1.17 / Glass Houses

Social Work: Politics, Police, and the Law in Art, Part 4

By Matthew David Rana June 16, 2010

The Law, Onstage: The People vs. Lenny Bruce                      

A comedian of the older generation did an “act” and he told the audience, “This is my act.” Today’s comic is not doing an act. The audience assumes he’s telling the truth.—Lenny Bruce[1]

Between 1961 and 1965, the American comedian nicknamed “Dirty Lenny,” for his tendency to use profanity in his act, became enmeshed in a series of protracted legal battles stemming from obscenity charges he faced in cities across the United States, including San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.[2] Despite the fact that Lenny Bruce’s trials are widely considered foundational for a contemporary understanding of first amendment protections, this article is less concerned with the trials themselves than with the radical changes Bruce made to his act during those years. Beginning in 1961, shortly following his first San Francisco trial, the man born Leonard Alfred Schneider started performing the law on stage, which opens discussions surrounding the relationship between art and law to broader concerns, including access to the truth and notions of performativity. 

Lenny Bruce’s material was drawn primarily from the lived subjective experience of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and the conditions of the public sphere that marked that expression—and to some extent, those experiences themselves—as unfit for society, fundamentally deviant, prurient, and non-normative. As such, his comedy not only fell outside the highly circumscribed realm of “good taste,” it was considered a threat to American cultural (and moral) values.

Throughout his career, Bruce spoke from the position of a cultural underdog, demonstrating an overwhelming concern with embodiment and relentlessly contesting the ways in which bodies are diminished, dominated, and fixed in relation to forms of discourse, legal definitions, and institutional constraints.[3] Similarly, the comedian’s position on forms of speech further cemented his marginal position with respect to the mainstream culture of the time. He believed that, because words obtain meaning according to their use and the matrices of power in which they are inscribed, these meanings can be engaged through discourse.

His arrests and trials between 1961 and 1966, the year he died from a heroin overdose, reflect the collapsing of the public and the private during the same period, whereby the public sphere—and the modes of speech that can be exercised within its boundaries—became increasingly defined according to private interests. Bruce’s act exposed not only the collusion between government, corporations, and the media, but the fraught relationship between the public expression of the personal, as well.

Indeed, the comic’s arrests during these years are a reflection of their historical moment, during which time the United States’ increased military presence in Vietnam, coupled with mounting social tensions surrounding the American Civil Rights movement, threatened the production of nationalism and its representational forms. These changes are likewise mirrored in the visual arts and literature with the emergence of Pop Art in the early '60s and the growing cultural influence of the beatniks. In both cases, artists self-consciously positioned themselves as outsiders and iconoclasts, critically disrupting the imagery and language used in everyday speech and popular media.

In saying all of this, it is not my intent to further valorize the controversial comedian who has long been sanctified as a tragicomic hero and first amendment icon. This is merely to provide a general context for a discussion of Bruce’s comedy and his trials. In fact, while his work was lauded by contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg as a biting social satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, François Rabelais, and Mark Twain, or alternatively cited as deeply philosophical in its insight, today Bruce’s material (while admittedly brilliant) plays as fairly mundane, having lost much of its subversive quality to time. Indeed, while it is difficult to imagine what comedic transgression on this level would look like in contemporary American culture, his bits are best understood with respect to their historical moment. To get a sense of how unusual Dirty Lenny’s act actually was, one needs to consider his contemporaries, mainstream “button-down” comics such as Steve Allen and Bob Newhart, Milton Berle and other holdovers from the vaudeville and radio eras, amusing audiences with recycled one-liners, imploring someone to “take my wife... please.”[4]

As such, Bruce is credited with paving the way for figures such as George Carlin (whose notorious “seven dirty words” routine likewise caused controversy surrounding first amendment rights) and Richard Pryor—or to take more contemporary examples, Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle. The comedy stage is currently understood as a zone of free speech, a kind of forum in which a myriad of complex social and political issues can be taken up and deconstructed, contested or critiqued.[5] In a somewhat different register, the comedy club can also function as a site in which racism, homophobia, and misogyny, for example, are affirmed and reproduced.

