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Lenny Bruce was midway through the word “constitutes”, before his untimely death.

Lenny Bruce: “Are there any niggers here tonight?”.

In March 1964, Steve Allen invited Lenny Bruce to make his 3rd appearance on his show. Before introducing him on stage, Allen spent four minutes explaining and warning his viewers on what they were about to witness on his show. Lenny Bruce had already made two previous appearances, so why the need to give him such a dedicated introduction? He explained that Bruce is not a comedian who just told dirty and foul jokes, but instead;

“He deals with [the] subject matter which many people consider off limits. Religion. Sex from the philosophical viewpoint. Things that will shock you.” — Steve Allen

A great example that comes to mind that backs Allen’s statement, is of one of the first skits I listened to when I discovered Lenny Bruce. He talks about mixed race marriages — which at the time was illegal due to many states passing “anti-miscegenation statute”, in previous decades and it was only until the case for Loving vs Virginia was presented to the supreme court that on June 12th 1967, two months after it was presented and argued, the supreme court ruled Virginia’s anti-miscegenation as unconstitutional of the 14th amendment’s “Equal Protection Clause”. Years before, Bruce — who was a civil rights activist, said in a performance “You have a choice of spending 15 years being married to a woman, a black woman or white woman”, a simplified skit that showed how ridiculous any anti-miscegenation argument was, and flattened it in just 30 seconds.

Lenny Bruce defeats the stance on anti-miscegenation in the early 60's.

Allen explained to the viewers that Lenny Bruce was going to use a four letter word on television that will shock the viewers to their very core. Allen urged any viewer who found themselves to be easily offended or didn’t want to be shocked, to go away and do something else which didn’t involve them watching his show for the next 10 minutes. Why was Allen making such a big deal about this? Why the four minute introduction? Could he really be that bad?!

When he first appeared on the show in 1959, Allen described him as “the most shocking comedian of our time, a young man who is skyrocketing to fame”. Two years later, on February 3rd 1961, New York city was midway through it’s worst blizzard in its history, successfully halting the city to a stand still— the city wouldn’t be hit by such a blizzard until 2011. On that day, Lenny Bruce was making his debut appearance at Carnegie Hall, a sold out performance. People flocked from all over the city, and across the snow to see his performance. It was recorded and said to be one of the greatest performances made in the venue’s history. It’s clear that his demographic audience existed, people who wanted to see him and listen to what he had to say.

New York blizzards. 2011 (left) and 1961 (right).

His performance at Carnegie Hall took place two years before his 3rd appearance on The Steve Allen Show. But at that time of recording, Lenny Bruce was under litigation for ‘obscenity’ by New York’s [then] District Attorney (D.A.), Frank Hogan. At the time of recording the episode, he was restricted by the authorities for using obscene language during his acts. This didn’t phase him. Lenny Bruce was going to do his performance and say that four letter word, no matter what!

Throughout his career Lenny Bruce said whatever he wanted on stage. Most of his acts took place in the underground scenes; jazz bars, strip clubs etc. He couldn’t say any offensive word without getting heat from the authorities. Words such as; shit, fuck, piss, cu — I could go on…even the word schmuck was labelled as obscene and landed him in jail, but Lenny Bruce didn’t care. He was walking on to that stage, knowing that his shocking four letter word could land him behind bars the moment he walked off stage. He gave zero fucks.

Lenny Bruce walks on stage. Looking at the camera, Bruce talks very briefly about his reputation and the first amendment, the freedom of speech and how a law abiding citizen get’s offended by his freedom of speech, but the irony is that he is within his own constitutional right to say whatever he likes, and that there is no law saying that he can not do so. He reiterates what Allen stated, that his current litigation was surrounded by a four letter word that started with an ‘S’ and ended with a ‘T’. He turns his back to the camera “this way, you don’t know who said, the band said it”, he’s timing himself, preparing to say that shocking, obscene, foul, four letter word…he immediately turns around to the camera…

Lenny Bruce on the Steve Allen show, in 1964.

“And that word is ‘Snot’” — Lenny Bruce.

