Lenny Bruce was a comedian, satirist, social commentator, and rule breaker, whose brilliant, disturbing, and divisive comedy routines led to several arrests on obscenity charges. His bold use of language, his fearlessness in naming social, legal, and political hypocrisies, and his fight for his First Amendment rights paved the way for important changes in this country, not only to its comedic landscape, but also to the rights of its citizens to speak freely and without fear. Brandeis University’s Archives & Special Collections Department acquired the Lenny Bruce collection from his daughter, Kitty Bruce, in 2014, with a generous gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation.
The collection consists of ten linear feet of photographs, writings and performance transcripts, correspondence, news clippings and articles, audio recordings, and trial materials, all related to Lenny Bruce’s performances and life, as well as some materials relating to his family members. Many of the photographs document Bruce’s personal life and show him among friends and family. Bruce’s professional career is well-documented through his manuscripts, typescripts, magazine and newspaper articles and (sometimes annotated) performance transcripts and set lists. The audio materials include excerpts or full recordings of many of Bruce’s performances, as well several personal recordings made at home. The large news clippings and articles series provides insight into the public response to Bruce’s humor and performance style, his legal battles, and the state of free speech in mid-20th-century America. This series includes materials which had been previously gathered by Bruce’s close friend, Ralph J. Gleason, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle who later became the founding editor for Rolling Stone Magazine. The Lenny Bruce collection materials range in date from the early 1920s to the 2000s.
Leonard Alfred Schneider was born on October 13, 1925, in Mineola, New York, to Myron Schneider and Sally Marr. Bruce’s parents divorced when he was young, and Bruce’s early relationship with his father was strained, though Bruce was always very close with his mother. Marr herself was a stand-up comic (one of the first female comedians), and one of Bruce’s earliest public performances was as part of a Sally Marr show. Bruce’s relationship with his father improved later in his life, and some of their correspondence can be found in this collection. Bruce joined the Navy at age sixteen, serving in both Africa and Italy during World War II. He performed his first comedy routine for his shipmates.
Best known for his stand-up comedy, much of which was improvised, Bruce often took a rather free-form, jazz-style approach to his performances, rarely writing his routines down in advance (though he transcribed many of them). As his legal battles began to heat up, Bruce’s routines often dealt with his multiple arrests and court cases. Bruce made several albums of original material and was also a prolific writer, authoring plays, sketch comedy routines, screenplays, and numerous articles for a variety of magazines. He completed an autobiography in 1965, entitled How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, which was rereleased in 2016.
In his stand-up routines, Bruce regularly discussed issues of race, gender, sexuality, sex, politics, and religion, and the language he used was often classified, at the time, as “vulgar,” “obscene,” or “sick.” He was branded the “sick comedian,” and was arrested and tried several times on charges of obscenity. His first such arrest, at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco on October 4, 1961, resulted in an acquittal, but Bruce was busted several more times and eventually found guilty of obscenity on November 4, 1964. The charges for this conviction stemmed from Bruce’s April 1964 performances at Greenwich Village’s Café au Go Go and he was sentenced to serve time in a workhouse, though he died during the appeals process. By the end of his life, Bruce was blacklisted from most clubs in America, and barred from entering England, where he had performed in 1962. His court cases were highly publicized and continue to be considered important moments in the fight for freedom of speech.
When Lenny Bruce died of an accidental heroin overdose on August 3, 1966, he left behind a legacy of groundbreaking comedy and commentary. He left his mark on generations of comedians who cite him as a major influence for their work, who point to Lenny Bruce as having paved the way for how they think about and perform their comedy.
Bruce also left behind an American legal legacy in his years-long battle to speak freely while performing his art. In 2003, thirty-seven years after his death, Bruce was granted a pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction, by New York Governor George Pataki. Bruce’s life and work have been the subject of numerous books, articles, plays, movies, and documentaries. Kitty Bruce continues to honor her father’s legacy; in 2008, she founded the The Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, which combats alcohol and drug addiction with scholarships and education.
Through the things Bruce left behind, his photographs, letters, writings, and recordings, researchers can experience his impact on comedy, free speech, and society in America.
For more details, you can access the collection finding aid here.
The Lenny Bruce collection is open to the public. Please contact us for information on visiting and viewing the collection materials.
On October 27-28, 2016, Brandeis hosted an academic conference: “Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce,” which sought to evaluate the legacy, context, and comedic lineage of the most influential American comedian of the post-World War II era. This conference coincided with the formal opening of this collection of archival material. Parts of the conference were streamed live online and can be viewed here.
Highlights from the collection are currently on display in the Archives & Special Collections department, in an exhibit entitled “Introducing…Lenny Bruce!” This exhibit, based on the collection materials, is an introduction to Lenny Bruce as a person, a son, a father, a comedian, a friend, and as the creator of a comedic and constitutional legacy. Visitors to the exhibit will also be treated to a special exhibit-within-an-exhibit: a display of photographs of Bruce taken and donated by Don Carroll, a professional photographer and good friend of Lenny Bruce. The exhibit will be up Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, through July 2017, and is open and free to all.
The Lenny Bruce Audio Files
In addition, the collection’s audio files have been restored and digitized thanks to a grant from the GRAMMY Foundation. Clips from these files are showcased in this online exhibit.
Description by Surella Evanor Seelig, Archives & Special Collections Outreach Librarian.