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.