Book Review: The Trials Of Lenny Bruce

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As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m much of a First Amendment/Free Speech absolutist. It’s part of the handful of things that’s a political deal-breaker for me — in fact, it’s why I was initially distrustful of Al Gore, due to his role in the PMRC hearings of the 1980s. (Don’t worry — I’ve since come around on Al, though I am still not a fan of Tipper.)

Of course, one of the biggest examples of free speech battles — though the cases never did go to the Supreme Court, unfortunately — are the obscenity cases of Lenny Bruce. For me, perhaps the oddest thing about these cases is not that Lenny Bruce was just out in the street shouting profanity, but — even disregarding the fact that he was using such language to make points — inside clubs only open to adults…. that said adults had to PAY to get in, knowing Bruce was on the bill. Admittedly, it was an earlier time, but the idea still leaves me speechless; I’ve never understood the idea that people should be protected from the things they seek out. At least, the PRMC was ostensibly doing their attempts at censorship “for the children” — no children had heard the routines of Lenny Bruce, nor would they — at least, not live in the nightclubs concerned in the actual cases. (They could, of course, seek out his records, though they were typically censored anyway.)

Law scholars Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover are pretty baffled by this un-American turn of events as well; not so much that it happened, but why it was allowed. The conclusion they come to is that, in most cases, it was because a judge was offended and decided to overlook the precedents (or declaring them irrelevant) that would let Bruce off the hook. One of the cases, in Chicago — taking place on Ash Wednesday, no less — was basically a blasphemy charge under a different name. The bulk of the complaint was about Bruce’s bits “Paul Malloy and Christianity” and “Christ and Moses” — the former involving holding up a picture of a topless woman from a Rogue calendar and talking about the hypocrisy of how that could be considered indecent if God, “your filthy Jesus Christ” made that. Other bits — like “War Criminals and Hershey Bars” were included in the complaint to round it out and make sure it wasn’t JUST a blasphemy case.

While reading about these cases, it’s clear that Bruce was railroaded, his unstable personality didn’t help manners. Most of all was his unfortunate habit of writing letters to the judges involved in his trials, which often veered on the side of the incoherent and insulting — not the best way to win over a judge. He also had a tendency to fire his lawyers for not letting him control the proceedings; Bruce wanted to be a master of his own fate — and often felt that if he could do his routines in the courtroom, instead of having the police witnesses butcher them, the social value would be readily apparent.

Still, though — however incompetent Bruce was at defending himself in the courtroom, the fact remains that he shouldn’t have had to. The First Amendment should have — and, later did… after he’d died — protected him from such torment and abuse. At least, in the case of one of the prosecutors, it came back to haunt him. The prosecutor in the New York case went after Bruce so utterly zealously, even coming back to the last stages of the trial after he’d left the D.A.’s office, and won. But it was something of a Pyrrhic victory, as ten years later, when Dick Kuh (the authors refrain from making a cheap joke at the appropriateness of his first name; I am not nearly as capable of that much restraint) tried to run for the head of the D.A.’s office — even as the incumbent, being placed there as an Interim Head by the governor — the case of People v. Bruce came up again and again, and he lost the Democratic primary by a landslide… and after switching party affiliation to Republican, lost AGAIN by a landslide.

The popular belief is that the law killed Lenny Bruce by making it impossible to perform anywhere due to fear of legal retribution — the authors don’t state that, and offer some alternate explanations for Bruce’s death. Still, though — it seems to me that even if it’s not simply as cut-and-dried as that, it definitely contributed to his downfall and fed his self-destructive tendencies. However, if it’s true at all, we might be able to see Lenny Bruce as New York assistant D.A. at the time, Vincent Cuccia did when he said “We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him”; the first man executed for misdemeanor charges.

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