Lenny Bruce: When Dirty Words Were Illegal

Paste Looks Back At The 50th Anniversary Of Lenny Bruce’s First Obscenity Arrest

Comedy Features
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Broadway is all wet. A slight wind blows from the Pacific pushing a light rain onto the streets of North Beach in San Francisco on this early autumn evening. But even on this Tuesday night there’s some action, there’s always action here: gentlemen barkers standing outside strip joints, bars, bookstores, restaurants, video stores flashing lights, traffic, tourists and the hum of Goldfield’s Tattoo shop.

Monroe is a newer bar smack in the middle of the action at 473 Broadway. Once past the tough-guy doorman, the interior is dark and the small, crowded dance floor is awash with the slow thump-thump-thump of average techno music. The overall sound is a collision of music into voices.

It’s mostly twenty-somethings in here awkwardly dancing under spinning colored lights and loud talking. Men dressed down in flannel, oxfords and jeans. Women dressed up, mostly in skirts that the guys pretend not to notice; nothing special here, nothing I didn’t already expect. As always, there’s an obligation to buy a something, so I head to the less crowded bar, then on to an empty blue U-shaped couch off in a corner.

This place was called The Jazz Workshop at one time and was another of several quality jazz venues where locals could see national acts sweat it out on stage. It was intimate, dark and located in the city’s hippest area; it was also good enough of a venue for both Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk to record albums here. Of all the artists who graced its stage, it was comedian and social satirist Lenny Bruce who forever put this building on the map when he performed an amazing show and was arrested for obscenity. Right here, on this night, 50 years ago. It was a perfect storm and a pivotal time for both First Amendment rights and the career of one of the country’s greatest comedic minds.

Bruce loved the art of jazz and ran with some of its best known players, lived the (somewhat clichéd) jazz musician’s lifestyle, incorporated its free form improvisational styles into his own work and broke down preconceived notions of what comedy was at the time.

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Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, was a dancer, a comedienne and a huge personality; her greatest achievement, though, was encouraging her son’s show-biz aspirations. He started out as a lackluster impersonator but it took him only seven years to work his way up from amateur nights to dinner theaters to strip joints to small clubs, all the while crafting some of the most honest and brilliant comedy of the day. By the mid ’50s he was living in the seedy Los Angeles jazz world, where he was introduced to hard drugs and crazed, all-night parties where anything was possible.

It was this free-form lifestyle which made up part of his persona which he brought up to the stage. He saw the audience as the same as himself: “the night people,” as he called them—intellectuals, junkies, artists, hookers. Bruce treated audiences as if they were friends in his own living room and talked openly on such loaded topics as religion, racism, homophobia, abortion, politics and the American way of life. Eventually, as a more mainstream audience caught onto his material, the establishment was close behind, ready to scrutinize. His verbal target practice came with a price.

San Francisco was the perfect city for a performer looking to break down social mores; everything representing bohemia in 1961 America could be found along Broadway’s six blocks in North Beach: strip joints, gay bars and nightly jazz billowing out of murky doorways.

Not everyone was enamored, however. The local police and concerned citizens were looking to clean the place up, especially after the popularization of the Beat movement, of which North Beach was the West Cost epicenter. Tensions between police and artists grew quickly; interracial couples were targeted heavily, then the popular hangouts. In 1957, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested for allowing copies of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl, to be sold at his North Beach bookstore, City Lights Books. In the high-profile obscenity case which followed, artistic freedom and First Amendment rights were put on trial. The liberal defendants won and the outlaw environment was vindicated. That said, local authorities continued their crack-down; foot-patrol officers kept a sharper eye on the goings on between Mason and Battery streets.

This was the environment Bruce stepped into 50 years ago with his open mind and dirty mouth. By the time he began his week-long run at the Jazz Workshop, he was riding a well-deserved creative peak. Comedy albums, high-profile television appearances, radio interviews and features in magazines from Time and Newsweek, Playboy and Rouge. Tagged as a “sick comedian” (a term he never liked), his satire, especially those condemning organized religion, had attracted the attention of authorities in many of the cities he was now working. The thought of this loudmouth Jew making fun of religion (particularly Catholicism) and getting paid a lot for it was the real problem. They wanted to shut him up.

A breeze of danger followed Bruce with every step, a situation he both courted and heeded. The risk he tempted finally caught up with him the week before opening at the Workshop when he was arrested in Philadelphia. Bruce was known as a “legal junkie,” meaning he had persuaded a doctor to write him prescriptions for his drugs; in this particular case it was Methedrine, Dilaudid, Tuinal, Dolophine and disposable syringes. City to city, he was known and targeted, but since he never needed to score on the street, the police didn’t have an easy way to get at him. That is, until Bruce made the mistake of bedding the wife of a prominent Philadelphian citizen one night after a party. Early the next morning the police busted into his hotel room and nabbed him on drug charges; the woman in question was left off police reports. The next night a bondsman told Bruce he could pay $10,000 and the charges would be dropped. The gall! Instead of paying, Bruce went to the press, exposed the deal and named names. From there on out, it was open season on Lenny Bruce.