Still, it would be misleading to say that the increased mainstream popularity of comedians of color and queer comedians—or in the case of someone like Margaret Cho, a combination of both—is directly traceable to the outcome of Bruce’s trials and not the result of a broader and significantly more complex set of social and juridical factors. Because while it today appears as though the comedian was victorious, the “not guilty” verdict he received in his second San Francisco trial failed to set a legal precedent for interpreting obscenity or extending free speech protections. In fact, the comedian was subsequently found guilty in his Chicago and New York trials (although, thirty-seven years after his obscenity conviction, the State of New York awarded him a posthumous pardon).

While this is useful to an understanding of the complex relationship between art and law that play out around Lenny Bruce’s trials, it is the comedian’s performances, his negotiations with the law and the stage, that are of particular interest here. In court, Bruce’s satirical brand of comedy was presented primarily in the form of testimony by arresting officers who attended the performance in question. On rare occasions, the comedian was allowed to perform examples of his routine, or play audio recordings of portions of his act in order to provide a certain amount of context, or to clarify what he claimed was misleading testimony or inaccurate transcriptions. However, as one might expect, Dirty Lenny’s act bombed in the courtroom. During his second San Francisco trial in 1962, Bruce was allowed to play an audio excerpt of his bit, “to is a preposition... come is a verb.” However, the presiding Judge Clayton Horn cautioned the court in advance with the following statement:

This is not a theater and it is not a show... I am going to admonish the spectators that you are not to treat this as a performance. This is not for your entertainment. There’s a very serious question involved here, the right of the People and the right of the defendant. And I admonish that you control yourselves with regard to any emotions that you may feel during the hearing this morning or the taping and reproduction of this tape.[6]

It was made clear that any affective response elicited in the listener, any form of laughter was not allowed in the courtroom. In fact, it had been decided that these responses were incompatible with the protocols of the court and the serious legal questions at stake in the trial.[7] If the transition from “act” to “truth” had taken place on the comedy club stage, it was clear that the function of the comedian as a truth-teller was overlooked on the legal stage. As a low form of art when compared with poetry or literature, Bruce’s comedy had no place within a context as highly circumscribed as that of a courtroom. Simply put, the court was not to be mocked with laughter.

Presumably out of frustration, and in response to this and similar occurrences, the comedian began substituting the material from his nightclub act with readings of courtroom transcripts and legal documents, in a sense performing his own version of the law onstage. 

In her book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Peggy Phelan writes that:

performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the representations of representations: once it does so it becomes something other than performance. The document of a performance, then is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present [emphasis mine].[8]

Phelan here considers performance to exist outside of the representational economy of capitalist production. In fact, she

considers performance as demonstrating an ontological resistance to capitalism’s representational frames through a process of absencing—disrupting modes of visibility inscribed on bodies by various discursive systems. She also suggests that to understand a performative act through its documentation is to activate our historical memory. To the extent that the effects of a performance still linger with us in the present, to view the document of a performance is in a sense, to re-inhabit or re-perform its memory, to open it to readings in relation to new and potentially conflicting sets of social, political, and temporal relationships.

Lenny Bruce in "Lenny Bruce" (also known as The Lenny Bruce Performance Film), a hand-held, black and white film shot during the comic’s second-to-last night club appearance in 1965 at San Francisco’s Basin Street West, enjoins us to view the film along the lines that Phelan suggests.[9] During the opening credits, the film’s producer and editor, John Magnuson (presumably) tells us that “This is not a documentary. It is a performance.” The film here also implicates the viewer-as-performer, as though Bruce’s act is made present with each viewing of the film. As such, the relationship the film has to its own veracity as a kind of index or evidence of the truth is unstable, shifting with each change in context and audience. Yet, as one of the few visual records of Bruce’s act, it offers a chance to re-inhabit this performed past/present and reexamine its effects.[10]


Excerpt from The Lenny Bruce Performance Film.

