How Lenny Bruce Was Actually Canceled in the 1960s
Okay, 2023 comedians, we hear you. Many of you are living in mortal fear of that alarming, amorphous blob known as “cancel culture.” In the past year, we’ve heard about the existential threat to comedy as we know it from the likes of Joe Rogan, Jennifer Aniston, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, Ricky Gervais, John Mulaney, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, John Cleese, Marlon Wayans, Goldie Hawn, Jeff Dunham, Rowan Atkinson, Kevin Hart, Jerrod Carmichael, Rob Schneider… Well, you get the idea.
So far as we’ve seen, canceled comics like Chappelle suffer the consequences of cancelation by hosting Saturday Night Live and selling out the Hollywood Bowl. But back in the days of comedians like Lenny Bruce, cancelation meant something different. Canceling meant you might not work again. Canceling meant the club that employed you might close forever. In John Mulaney’s recent Baby J special, he lamented that comedians’ need to be liked is a jail. For Bruce, actual jail was part of his comedy reality.
Bruce was one of the leaders of a movement that Time, not kindly, called “sick comedy.” What made it “sick”? Time didn’t define the term, but used the slam to cover a new wave of comedians who were markedly different from those who had come before — and from each other. What comics like Bruce, Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters had in common was a hard turn away from the setup/punch-line cadence of comedians trained in the Catskills. Other than that, the comics couldn’t have been more different. Sahl, armed with a V-neck sweater and newspaper, poked improvisational fun at the day’s politics and culture. Winters, a proto-Robin Williams, morphed into crazy characters, interacting with talk-show hosts in multiple personas.
And then there was Bruce, for whom the description of “sick” at least made some sense. If a topic was taboo, Bruce wanted to flood it with light, to flip a joke that exposed its hypocrisy. That meant riffing on all the subjects that made good upstanding citizens queasy — homosexuality, drug use, politics, violence, organized religion, masturbation, guilt and shame. You know, the good stuff. His routines weren’t carefully written. “He was the first stream-of-consciousness comedian I ever saw,” comedian David Steinberg wrote in his book Inside Comedy. “He was a revelation because he wasn’t trying to be funny all the time. He was into the story, the way the character talked.”
“He was talking his personal truth, his personal view of the country, finding comedy in a much harsher way than, let’s say, Will Rogers,” Wayne Federman, author of The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle, adds. Sure, Bruce was political, “but I feel like it was more social comedy. He made fun of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination. He would talk about Eleanor Roosevelt's breasts.” Bruce had a jazz-influenced speaking style, which thrilled hip audiences and bewildered the squares. His comedy was new, it was shocking, and to some, like the squares, it was sick indeed.
The niche Bruce carved for himself — America’s foremost dirty comic — was a boon and a curse. Yes, it made a guy famous, but it got him in a lot of hot water as well. Several communities wanted to cancel Bruce, with “cancel” meaning “throwing him behind bars.” It wasn’t an isolated threat — he was arrested for comedy thought crimes from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York City.
“There were basically local laws,” Federman tells me. “Each community could have their own standards. Sometimes these laws were enforced, and sometimes they weren’t.” When Bruce was in town, the laws were enforced more often.
“The first time I got arrested for obscenity was in San Francisco,” Bruce confessed in his celebrated autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. “I used a 10-letter word onstage. Just a word in passing.” Unfortunately, that passing word was “cocksucker,” and the local cops weren’t going to stand for it. Bruce made compelling arguments in court and the jury acquitted him, but now, other local authorities had pricked up their ears. If Bruce was coming to town, the cops wanted to make sure they heard what he had to say.
As such, Bruce kept racking up the arrests. There was the 1961 drug possession charge in Philadelphia, followed up two years later in West Hollywood when a young deputy took him in for using the word “schmuck” on stage. It’s safe to assume that most of the audience didn’t speak Yiddish, one reason those charges were dismissed. But it wouldn’t be so easy in December 1962, when Bruce was hauled off the stage of the Gate of Horn club in Chicago. He was supposedly arrested on obscenity charges, but Variety reported, “The prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce’s indictments of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the comic’s act.”
“He was a Jewish guy making fun of the Catholic Church,” Federman explains. “And now we had our first Catholic president. That was part of the zeitgeist of the time.” In a heavily Catholic town like Chicago, with a predominantly Irish-Catholic police force, Bruce was asking for trouble with off-color jokes about the pope.
Also asking for trouble: A young George Carlin who, believe it or not, was in the Gate of Horn crowd that night in Chicago. When Carlin, along with the rest of the audience, was asked to show his ID to the cops, Carlin replied, “‘I don’t believe in ID.’ You know, just a smart-ass, Irish guy, a little drunk, who didn’t like authority.” Carlin got himself thrown in the back of the same squad car as Bruce, as he describes in this audio interview.
According to Bruce, prosecutors assembled an all-Catholic jury to hear his case. The opening argument doesn’t contain a word about obscenity, the actual charge under which Bruce was arrested: “You will hear the mockery of the church, not just any church, not just the Catholic Church, not just the Lutheran Church, but the church per se.” The judge slapped the prosecution for making an immaterial accusation, but the damage was done and Bruce was sentenced to a year in jail. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the ruling upon Bruce’s appeal. Eventually, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the conviction — only so Bruce could continue to get arrested.
The damage to his career led to more drug use, which led to more arrests. And then in April 1964, he got nabbed again by Greenwich Village undercover cops at the Cafe Au Go Go. Bruce didn’t ride in the squad car alone — the club’s owners were also arrested for permitting an obscene performance.
This latest trial got a lot of press and lasted for six long months. Bruce and Howard Solomon, the club owners, were both found guilty of obscenity. “This really had a chilling effect,” Federman says about Bruce’s ability to land new stand-up gigs. “Other club bookers were saying things like, ‘I don’t want to get arrested.’” Clubs, as well as comics, were getting canceled. A month later, Bruce was sentenced to four months in a workhouse. He appealed and never served the time — he died before his plea could be tried.
This is what true cancelation looks like. Not only was Bruce unable to book gigs amidst all his legal troubles, he couldn’t even look for them. According to his official website, Variety refused to run Bruce’s desperate advertisement for work, a simple statement announcing “I’m available.” The career spiral led to despair and a deepening drug problem, ultimately costing his life.
In many ways, Bruce paved the way for today’s comedians, accustomed to saying whatever the bleep they want despite their social media gripes. Other comics “call him St. Lenny,” Federman says. “He’s a martyr. We’re still talking about the guy and his battles with these local governments.” Those battles paved the way for Carlin and Richard Pryor, for HBO and its all-words-allowed comedy specials, and for all the profane, rebellious and blasphemous comics that followed, almost always safe from authority figures trying to ban their comedy sermons.
A postscript: If Bruce had a sick sense of humor, he likely would have laughed at his greatest legal irony. Thirty-nine years after his Greenwich Village obscenity conviction, Bruce was posthumously pardoned by New York Governor George Pataki. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state’s history, “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment.”
“Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties,” Pataki said in a statement. “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.”
So even Lenny Bruce wasn’t canceled forever. But as The New York Times points out, “Being dead, Mr. Bruce is not expected to reap any immediate benefit from the pardon.”