The arrest wouldn’t hold up in court (the charges were eventually dropped) yet the ordeal had both shaken him as well as given him an extra sense of defiance. More danger. The bust also temporarily knocked out any chance of work for him in the Northeast; he was too hot to book so he grabbed the Jazz Workshop gig to help finance the upcoming court appearance in Philly. He spoke on the phone to owner Art Auerbach and a contract was drawn up. Bruce would work two shows a night for a week; Auerbach would charge $2.50 at the door, a first for the club. The comedian was looking at a $5,000 payout. Being labeled a “sick comedian” was having its benefits after all. And there was a new twist: Bruce wanted every performance recorded. Whether he was preparing for the possibility of more trouble or amassing material for the next album is unclear, but the decision was perfectly timed.

He took the stage at the Jazz Workshop in an unusual mood on opening night; although the shadow of his Philly arrest hung over him, much of his dark mood was a result of his decision to stop using dope after the arrest (temporarily, as it turned out). Still, response had been overwhelming, and the place was packed for both shows that night. The hipster audience loved every word, and a few patrons near the back of the club noticed Officer James Ryan by the door watching the show and grinning. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewed it the next day: “Lenny Bruce Here—Smilin’ Through” ran the headline on page nine with a ghastly photo of the 36-year-old comic onstage before a crowded room. Robert Hardin’s write-up mentioned Bruce’s humorous re-telling of the Philly bust and how much money the sick comic might be taking home, but no reports of walk-outs or complaints.

Despite the rousing opening, Bruce’s mood was worse as he took the stage for the second night on the fourth of October. He seemed tried and uninterested, and the audience could tell. Chronicle columnist and early Bruce champion, Ralph Gleason, was there as was Saul Zaentz, owner of Fantasy Records, the label putting out his records.

Opening for Bruce all that week was legendary saxophonist Ben Webster and his quartet; the pianist was a guy named Paul Moor. Moor had worked with Bruce four years ago in a Long Beach club called Duffy’s when the comic landed his first and ultimately important shows in San Francisco. Ann Dee, owner of Ann’s 440, a small lesbian bar in San Francisco, was in Long Beach looking for new talent on the advice of her husband, a former area bartender who knew the area’s clubs. The first person she talked to was a comedienne going by the name of Boots Malloy, otherwise known as Sally Marr or Lenny Bruce’s mother. When encouraged to work her club, Marr demurred but offered: “You should come and see my son!” Dee quickly realized Bruce was one of the greatest talents she had seen and convinced him to come north by offering him more money than he had been seeing (and more money Dee had paid any of her other performers), $750 a week plus a cut of the door fee. It was at Ann’s where he was discovered by San Francisco’s hipster elite, thus catapulting his career.

Seeing Moor brought it all back and provided the spark he was missing on stage. He retold the story on stage right then and there and, exercising artistic license, swapped out Dee for a cigar chomping agent, a real vulgarian. It seemed so effortless:

Lenny: You know, this [club] was a little too snobby for me to work. I just wanted to go back to Ann’s. You don’t know about that, do you? You share that recall with me? The first gig I ever worked up here was a club called Ann’s 440, which was across the street and I got a call, I was working a burlesque gig with Paul Moor in the Valley which is the cat on piano here, which is really strange seeing him after all these years. The guys says…

Agent: There’s a place in San Francisco, but they’ve changed the policy.
Lenny: Well, what’s the policy?
Agent: Well, they’re not there anymore, that’s the main thing.
Lenny: Well, what kind of a show is it, man?
Agent: Well, you know…
Lenny: No, I don’t know, man, sounds like a weird show…
Agent: Well, it’s not a show, they’re just a bunch of cocksuckers, that’s all. It’s a damned fag show.
Lenny: Oh. Well, that is a pretty bizarre show. I don’t know what I can do in that kind of a show.
Agent: No, it’s—we want you to change all that.
Lenny: Chri—I don’t…that’s a big gig eh.. I can just tell them to stop doin’ it. Heh heh.

The audience roared with laughter; thus began one of his greatest shows, the reel-to-reel machines in the basement picking up every word that poured out of him, every point of view, joke and monologue.