In this film, the comedian repeatedly reads from a list of the various charges brought against him at his New York trial. After each charge, Bruce provides a certain amount of context about the performance in question. He then either launches into scenes from the trial, playing the part of judge, lawyer, witness, and jurists, or he proceeds to reenact the routine he was charged for. Throughout all of this, Bruce expounds on his own interpretations of the law in his signature improvisatory style.

During the last years of his life, Bruce was obsessed with the law, at times even acting as his own counsel, his characteristic “riffing” often takes the tone of a legal argument—nuanced, forceful, and hair-splitting. For example, Bruce describes the ways that laws pertaining to obscenity are misapplied in order to exclude certain forms of representation and visibility from the public sphere—what he described elsewhere as an “illiterate view of the law,” where “tear[ing] off a piece of ass with class” is seen as having more value than a “depict[ion] of factory workers who are not experts in stag shows.” [11]

As an enactment of the law’s tenuous yet undeniable hold over life, Bruce’s performance shows the law’s rigid formality and its incompatibility with the complexity of lived realities. When played out on the stage, the formal apparatus of the law is decoupled from its proper context and its language is severed from the protocols and the performative logic of the courtroom. Watching Lenny Bruce perform his trial is to watch a kind of unraveling of law. The same forces that would ultimately destroy the comedian’s career, are, through their performance, deactivated and held in a kind of suspension. As the raw material for his act, the law becomes technical, theatrical, and at times, absurd. Yet, even in the absence of its direct application, the force of law nevertheless remains present. The comedian appears defeated, pathetic, and at the mercy of the legal apparatus. Although fairly lucid and energetic, Bruce is visibly overweight, sweaty, and disheveled, with dark circles under his sunken eyes. Still, he manages to get laughs from the crowd.

Writing on the historical function of the comedian as the lawless herald of truth, Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that, while the concept of an objective and abstract truth remains suspect, comedy

liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor. It liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years, fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power. It unveils the material bodily principle in its true meaning... this is why it not only permitted the expression of a... popular truth; it helped to uncover this truth and give it internal form.[12]

Here, comedy is considered as a framework in which language that is not permitted, becomes permissible. Comedy is considered as a kind of carnival, a destabilized zone in which the social order is disrupted and contested; the grotesque and the absurd are celebrated.

The social function of comedy is thought to constitute a kind of release-valve. Rather than the temporary suspension of the social order that takes place during feasts, festivals and carnivals, comedy becomes a kind of break within received representational frames: the sovereign is shown to be a fool in Rabelais, the world takes on different physical proportions in Swift, and, in the case of Bruce, President Kennedy appears on television and introduces the “niggers” in his cabinet, or the Pope receives permission from the Vatican to become a nun (but only on Fridays). Comedy is at once considered fantastical and non-instrumental, always existing in relation to, but nevertheless always separate from, the exigencies and necessities of lived reality. At the same time however, comedy is thought to compel in its audience new modes of embodiment and self-relation by providing a context in which truths are not only speakable, but are capable of releasing the subject from domination by institutional/governmental power.

The comedian thus defines him/herself against a reality in which the truth is suppressed. In the context of the comedic stage the truth becomes sayable and representable, albeit in an exaggerated form. If the comedian is the only honest person in a world of hypocrisy and corruption, it is precisely because we anticipate a hidden truth for him/her to expose. Bruce’s performances of the law complicate this projected zone of anomie as a sanctioned space or frame in which the truth of the unrepresentable becomes representable, or the unspoken, spoken. His focus on words—the process of making certain “material bodily principles” and lived realities sayable within public/civic discourse—belies some of these notions. Lenny Bruce’s “sick humor” does not necessarily break with the representational frame in a same way that a parodic exaggeration of the law would. Instead, he brings the opposing logics of law and comedy into proximity through their common performative threads. While law makes claims to the objectivity and permanence of truth, namely that it can be arrived at or verified through a certain set of acceptable procedures and forms of speech, comedy makes a different set of claims in which truth is embodied, impermanent and unstable.

