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. —Vincent Cuccia (one of Bruce’s New York prosecutors)
He died before his death. It was apparent that Wednesday—February 9—in 1966 when Lenny Bruce spoke at the Associated Students Speakers’ Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He rambled; he misspoke; he struggled; and, yes, he bombed. Pathetic. That’s one word. Sad. That’s another. Predictable. Yet another word.
In less than six months, he would be officially dead. Who could not see it coming?
Bruce was broke, bankrupt, out of work, out of luck, friendless, divorced, depressed, and junked up. It was so bad that shortly before he died he tried to hit up his parole officer for $10. Worse still, he was a criminal—a year or so earlier he had been convicted and sentenced in New York for an “obscene” bit he did at the Cafe au Go Go.
They hunted him in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It took its toll: the busts, the prosecutions, the trials, the appeals, and the alienation. And all this for his comedy. He was so taken with his legal plight that he abandoned comedy. Besides, by the time he spoke at UCLA no club would hire him. He was a sick and sad comedian, a man waiting to be fitted for a hangman’s rope.
The days of his outrageous humor—“obscene,” “blasphemous,” “sick”—were over. His great comic bits that once pierced the boils of hypocrisy were past tense. He was obsessed with the law; he had a childlike faith in it; and he long thought it would save him. By the time he found himself at UCLA surrounded by students—by that pinpoint in time—he came to a terrifying realization: it was over. Hence, when he spoke of the law, it was like listening to a man with an uncontrollable mental tic—a flick of the head, a fast-and-fleeting flash of an idea, and all capped off with a lunatic’s chuckle.
That day at UCLA much of the laughter was feigned. Or it was an uneasy laughter, an awkward gesture of sympathy. How could it be otherwise? The great Lenny Bruce—the TV and record star, the club star, the well-paid star, and the star of the hip generation—had been reduced to rubble. No wonder he babbled as he tried to speak of free-speech freedom; no surprise that he blathered on as he attempted to discuss the importance of courts and the rule of law; and no wonder it all went south when he sought to make sense of his life at the intersection of despair and destitution.
My point? What people saw that day at UCLA was a Lenny Bruce freak show. But the show, as they say, had to go on . . . and go on it did.
Death changed everything; it would bring Lenny back to life with everlasting applause. It was ironic: death was his best publicity agent. But why?
Because . . .
Dead Lenny was no longer a threat to anyone.
Dead Lenny could no longer offend the sensibilities of the righteous.
Dead Lenny was compliant.
That, at least, was the censorial hope. But there was more:
Dead, Lenny the man became Lenny the myth.
Dead, Lenny the uninhibited comedian became a cultural hero.
Dead, Lenny the unruly social commentator became packaged product, and
Dead, Lenny the once bankrupt comic became a cash cow for others
* * * *
It’s true: We feared Lenny alive / yet we love Lenny the dead hero.
Odd the way we turn the First Amendment into a death wish. It is to take a guarantee meant for the living and cram it into a coffin. The result: The censor’s past will likely repeat itself when the next Lenny Bruce comes onto a new life stage.
It is oft repeated: Lenny Bruce is the patron saint of comedians. There is truth there. After all, Lenny Bruce was the last comedian prosecuted and tried for word crimes in a comedy club. He paid the dues, and comedians were the everlasting beneficiaries. Hail Lenny; hail St. Lenny! Okay. But think of it: we canonize a (Jewish) comic?
“I don’t want to end up like [Lenny Bruce], but I want to be like him.”—Margaret Cho
Which brings me to this question: Why should it be so? Why must we demand dead Lennys? Why not alive Lennys?
Why not celebrate the First Amendment by protecting speech that offends us, repels us, and even unsettles us? Is that asking too much? Perhaps. But that is what the First Amendment asks of us. No joke!
Ronald K.L. Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law where he specializes in First Amendment law and constitutional law.
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/.