Leonard Alfred Schneider, or more commonly known as Lenny Bruce, was a comedian, a
family man, drug addict, and philosopher. A conventional Jewish child from Long Island, who
joked about homosexuality, drugs, religion, and race. Arguably, he paved the way for the comics
of today, paying the price for being twenty years ahead of his time. Addicted to vulgarity and
drugs he became a regular in courtrooms across America. The humiliation he caused a
Philadelphia judge is thought to be another reason he spent so much time in court. His untimely
death still stirs speculation of murder, rather than just another junkie that overdosed.
Bruce was born on October 13, 1925 in Long Island, New York. His father worked as an
orthopedic shoe salesman, who spoiled his only child, while his mother was his best friend. When
Bruce was eight-years-old, his parents divorced. In 1936, his father remarried, and along with
Bruce, they lived a conventional life. However, the jazz musicians and drug influences around him
impacted him and the way he talked. At age seventeen, Bruce joined the Navy. But after two
years of fighting fascists, he became tired of it. He went to the medical officers proclaiming that
he was obsessed with homosexuality. Shortly after, he was dishonorably discharged (Hendra 115).
Once he came home his father had offered him a job selling orthopedic shoes. However,
Bruce had other plans; he wanted to be a comedian. Bruce started as an impressionist, although
he was not very good. In 1948 the “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Show” offered Bruce a
television appearance and a chance perform his act. Few bookings were made after that broadcast.
Bruce’s career had started slowly; making appearances at strip clubs and performing his act.
Harriet Lloyd, or “Honey”, was a stripper at one of the clubs where he performed. And, in 1951
she became his wife (Kronke). Together, they moved to Los Angeles and did acts that he
directed. Bruce and his new wife soon expanded the family-having a girl whom they called Kitty.
Even with his new family, Bruce continued doing acts at strip clubs. Once while performing at a
strip club, Bruce stripped naked and said, “What’s the big deal? This is what you came for isn’t
it?”(Hendra 116). This shocking type of behavior was thought to be the turning point of his
From that revealing show in 1955 to shows in 1957, he was an icon for many clubs in Los
Angeles. He worked mainly at the Crescendo, where he would get on stage and ask people if they
had babysitters at home, then he would call the babysitter and tell them that their employer had
just died in a car accident (Hendra 125). This was one of his most popular acts. Performing at the
clubs allowed him to play with the audience; even if it included playing an awful joke on someone.
A definitive moment in his career took place in 1959, when a fan of Bruce’s and a host of a
popular NBC television show, asked him to appear on the show. Steve Allen, the host of “ The
Steve Allen Show,” had Bruce on twice that year, each time the NBC producers were strictly
censoring any material he used. Words that may have made Lenny Bruce a strip-club-favorite,
on air. These regular appearances at clubs and television shows helped pay for a growing drug
In 1959, Bruce was busted for possession of narcotics. To stay out of jail he cut a deal
with the L.A.P.D. and agreed to turn in drug dealers that he knew. Later, while in Philadelphia in
1961, he was arrested for having prescription drugs such as amphetamines. (Kronke). After the
trial Bruce went public about a corrupt Philadelphia Judge who would drop the charges for a fee.
Once he humiliated this elected official prosecutors and judges went after him. Just five days after,
while in San Francisco, he was arrested. From that point on Bruce could not get away with
Bruce’s way of talking was not acceptable public speaking at the time. His blunt and
sometime harsh words were classified as “dirty words”. Constantly he made fun of issues that
were not spoken in public such as homosexuality, drug addicts, and communism. He would say
things like, “(My friend) Carmelo’s mother was a manicurist and the town whore. The symbols of
my childhood are gone–what a shame!–the country doctor, the town whore, village idiot, the
drunken family from the wrong side of the tracks have been replaced with the communist, the
junkie, the faggot, and the beatnik,” (Lenny Bruce). Once, while performing in 1964 at the Cafe
au Go-Go in New York, not long after the Kennedy assassination, Bruce made a joke about
Jackie Kennedy’s actions when the gunshots took place. She was sprawled out on the trunk trying
to get out of the backseat of the car, where the gunshots were aimed, and Bruce said she was
“hauling ass to save ass.” That night there were several N.Y.P.D. Theatrical Crit. Squad members
taking notes on everything that they felt was important. Once Bruce finished his comment about
Jackie Kennedy they arrested him (Hendra 169-170).
Bruce’s vocabulary often did not meet the standards of the society then, but now
comedy acts like his are regular. Had Bruce not stood his ground, many comedians would have
had to fight for their right of free speech. In this way, Bruce was ahead of his time and paved the
way for the comedians of today (Allen 65-68).
On August 6, 1966 Lenny Bruce died from an overdose of heroin. The suspicious part of
his death was the fact that Bruce’s normal habits when getting high were not present. Usually
when he would use heroin, there would be candles, a spoon, cotton, some blood from jacking the
spike, but none of these agents were present. For many, the scene was too clean. On the desk in
the room next to where he was found, was an IBM on which he wrote his last words, “Conspiracy
to interfere with the fourth amendment const…” (Goldman 554).
Bruce had gone to court many times, but for few reasons. Many times over he would
defend his stance on freedom of speech and his rights. Trial after trial he fought the same loosing
battle, but he never gave up. People have referred to him as a philosopher when it came to
speaking the mind and determination of what is right (Allen 77).Lenny Bruce was a great thinker
and comedian, that did not just push the envelope to the edge, but over. Although his
drug habit may have killed him, it sustained his sanity. Without it, he would have either gone
insane or given up on comedy and the fight for what is right. His determination for freedom of
speech and character gave society a look into the real world, and not the sugar-coated version.
Allen, Steve. Funny People. Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day,1981.
Goldman, Albert. Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!. New York: Random House,1971.
Hendra, Tony. Going Too Far The Rise and Fall of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo,
Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor. New York: Doubleday,
Kronke, David. “Comic Lenny Bruce Lionized For First Amendment Stands.” Los Angeles Daily
News 9 Aug.1999:06.
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