Lenny Bruce 1925–1966
(Pseudonym of Leonard Schneider) American comedian, writer, and actor.
Bruce used comedy as a vehicle to shock audiences out of their complacent acceptance of the status quo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of the set routines favored by his contemporaries, he employed spontaneous monologues on the restrictions imposed by church and state on politics, sex, and religion. By lampooning outdated and bigoted American attitudes, Bruce wished to exorcise the narrowmindedness of his audience. Because of the vulgar, scatological language and iconoclastic satire integral to his act, Bruce was criticized during his lifetime as a "sick" comic and was eventually barred from performing in many establishments. Since his death, however, his comedy has been hailed as a forerunner of the political and social changes of the late 1960s.
Bruce's humor stemmed from his childhood disillusionment with movies, cartoons, and radio. He felt that through its popular culture, America instilled false hope of a perfect world. In response, Bruce introduced a style of humor that combined fantasy and reality to produce outrage by ridiculing such characters from the media as the Lone Ranger, and such leaders as Eisenhower, Hitler, and the Pope. By debunking them, Bruce felt that he would strip them of their mythical appeal and expose their essential ridiculousness. Bruce's pieces were often cinematic in scope—he produced a variety of characters and situations to dramatize society's foibles. In some of his most acclaimed pieces, including "Father Flotsky's Triumph" and "London Palladium," Bruce described characters and settings as if they were scenes from a movie.
Bruce used show business as a metaphor for life; his comedy is based on the assumption that all authority, whether political, social, or religious, was nothing but a racket run by petty hustlers and agents. Bruce regularly incurred the wrath of the outraged authorities he criticized. He made frequent appearances in court on obscenity and drug charges, and his humor became increasingly cynical and his act more unstructured. Bruce eventually dropped the routine format completely as his art and personal life merged. Bruce received support from his audience; in 1964 the courts of New York received a petition from over one hundred leaders in the arts, praising Bruce as a social satirist "in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais, and Twain." Bruce finally turned his performing talents to his own legal self-defense, and in his fight for the right to express himself onstage he lost interest in entertaining. Although his trials ended successfully, he felt his life had lost its challenge, and he died of a drug overdose which may have been intentional.
Bruce achieved his greatest fame posthumously. In the space of a few years, his reputation has reversed itself completely. He is currently considered a deeply moral pioneer of contemporary liberal thought, rather than a childish, perverted comedian, the opinion of most people during his lifetime. Young people are especially impressed by his courage and incisive wit. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)