Immediately, Bruce defused the stigma and obscenity of the word “shit”, and transferred it to another harmless four letter word beginning with an “S” and ending with a “T”. He played around with the word, using it in the same context as he would do if the word was “shit”. The audience reacted positively. Lenny had proven his point — words are only offensive because society allows that particular word to be offensive. However, that episode of the Steve Allen Show was eventually shelved by the censors, it was never aired.

Below is a famous segment that was recorded in an underground bar, Bruce performs his “Are there any nigger’s here tonight?” skit. He explains again that words are only offensive because society makes it that way, and it shouldn’t be the case at all. It was performed in front of a diverse audience in a jazz club, which he explains his point perfectly at the end. The skit can also be seen in the movie “Lenny”, performed by Dustin Hoffman who portrays Bruce.

Lenny’s original skit.
Dustin Hoffman performance in the movie “Lenny”.

At the end of his act, Bruce exasperates that the suppression of the word came from the power that people gave to the word. If you make it a taboo to use that word, it’ll give that word a powerful meaning. Well guess what…people who want to offend, they’ll use it to cause harm and offence to whoever feeds up to it. And as a society, we continue to go around in circles.

“’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” — Lenny Bruce.

I speak of a personal experience. I heard two men, in their 50’s, one brown and the other white, refer to their 3rd friend (who was also brown) as the “the paki”. They said it in a light hearted way. When I heard them use the word, I took it in a light hearted way and asked “Whoa! Why did you call him that?!”, they looked confused and replied with “He’s our mate, we always call him ‘the paki’”. Their 3rd friend wasn’t phased by the nickname at all. “I love them, we’ve been friends for god knows how long. I don’t care what they call me because at the end of the day, we’re there for each other”. He explained that he didn’t care what people thought about the nickname because “they aren’t there to understand”. It all comes down to context, not the word. Words may stay the same, context is always going through evolution.

Towards the end of his life, Lenny was constantly caught up in bust ups with the authorities. Bars and theatres were either cancelling his gigs or not booking him at all, out of fear that the police will storm in, arrest Lenny and close the location down indefinitely…he had no income, and whatever money he did have, was spent towards his legal fees obsessively defending his basic right to freedom of speech.

Police allowed journalists & photographers to enter his home for an hour until the morgue arrived.

50 years ago, Lenny Bruce was found dead on his bathroom floor, up in the Hollywood Hills. Only two years after his “Snot” act on the Steve Allen show. He died of an accidental drug overdose. He was 40 years old.

Even up to his last moments, Bruce never backed down from fighting for what he believed in. He never gave up on his first amendment right, freedom of speech. Before Lenny left his typewriter, he was midway through the word “Constitutes”.

“Conspiracy to interfere with the fourth amendment const” — Lenny Bruce.

After Lenny’s death, never would a comedian stand trial for the use of obscene language.

I know words have power. For example, the word “nigger”, represents a time of slavery, extreme racism and social injustice at a basic human rights level. But it comes down to society and yourself as an individual to take that powerful word that is currently suppressed, and change it so that it becomes normalised, just like the word “shit”. It’s important to remember one thing; everything we have created as a species; language, laws, monetary, institutions etc, was appointed by a manmade meaning. Fundamentally, everything we have created, came from nothing thus, meaning that nothing has a meaning. We are nothing at all. We’re simply trying to make our ride, the best ride possible with what we’ve got. It makes no sense to restrict our ride because of what “was”.

Lenny Bruce wanted to point out that your interpretation of that word, will be different from another person’s. It’s deep within yourself who is offended by that particular word, not the word itself. Ultimately, it’s more of a spiritual and philosophical outlook approach that would be required to try and understand within yourself and truly trying to understand the perspective of the person using offending word(s)- “Why did I find this offensive? Why did they choose that word?”.

“Let me tell you the truth. The truth is ‘what is’, and what ‘should be’ is a fantasy…a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave to the people long ago.” — Lenny Bruce.

Lenny Bruce was way ahead of his time. He went on to influence future comedians such as; Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Marc Maron, Louis C.K, Richard Pryor, the list goes on. He challenged the status quo, the hypocrisy and corruption of his own government.

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Kulvir Lehal

Kulvir Lehal

Filmmaker, Advertising, Social Specialist.