His trials began with a police bust at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco in October 1961, and ended with an obscenity conviction in New York in November 1964. Stand-up comedy legend Lenny Bruce underwent 35 months—1,062 days—of nonstop persecution and prosecution for the content of his act.
It was 50 years ago this month that an autopsy would report that Bruce died of an overdose of morphine on August 3, 1966. But anyone who knows his story knows it was more complicated than that.
On the same day as his death, Bruce received a foreclosure notice on his home. The police busts—six obscenity arrests in four cities—left him poor and destitute. Comedy clubs wouldn’t book him anymore. They feared losing their liquor licenses. A death sentence in its own right.
In New York City, Bruce begged the court not to finish him off in show business. “Don’t lock up these 6,000 words,” he pleaded with the judge. He lamented that “in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”
“We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him,” said Vincent Cuccia, one of Bruce’s New York prosecutors. “We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him.”
This episode of So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast commemorates the 50th anniversary of Bruce’s death. We are joined by Ron Collins, a scholar at the University of Washington School of Law who co-authored with David Skover The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, which carefully documents Bruce’s career and free speech struggles.
This episode explores the life, trials, and legacy of a man whom George Carlin said “opened the doors for all the guys like me,” and in so doing, became a martyr for free speech in comedy and art.
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This exclusive interview is part of FIRE’s campaign to defend comedy and free speech on campus. To support this campaign and to learn more about the FIRE-supported documentary Can We Take a Joke?, visit thefire.org/comedy.