Perhaps gauging the impact of that bit and addressing his own tag as a “sick comic” (and all with which that entails), he quiets his tone and lectures the audience. “I like you. Sometimes I take poetic license and you are offended…I want to help you if you have a Dirty Word Problem. There are none. If I can tell you a dirty toilet joke, we must have a dirty toilet. If we take this toilet and boil it, and it’s clean, I can never tell you specifically a dirty toilet joke about this toilet.” More laughs; his words soon take on a pointed tone. “‘Obscenity’ is a human manifestation. This toilet has no central nervous system, no level of consciousness, it is a dumb toilet. It cannot be obscene, it’s impossible. If it could be obscene [then] it could be cranky, [or a] communist toilet…it can do none of these things so nobody can ever offend you by telling you a dirty toilet story.”

Then a step further, a tinge of anger rising in his voice: “Now, if the bedroom is dirty to you, you are a true Atheist, because if you have any of the mores, any of the superstitions, if anyone is this audience believes that God made his body, and your body is dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer.”

Maybe thinking it was time to ease the tension, Bruce tempts fate further by climbing behind the drum kit sitting on stage, taps the cymbal and half sings: “To is a preposition”; then another light cymbal hit and he says: “Come is a verb.” Suddenly he’s doing a graphic bit about the complexities of sex and marriage with a sloppy drum solo and the audience laughs with a mix of amazement and discomfort. The nerve! Mort Sahl would never even think of this kind of gag. For over 40 minutes he raved, creeping into the deepest recesses of his imagination; not since his performance at Carnegie Hall that February had Bruce wrung himself out, laid himself bare for an audience. Officer Ryan was spotted there again, too, standing in the back. Then he was gone.

As the audience filed out and the wait staff prepared the club for the second show of the night, Bruce emerged from backstage and sat down at the table where Gleason and a friend were waiting; he looked terrible as the withdrawal pulled at him. Sweating, shaking and complaining of stomach cramps, he pulled white trench coat tightly against him. How fascinating this was the same unstoppable mind up onstage minutes ago. Officer Ryan re-entered, this time with another officer and they told Auerbach that Bruce was going to be put under arrest. After trying to talk them out of it (“we’ll clean up the act!”), the club owner walked over and told him about the pinch. Bruce, for his part, already had an idea after spotting Ryan at both shows.

Gleason is the only one to have gone on record as to what happened next and would later recall: “Auerbach walked over to us and said: ‘Lenny, they want to make a bust.’ Lenny said, ‘Okay,’ like it was the most natural thing in the world and asked where the sergeant was. And Auerbach said outside. And Lenny said, ‘Okay, let’s go outside.’ All the way to the door, Auerbach, who was a practicing lawyer, kept chattering away about how he didn’t know why and Lenny kept saying, ‘It’s okay, man.”

Gleason and Auerbach shadowed Bruce and Ryan to the police call box across the street, outside of Enrico’s Sidewalk Café where Sergeant James Solden was waiting. The first question Bruce asked was if there was a complaint. The Sergeant claimed there had been an anonymous phone call, a story which never held any weight, not even in court. A conversation ensued there on the corner of Kearny and Broadway.

“I took exception. I took offense,” Solden told Bruce. “We’ve tried to elevate this street. I’m offended because you broke the law. I mean it sincerely. I can’t see any right, any way you can break this word [“cocksuckers”] down, our society is not geared to it.” Bruce then gave what may be the greatest line of the evening: “You break it down by talking about it.”

Bruce then asked: “How about a word like ‘clap’?” Flustered, Solden replied: “Well, ‘clap’ is a better word than ‘cocksucker.’” “Not if you get the clap from the cocksucker!” Bruce shot back. The small crowd which had now gathered around the four men laughed at the verbal trap, but it wasn’t a joke to Bruce; he was already defending himself.

Enraged, Solden grabbed the call box phone again and bellowed: “I’m not going to wait here till midnight!” Soon three police cars arrived followed by a paddy wagon, all lights flashing. “Lenny would ask the cop a question and then quickly look at me,” recalled Gleason. “It was uncanny. He led the conversation like an investigative reporter and interspersed his questions with reassurances to both policemen that he wasn’t angry with them: ‘It’s your job, man.’”

From there he was taken to the Hall Of Justice for violating Municipal Police Code 176 and 205 (“Unlawful presentation of an obscene, indecent, immoral or impure performances”) and escorted to the basement where he was photographed, fingerprinted and put in a small cell. Auerbach showed up soon thereafter and paid the $367.50 bail while news of the bust leaked out onto the streets of North Beach.

Back in time for the second show of the night, Bruce kept his jacket on as he paced the small stage: “I better keep my coat on—I may have to go out again.” Serious as it was, the night’s events had given him great material, and he worked it out right there on stage in its rawest form. After 45 minutes of adrenaline, he closed with an apology that may as well have been his epitaph: “I wasn’t funny tonight; sometimes I’m not. I’m not a comedian; I’m Lenny Bruce.”

