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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