Tribute: 48 Years Ago, Lenny Bruce Died
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Tribute: 48 Years Ago, Lenny Bruce Died


Tribute 48 Years Ago Lenny Bruce DiedI think it sucks that not everyone knows who Lenny Bruce—who died of acute morphine poisoning 48 years ago this week—is. Even I, who grew up loving Bruce’s successors like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Denis Leary (sorry Bill Hicks), had no idea who Lenny Bruce was until I moved to Los Angeles and became a stand-up comedian. And truthfully, I didn’t know much beyond his name until a fellow comic forced me to sit down and watch Lenny, the Bob Fosse directed biopic starring Dustin Hoffman. So if you don’t know, in brief, Lenny Bruce was a stand-up comedian in the 1960s whose outspoken and radical musings led him to a series of arrests for obscenity that earned national attention. He also had a pretty gnarly drug habit that ultimately led to his death at the age of 40. So, if Lenny Bruce were alive today, he’d be 88 years old (and surely look like hell).

While some common folk may not know the Bruce’s name, you’d be hard pressed to find a comedian in the last 40 years who didn’t pay homage to him. Bruce was a pioneer for free speech and his public shenanigans and his raucous, ever-changing stand-up act paved the way for people like George Carlin, Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern (thanks?). Bruce was also avidly political and often used the stage to rant about current events, which toward the end of his life centered on his own legal battles and compromised civil liberties by law enforcement and a fascist judicial system.

Bruce may not have been the first “dirty” comedian but he was arguably the first well-known one. And while he suffered dearly for lack of censorship, Bruce’s casual use of “cocksucker” or insinuation to male ejaculation hardly seems worth mentioning compared to some of the “Grandma got fisted by a reindeer” comedians of today. But Bruce didn’t just use dirty words; he attacked the status quo attitudes on vulgarity as well as on religion, politics and sex. He voiced aloud what most people barely had the guts to think about—and he did so at a price. Being on the periphery of mainstream society isn’t easy, especially when you are the only there, so it’s no real surprise that Bruce’s drinking and drugging escalated over time. It’s got to take a lot of opiates to have the chutzpah to call someone a “dwarf motherfucker” in public in the early 1960s.

After 15 arrests over a two-year period—for charges ranging from obscenity to impersonating a priest—as well as a copious amount of drugs, Bruce had become paranoid. Perhaps the paranoia was a symptom of the illness he was self-medicating to cover up but he believed that the American government was out to get him on account of his public rants about the corruption of religion and the like. He could have been right, but in typical drug addict fashion, he refused to recognize his part—making himself an easy target with his drunken disorderly demeanor, grandiose behavior and possession of narcotics. His heart was in the right place but unfortunately the needles were not.

As a stand-up comedian who has been labeled “dirty” since day one, you would think I would be forever grateful to the legacy of Lenny Bruce. But for some reason, Bruce’s falling on the sword for free speech never really trickled down to dirty female comedians—or at least to me. There is little doubt that Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler or Amy Schumer would exist if it weren’t for predecessors like Bruce (or even more so, Joan Rivers). But man oh man, do I wish Daddy Bruce was still kicking around so those of us confined to killing in bar rooms might have a leader—a respected mouthpiece to rage against the pitiful and fearful entertainment industry that is still sadly run by the threatened and judgmental palette of the Midwestern consumer. Oh Lord, don’t get me started.

What I am trying to say is, while I never knew Lenny Bruce, I miss him. America so lacks controversial leaders—as a society, it’s safe to say we have lost our balls—so it’s especially sad that drugs took one of our few men that actually had them.

Photo courtesy of Paul Neugass (Paul Neugass) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.