – invited attendees to bring noisemakers and to bring a box lunch.

Since his passing, many live performances by Bruce have made it onto record store shelves, with varying degrees of sonic quality. Dustin Hoffman portrayed Bruce in the 1974 bio-pic, "Lenny," while British comedian Eddie Izzard did the same in 1999 in the identically-titled play written by Julian Barry. Bruce has also been mentioned in countless song lyrics – most notably R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" – and, in 1998, a documentary on his life and times, "Swear To Tell the Truth," was nominated for an Academy Award.

When listened to today, a lot of Bruce's material seems almost tame, but it should never be forgotten that, were it not for his battles against obscenity, we wouldn't have the level of freedom of speech that we do. Then again, we also wouldn't have had to listen to Andrew Dice Clay tell dirty nursery rhymes…but, y'know, you take the good with the bad.

Essential Albums

The best place to start is probably The Carnegie Hall Concert, which has been described as the greatest night of Bruce's career. After that, move on to the two-volume Fantasy Records set entitled The Lenny Bruce Originals, which between them include the four albums he released between 1958 and 1960. Lastly, if only for its historical importance, check out What I Was Arrested For: The Performance That Got Lenny Bruce Busted.

Comedy Discography

Interviews of Our Time (1958)

Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958)

Togetherness (1959)

American (1960)

Live at the Curran Theater (1961)

Carnegie Hall Concert (1961)

The Law, Language and Lenny Bruce (1974)

The Real Lenny Bruce (1975)

What I Was Arrested For: The Performance That Got Lenny Bruce Busted (1992)

To Is A Preposition; Come Is A Verb (2000)

Live: San Francisco 1966 (2005)


"Dance Hall Racket" (1953)

"Dream Follies" (1954)

"The Rocket Man" (1955)

"Lenny Bruce: Performance Film" (1967)


"How to Talk Dirty and Influence People" (1992)

"The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon" (2003)

"The Almost Unpublished Lenny Bruce: From the Private Collection of Kitty Bruce" (1984)

"Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!" (1992)

Famous Last Words

I want to help you if you have a dirty word problem. There are none.

Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

I've been accused of bad taste, and I'll go down to my grave accused of it and always by the same people: the ones who eat in restaurants that reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

I don't know about you but I enjoy the way our tax money is being spent to arrest, indict, convict, imprison, parole, and re-imprison (marijuana smokers). I'd just piss it away on beer, anyway.

You can't put tits and ass on the marquee! Why not? Because it's dirty and vulgar, that's why not! Titties are dirty and vulgar? Okay, we'll compromise. How about Latin? Gluteous maximus, pectoralis majors nightly...That's alright, that's clean, class with ass, I'll buy it: clean to you, schmuck, but dirty to the Latins!

The liberals can understand everything but people who don't understand them.

A Jew, in the dictionary, is one who is descended from the ancient tribes of Judea, or one who is regarded as descendant from that tribe. That's what it says in the dictionary, but you and I know what a Jew is: One Who Killed Our Lord. There should be a statute of limitations for that crime. A lot of people say to me, 'Why did you kill Christ?' I dunno... it was one of those parties that got out of hand, you know?

If something about the human body disgusts you, the fault lies with the manufacturer.

Take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government.

I'm sorry if I wasn't very funny tonight. I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce.