Northside SF
The Back Story
Lenny Bruce: What He Said and Why He Said It
photo: courtesy of Fulton Archive
Lenny Bruce, once described as a verbal Hieronymus Bosch, was the bad boy of stand-up comedy. He was an audacious hipster who unleashed long, complicated monologues on sexual hypocrisy, liberal pretense, racism, religion, government, business, and greed.

He shocked audiences by using 4-letter, 10-letter and 12-letter words that now appear in some mainstream publications and even on television. He died in 1963 in Los Angeles of a heroin overdose.

Born in 1925 in Mineola, N.Y., Bruce was the son of Sally Marr, a stand-up comic who had a big influence on his career. He began his comedy routines in Brooklyn and then went to New York State’s Catskill Mountains, where he was a borscht-belt “clean” comic in family resorts. But it wasn’t long before his mouth got him in trouble as he developed his comic niche.

Much of the Lenny Bruce story took place in the fifties and sixties in San Francisco’s North Beach. Back then, North Beach had a loopy, funky edge to it. The night people were really night people, not visitors looking for a San Francisco thrill. Bruce was a genuine night person. He played Anne’s 440 Club on Broadway and later Enrico Banducci’s hungry i, where he had great success.

Showman Banducci once told me, “Lenny was a really sweet man. I gave him his first real club job. I paid him $250 a week. Most of the audience loved him. Once in awhile he dropped a real zinger, and a few people would storm out and demand their money back. I gave it to them.”

Throughout his career authorities hounded Bruce for so-called obscenity. His busts and subsequent trials were highly documented – especially one in North Beach.

In 1960 Time magazine did a cover piece on the new comics. Mort Sahl was on the cover. Inside were photos of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, and a handsome Lenny Bruce that Time identified as “chief among the sick comedians” and said he “… whines and uses four-letter words.” Apparently Time hadn’t caught up with his 10- and 12-letter words.

In 1961 at the Jazz Workshop on Broadway, Bruce was using the words Time missed. A San Francisco police officer, James Ryan, saying he was there on an anonymous complaint, heard Bruce use a 10-letter derogatory word for homosexual and arrested him. Interestingly no customers had walked out in protest.

The officer said to Bruce, “We’re trying to elevate this street. Our society is not geared to this word. How can you break it down?”

“By talking about it,” Bruce replied.

He was booked for violation of Section 205 of the Police Code (“depicting or distributing obscene matter for the sake of prurient appeal”). He made bail and was back at the Jazz Workshop for the second show that same night, where he related his arrest and booking to a standing-room audience.

During the ensuing trial in early March 1962, the 10-letter word that had pushed the police to the limit was exclaimed over and over in the courtroom. This delighted Bruce. An impressive list of experts – including Chronicle columnist and free-speech champion Ralph J. Gleason, who on an album cover had referred to Bruce as a verbal Hieronymus Bosch – testified in his defense. Gleason told the packed court that Bruce’s routines were not intended to be prurient but were simply echoing the long and proud tradition of social satire. One expert even cited Aristophanes and Jonathon Swift. Bruce’s lawyer, Albert Bendich, a noted civil rights attorney, asserted that Beat poet Allen Ginsberg used the same word in the supercharged poetic anthem Howl.

Bruce was acquitted by a Municipal Court jury.


March 2012
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