The Lenny Bruce Archive: Brandeis Digitally Preserves the Legacy of the Pathbreaking Comedian

Edgy, smart, aggres­sive, unapolo­get­i­cal­ly Jew­ish, Lenny Bruce mixed Yid­dishisms, hip­ster slang, col­or­ful terms for var­i­ous sex acts, and social, polit­i­cal, and reli­gious satire in a high-wire impro­visato­ry act he thought of as “ver­bal jazz.” Mar­ket­ed as a “sick come­di­an,” Bruce got his start play­ing strip clubs, and end­ed up—bitter, defeat­ed, black­list­ed, and addicted—ranting and read­ing court tran­scripts from his var­i­ous obscen­i­ty tri­als. It was a sad end to a bril­liant and too-short career.

When Bruce died of an over­dose at 40, “his wid­ow and their daugh­ter,” Kit­ty, “start­ed archiv­ing all that he had left behind,” notes NPR. Now that archive resides at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty, acquired in 2014 by librar­i­an for archives and spe­cial col­lec­tions Sarah Schoe­mak­er. An episode of The Kitchen Sis­ters Present pod­cast called “The Keep­ers” tells the sto­ry of that col­lec­tion, kept for decades in Kitty’s attic, with back­up copies in Michi­gan and L.A. in case of fire. “10 lin­ear feet” of mate­r­i­al, as Kit­ty Bruce remem­bers it.

The sto­ry of that archive involves not only Bruce’s daugh­ter and Shoe­mak­er but also one of Bruce’s biggest cham­pi­ons, Hugh Hefn­er, his daugh­ter Christie, and his lawyer Mar­tin Gar­bus. It also fea­tures Steve Krief, who wrote the first Ph.D. the­sis on Bruce. When Krief vis­it­ed Kit­ty in Penn­syl­va­nia, she told him “you know what I don’t know what I’m going to do with my father’s things. They’re going to get destroyed.” Krief advised her to call Hefn­er, who even­tu­al­ly made a dona­tion to Bran­deis to fund the archive.

Some of the mate­r­i­al, the col­lec­tion notes, “has been pre­vi­ous­ly released in edit­ed form. Most of these record­ings are of Lenny Bruce’s stand-up com­e­dy per­for­mances…. Some of the record­ings are of a per­son­al nature, such as the ‘phone let­ters’ and pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions between Bruce and his friends and fam­i­ly.” At the collection’s site, you can hear frus­trat­ing­ly short, 10-sec­ond clips of sev­er­al rou­tines, but to hear the tapes in full, you need to con­tact the uni­ver­si­ty and set up an in-per­son appoint­ment. But the archive is ful­ly open to the pub­lic, and Bruce’s con­sid­er­able lega­cy is secure. Note: you can hear some longer record­ings on this page: Click here and then scroll down.

It’s a lega­cy that real­ly should be bet­ter known. Bruce con­sid­ered him­self “a sol­dier fight­ing for the Con­sti­tu­tion” and against gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship. With­out him, it’s hard to imag­ine the careers of George Car­lin or Richard Pry­or ever hap­pen­ing, and he even left his imprint on Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, as Gar­bus tells it. At his obscen­i­ty tri­al in New York, for which he was giv­en two years pro­ba­tion, a sen­tence only over­turned after his death, Philip Roth sat in the court­room. Roth lat­er said that with­out Bruce, he couldn’t have writ­ten Portnoy’s Com­plaint.

“Lenny broke down so many bar­ri­ers,” says Gar­bus, and though his humor may seem tame today—though his com­e­dy still holds up—in the ear­ly 1960s few peo­ple dared to say the things he did, the way he did. Bruce railed against the hyp­o­crit­i­cal puri­tanism of Amer­i­can cul­ture and paid a heavy price for telling truths we might take for grant­ed now—and many we still don’t want to hear. (See Dustin Hoff­man doing one of Bruce’s more seri­ous bits above in a clip from the 1974 Bob Fos­se biopic Lenny.) Browse the con­tents of the Lenny Bruce Audio Files here and learn more about Bruce’s life and influ­ence at his offi­cial web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Thank You, Mask Man: Lenny Bruce’s Lone Ranger Com­e­dy Rou­tine Becomes a NSFW Ani­mat­ed Film (1968)

George Car­lin Per­forms His “Sev­en Dirty Words” Rou­tine: His­toric and Com­plete­ly NSFW

Bill Hicks’ 12 Prin­ci­ples of Com­e­dy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.