“Satire is tragedy plus time,” the late comedian Lenny Bruce once observed. “You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.”
Lenny Bruce died 50 years ago today.
Tragedy, plus time.
If Bruce’s calculus is correct—that we can look back and laugh once sufficient time has passed—what is happening today suggests that we as a society are not quite there yet when it comes to Lenny Bruce and those like him. His story, of a unique voice forever silent after years of censorship, is still too raw and relevant. While the First Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence now protect the content of Bruce’s controversial jokes, the future of free speech in comedy is still under threat in America.
A tumultuous life and career
Lenny Bruce won early accolades for his comedic prowess in his twenties when, after an honorable discharge from the Navy (in part for dressing in drag), he began testing the waters of the standup circuit.
But it wasn’t until the 50s that Bruce seemed to find his true voice: one that garnered notoriety from crowds who laughed at his sometimes dirty—and frequently dead-on—jokes.
The New York Times once described Bruce’s career as a “biting, sardonic, introspective free-form patter that often was a form of shock therapy for his listeners”:
There were those who listened to Lenny Bruce’s series of staccato jokes on religion, motherhood, politics and the law, carefully embellished with scatology, who agreed with one estimate that he was “the most radically relevant of all contemporary social satirists.”
His humor on the stage rarely evoked a comfortable belly laugh. It required concentration, and then often produced a wry smile and perhaps a fighting gleam in the eye. There were also spells of total confusion as Mr. Bruce rambled in a stream-of- consciousness fashion.
Whether the jokes hit or not, the punchline to Bruce’s career was always controversy.
With increased fame for his “Sick Humor” came increased attention from authorities. Lenny was obscene, they said. His words were dangerous.
It began a downward spiral for Bruce, punctuated with arrests and banishments from clubs—and even entire countries. These run-ins with the law seemed to affect Bruce’s health, already declining from a lifestyle marked by drug abuse.
The height of Bruce’s scrutiny came in 1964 when he was arrested and subsequently convicted for an allegedly “obscene” performance at Greenwich Village’s Café Au Go Go nightclub. Lenny’s gigs dried up, and his drug abuse and mental health both got worse.
When Bruce died of a drug overdose on August 3, 1966, his fans mourned the loss of a once-promising comic, of a life cut short, and of jokes left untold.
Today, comedians aren’t getting arrested for obscenity, but outrage culture is stifling laughs in comedy clubs and around campuses nationwide.
The FIRE-supported documentary Can We Take a Joke? explores this phenomenon by analyzing the careers of comedians like Bruce who suffered, in one way or another, for their expression.
While we collectively recognize that Bruce appeared to have paid the ultimate price for his craft—and that it may not have had to be that way—comedians today still don’t feel totally free to say what they want.
At what price does that come for us as a society?
While half of a century may have passed, the tragedy that defined Lenny Bruce still, in some way, remains.
That, to be sure, is no laughing matter.
This blog post is part of FIRE’s campaign to defend comedy and free speech on campus. To help this campaign and to learn more about the FIRE-supported documentary Can We Take a Joke?, visit thefire.org/can-we-take-a-joke-new/.