That night, as the comedian dragged his weary body to his room at the Clift Hotel, the manager, Dwight Hart, kicked him out. “We don’t take your kind of people here,” he shouted. “It wasn’t what you would call my day,” an exasperated Bruce told the Chronicle.

It didn’t take long for his lightning-quick mind quickly to analyze the situation, and on his next night at the Workshop, the contradictions were already obvious:

“And as soon as we got to the police station, we walk in and I hear every policeman unaware of me and what went on, going through the words that I say, that he says, that we all say and all the other police men, I swear to God, gimme a lie detector test, had his police stick out and doing whack-o bits with it. That was not vulgar, that’s guys hanging out, playing grab ass, ‘Hey, kiss this, Charlie.’ Then I looked at [the arresting office], I said: ‘Look at that, you arrest me and they’re all saying it. Your God will punish you.’”

That same night he hit on a self-fulfilling prophecy:

“It’s abnormal to be quiet, but I am over secure. I could do 10 years in jail for my point of view and not be bugged. Honest to God. But I could not do 30 days for knocking up your sister. But if I believe it’s right, then look out, I’ll thwart you until you do me in. I’ll keep pushing you and pushing you which I always do until you finally—bam!—you just knock me out. But I will open up enough until the other cat who will follow will say, ‘Yeah.’”

His engagement that week was ultimately cut short due to his required appearance in a Philadelphia court. Lenny Bruce’s days of running were now underway.

The first case of what would be a long run of court battles entitled People vs. Bruce began on Nov. 17, 1961, in the San Francisco Municipal Court. This particular would be Bruce’s shortest and easiest of court appearances, and it would begin the next heartbreaking chapter in his life. Over the next two years, he would be arrested 15 times, mostly for obscenity; certainly a record. The comic with a ninth-grade education would soon become obsessed with the Law that, for this final court battle, would fire his attorneys and try to defend himself. The efforts made by Bruce and his legal teams were hard fought and eventually made history.

Esteemed trial attorney Martin Garbus was part of Bruce’s 1964 legal team in New York and has seen his influence on First Amendment rights. “You have more freedom in the obscenity area because of Lenny,” he says. “I used to represent people before the Motion Picture Association, and they’re very different now than they were years ago and, yes, a lot of that is attributed to Bruce. I think he was very significant in expanding standards, very significant.”

Bruce was acquitted in San Francisco (though by a very reluctant jury) and the city would be one of the few in which he could work as he was hounded month after month, year after year. He refused to compromise, but as he became more defiant he also became more obsessed with his dire situation. He was too hot to handle; police would threaten to revoke the liquor license of any particular club thinking of booking him. It became a witch hunt. When he did take the stage, he’d read from court transcripts instead of doing bits.

By 1965, four years after the Jazz Workshop bust, he was declared bankrupt, a pauper. Garbus witnessed the detrition first-hand: “Between the drugs and the pressure of the court,” he says, “the deprivation of a chance to make a living and the deprivation of a chance to be on stage and all the hangers-on who turned him into Patrick Henry, it was just a slide down.”

To suggest Lenny Bruce suffered for his art is almost an understatement; his specter-like shadow forever hangs over the world of stand-up. Paul Krassner founded and edited the highly respected satirical magazine, The Realist, in 1958 and became close friends with Bruce, editing the comic’s autobiography. “Mainly, as a result of Lenny’s legacy, no contemporary comedian has to fear getting arrested for their performance,” he says, “not only for ‘profane language’ but also not to fear being busted for political and religious targets of their satire in the guise of breaking obscenity laws.”

“Lemme tell you the truth,” Bruce liked to offer his audience, his wife, anyone who would listen during his more philosophical moments, “The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.”

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So, back at the scene of the crime, it’s almost as if I’m not even here; the revelers keep their distance, a good 15 feet away from me, but steal concerned glances my way. Even I have to wonder: What am I doing here, anyway? Is some kind of casual séance? Maybe the tables will rise, or a phantom wind will blow in and extinguish the candles sitting on the marble-topped bar. Maybe the power will go out the moment in time when that all-important 11-letter magic word was said, and the lights will go dark, the techno will stop and there will be silence. Sweet silence. Maybe that peace will be broken by the faint disembodied sound of Lenny Bruce’s funny, hipster laugh and the snapping of his fingers. A final little joke for the night.

But nothing happens. The thump-thump-thump of the non-descript techno keeps going, the party keeps swinging, and the rain keeps falling outside the former home of the Jazz Workshop, and I keep typing away here on this blue U-shaped couch in the back. Waiting for something to happen.

Fifty years after the arrest and the truth is still what is. And what should be is still a terrible, terrible lie.

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