Lenny Bruce Riffs and Rants on Injustice and Hypocrisy in One of His Final Performances (NSFW)

We can remember Lenny Bruce as a masterful social critic or as one of the edgiest, most original comedians of the late-50s/early 60s. Or both, since both sides of him were always present in the live performances preserved on film and tape. Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Long Island, Bruce came from a showbiz family, in a way; his mother was a performer and a supporter of his stage ambitions. But, after his discharge from the Navy (for a performance in drag, among other things), his New York act evolved quickly from celebrity impressions and burlesque to a more personalized and biting satire that cut through the genteel silences around racism, religious intolerance, drugs, politics, sexuality, and Jewishness in America. Sprinkled liberally with Yiddishisms, hip beat expressions, and topical riffs, Bruce’s jazz-inflected act could swing wildly from giddy falsetto exuberance to heartbreaking downbeat lament in a matter of minutes. Perhaps nowhere is this highwire act better documented than in the recording of his 1961 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which he gave at midnight in a blizzard to a devoted audience of nearly 3,000.

The Carnegie Hall concert marked the height of his career, after which his sad decline began. Later that year, he was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity. He was acquitted, but this began the years-long battle in courts, including two Supreme Court appeals, on similar charges (dramatized in the excellent biopic Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman as Bruce). The legal battles bankrupted Bruce, and exhausted and demoralized him; he stood as a defender of the right to free expression and the need for people like him, whether just “entertainers” or serious satirists, to hold power to account and mock its threadbare contradictions, but he so profoundly rubbed the legal system the wrong way that he didn’t stand a chance.

By 1966, Bruce could not gig outside San Francisco. One of his final performances (above) before his death from overdose sees him rehearsing his legal battles. He is embittered, angry, some might say obsessed, some might say righteous, but he’s still in top form, even if there may be more of Bruce the critic than Bruce the entertainer here. Lenny Bruce has been mourned and celebrated by comedic giants like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks and musicians like Nico, Dylan, and R.E.M. But it sometimes seems that his name gets more press than his work. So, get to know Lenny Bruce. Watch the performance above, but also listen to the brilliant Carnegie Hall concert (available in 7 parts on YouTube). And thank him every time a comic gets away with crossing social boundaries with impunity. He wore the system down so that the Carlins and Pryors could break it wide open.

Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

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