Lenny Bruce Died 50 Years Ago So You’ll Never Have To

But his spirit lives on, right? Like in a way?

Comedian Lenny Bruce has not had a hit of dope for 50 years, but he got off the stuff the hard way. Bruce expired on the floor of a Hollywood Hills bathroom from “acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose” on August 3, 1966.

It was a tough ending for an entertainer who took the tough route. His career path included best-selling albums, headliner tours, TV spots, books, beauties, and high acclaim as an innovator in free-flowing comedic bursts that were likened to the dizzying riffs of jazz improvisation. Bruce’s trajectory, later depicted by Dustin Hoffman in the 1974 Bob Fosse-directed bio pic Lenny, descended with a string of incarcerations for saying words that the microaggression police would drive him from the Internet for today. At the time of his death, Lenny Bruce had been dragged from the stage and tossed directly into a holding cell more times than Jerry Seinfeld or Louis C.K. have bemoaned the political correctness that has taken the fun out of lucrative college-campus gigs. Unlike these thriving titans of comedy, Lenny Bruce was blackballed, bankrupted, and very likely headed to prison.

In short, Lenny Bruce, flawed human, probable narcissist, apparent drug hog, was a man of principle.

All of the tragedy that befell Lenny Bruce (aside from the nonelective calamity of hard drugs and amphetamine) came about because he insisted on speaking the uncomfortable truths as he saw the uncomfortable truths, using phrasing and perspective that he felt best communicated those uncomfortable truths. Naturally, that behavior coming from a person with an incisive, somewhat irritated intelligence, made people uncomfortable.

In short, Lenny Bruce, flawed human, probable narcissist, apparent drug hog, was a man of principle. And, for some of us, Lenny Bruce turned out to be the best role model we were willing to accept in that role.

Way back during prehistory, when Lenny Bruce had only been dead for around a decade, a Huntington Beach Police undercover narc arrested me for marijuana possession. Since I was a kid, the cops turned me over to my parents.

The next evening, my mom took me to a local shopping mall, and attempted to have the talk with me while we walked. Weed scared her. She buttered me up with this smarm about how smart I was. Did I want to become a dolt who didn’t do well enough in high school to go to college? If I failed to qualify for a college deferment, she reminded me as we strolled into a bookstore, I would be drafted, sent to Vietnam, and killed.

“You love to read,” she observed. “Why don’t you read instead of smoking that stuff?” She was desperate. She offered to buy me a book, whatever I wanted. I picked The Essential Lenny Bruce.

Edited by some dude named John Cohen and published in 1967, The Essential Lenny Bruce is essentially a transcription of Lenny Bruce’s go-to bits. Chapters include “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Pills and Shit: The Drug Scene,” “Balling, Chicks, Fags, Dikes and Divorce,” “The Dirty Word Concept,” “Religions Inc.,” “Spotting Heat, and Understanding Judges and Lawyers,” and “The Good-Good Culture.”

I don’t know how much of it came down to Lenny Bruce’s influence, but after careful study of The Essential Lenny Bruce, and later reading the comedian’s 1967 autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, I ended up working 20 years at Hustler magazine for a man whose idea of satirical social commentary, like Bruce’s, went further than many people care to go.

Shortly after leaving that job, I met Sally Marr—Lenny Bruce’s mother—at a breakfast. I told Sally Marr the story of my mother buying The Essential Lenny Bruce for me, and that I’d gone on to be editor of Hustler magazine. I didn’t know if I should thank Lenny Bruce or blame him for that career arc, but I told Sally Marr a couple of jokes, wry quips that came to me on the spur of the moment, and she laughed. Lenny Bruce’s mother laughed, at my jokes, in a spontaneous and surprised and delighted way. That’s when I knew that my own mother’s worries had been unfounded. I’d turned out to be a guy who could crack up Lenny Bruce’s mother.

Thanks to Kindland!

Allan MacDonell Administrator
Director of Skeeve Allan MacDonell is the author of ‘Prisoner of X’ and ‘Punk Elegies.’
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