Viewed from this perspective, the “Performance Film,” can be understood, not through the historical function of comedy as a means of revealing a concealed or popular truth beneath the reality of governmental power, nor through the lens of “free speech” versus speech that is suppressed, but rather through the ancient Greek practice of parrhesia or “fearless speech.”

In a series of lectures on this subject given in 1983 at UC Berkeley, Michel Foucault describes the parrhesiastes—or “fearless speakers” who speak truths. Different from sophists and lawyers, who are posited as masters of rhetorical techniques of persuasion, the parrhesisastes are compelled by the force of subjective truths to dispense with all rhetorical strategies (the excessive use of pathos, for example) while speaking. How one proves that they are sincerely speaking the truth—a fearless speaker—is by embodying it, performing it, and making oneself vulnerable by saying things that create the risk of actual bodily harm or retaliation by “the majority,” governmental or juridical authorities.

Foucault suggests that the problematics surrounding the importance of truth-telling—namely who can speak where, when, and why—actually gave rise to the critical tradition in the West by instituting debates surrounding who can obtain and speak the truth, what its forms are, and the proper contexts in which it can be accessed. In fact, he notes that this destabilizing feature of parrhesia quickly found its corollary in notions of expertise, institutional legitimation, and the consolidation of certain forms of speech.           

Lenny Bruce’s performance of the law onstage does not expose the hidden or popular truth of the law—that it is founded on false notions of sovereignty, for example, or that it is better entrusted to “the people” than to judges etc. Nor does Bruce’s performance reject the law entirely. One particularly striking feature of the “Performance Film” is that, the comedian exhibits a great faith in the law throughout his act. Despite the emphasis that he places on the absurdities of courtroom proceedings, the various misapplications of concepts by lawyers, and the misreadings of precedents by judges, Bruce likewise suggests that interpreted correctly, truth and justice—although deferred by the legal system itself—would prevail in the end. However, what the comedian intuited is this: between the law’s inscription and its performance is a tension between competing truth claims. On the one hand, this tension can serve to complicate our understanding of various means of legitimation—in the form of institutions, language and visibility—as well as the policing of who can say what, where, and how. On the other, it points to the fact that (to paraphrase Bruce) what’s true today may be a goddamn lie next week.


Lenny Bruce. The Essential Lenny Bruce ed. John Cohen (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), 111.
[2] Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2002).
One of his more controversial routines surrounded the concept that “You can’t do anything with anybody’s body that will make it dirty, except kill it.”
Interestingly, along with figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, Steve Allen was one of Bruce’s staunchest supporters, having provided the “sick comedian” with his earliest television appearances in the late 1950s.
Despite the fact that comedians are no longer arrested and put on trial for obscenity (at least in the United States), their basic relationship to the law as subjects and citizens for example, remains similar to what it was 50 years ago.
People of the State of California, plaintiff vs. Lenny Bruce defendant, (Superior Court 1962), 288-9.
[7]It should be noted that most of the judges presiding over Bruce’s subsequent trials in Chicago and New York stood in contrast to the permissive judge Horn, whose 1957 decision in the obscenity trial of People vs. Ferlenghetti allowed for the continued sale of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in bookstores.
[8] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 146.
[9] The Lenny Bruce Performance Film, Koch Vision, 2005 DVD, John Magnuson, Dir.
Visual records of Bruce’s performances can mainly be found in archival footage of early television appearances in the 1950s and early 60s, on the Steve Allen show or Hugh Hefner’s short-lived late night television program, “Playboy After Dark.” In a somewhat different register, Dustin Hoffman took on the role of the comedian for the 1974 biopic “Lenny,” which was based on the play of the same name by Julian Barry. However, despite the relative economy of visuals, much of Bruce’s career is documented in the form of comedy albums, recordings of live performances devoted to his “sick humor.”
Lenny Bruce, The Berkeley Concert, Bizarre Planet BP6329, 2004 CD.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), 94.

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