Pages 87-96 of the long out of print book "The Cool Crazy Committed World of the Sixties"
by Pierre Berton (McClelland and Stewart, 1966) The interview was conducted in Hollywood
in February 1966, filmed for Canadian TV, Lenny's last TV appearance before his death.
BEFORE HIS TIME
"In freedom of speech,
the accent is on freedom,
not on speech"
It was said of Lenny Bruce that he execrated all that is unctuous and sanctimonious in our
society from Santa Claus to small "l" liberals. He was a man who attacked the real sacred
cows to his personal cost, while others attacked the pretend ones to their personal benefit.
He preached that sex is not dirty, that drug addicts are not criminals, and that homosexuals
should not be persecuted. He said that "every man who professes to be a man of God and owns
more than one suit is a hustler - so long as there are people in the world who don't have any."
Kenneth Tynan, the British critic, praised him as an impromptu prose poet "who uses words the
way a jazz musician uses notes," but few critics were as ecstatic. Others called him an egotist,
a vulgar, tasteless boor, a hard-core pornographer, and a sick comedian for sick comedians.
Bruce attacked the most sacred taboos of the Judaeo-Christian society: those short, explosive
words that are commonly accepted shorthand for longer, more euphemistic phrases dealing with
matters sexual. Because he believed these words derive their strength from being taboo, he tried
to devaluate them by constant public use. It was this that got him into a peck of trouble and
made it virtually impossible for him to perform anywhere in the United States, Canada, or Great
Britain (from which he was barred in 1963).
Bruce's career reached its peak around 1961. Then it went steadily downhill to the point
where he was destitute. Over and over again he was hauled into court. Over and over again he
fought back, his head bloody but unbowed. He became a man obsessed with the law. It consumed
his waking hours and haunted his sleep. Toward the end of his life, he talked of little else;
his friends, bored and exhausted, had deserted him; his social life, he told me, had been
In the mid-Sixties, he seemed less a child of his time than a child before his time. Just as
Lady Chatterley's Lover, the cause célèbre of an earlier decade, seems mild fare today, so I
suspect will Bruce's taboo-breaking monologues seem relatively innocuous to a coming generation.
Though he was virtually out of business when I interviewed him, his prsonal following remained
impressive. It is no accident that, without the advantage of any TV appearances, the recorded
monologues of this essentially moral and unvengeful man have - when available - consistently
outsold those darlings of the Critical Establishment, Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters. The
Critical Establishment wanted no truck nor trade with Bruce, the idol-smasher. But there was as
enormous if largely incoherent underground movement that considered him one of its high priests.
Bruce, who saw so much so clearly, understood all about this and the reasons for it, which is why
he didn't blame the critics for disliking him. "It's not their fault they don't understand," he
said. "Each generation is incoherent to the next. They can't help it. They're old."
Bruce rarely appeared on television. Most of the time he wasn't wanted, and when he was he
often declined. He had turned down a much fatter fee from another Canadian program just the week
before he agreed to appear with me. It was, I believe, his last appearance before his death in
August, 1966. The comments I heard about him in Hollywood, where we taped the program in
February were discouraging: "You'll be sorry ... he won't show ... wait till he starts talking
dirty ... you'll never get it on the air ... who can understand him? ... he'll put you down ...."
But Bruce, arriving on the dot of time, turned out to be a mild-mannered man who, without
histrionics, obscenities, or self-pity, calmly set out to discuss with me his trouble with the
Since he had once been described as a man with a message for humanity who was willing to risk
jail for it, I began by asking for his comment.
LENNY BRUCE: I don't know if it's a message for humanity, but my point of view is that under our
constitution no American citizen is born with an original sin. Therefore, the burden is not upon
any of the citizens in our country to prove that our speech is beyond reproach, but respected and
protected by the constitution. The difficulty I've had is with the people who confuse themselves
with the authorities. Which I believe is a quasi-religious point of view.
PIERRE: Well now, let's go back a moment and get some statistics here. I think I'm right in
saying that back from 1956 to 1960, you made well over one hundred thousand dollars a year,
whereas last year you only made about two thousand dollars, which is obviously quite a change in
your life. You're almost broke. You've spent about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in
lawyers fees. Is this correct?
LENNY BRUCE: Yes. Most of the money I've earned, in the courts - fighting with these people who
act under the collar of the law, without the authority of it.
PIERRE: There have been nine charges against you over the past three or four years. Seven have
been for obscenity and two for narcotics. Now you still have not gone to jail for any of them.
I think you have been acquitted on all but one.
LENNY BRUCE: Well, there is a difference between going to jail: I have gone to jail on all of
them, but there has been no judgment. I've appealed and I've won my appeals. But it has been a
trial by ordeal. It's cut a lot of my income out, changed my social life, and changed my point
of view on stage.
PIERRE: Now the two charges against you for narcotics were for using drugs, and yet you claim
you're not a drug addict - that you don't use drugs except for medical reasons. Is this not
LENNY BRUCE: The problem I had there was that the peace officers who had arrested me had arrested
me previously on charges of obscenity. They had decided that the medication that I had, although
it was prescribed by a doctor, was fooling the law.
PIERRE: What do you mean by that?
LENNY BRUCE: It's the only conclusion I can make. Again, that they have not a truly religious
view but a quasi-religious view that the law is something that is out to trap you. They don't
realize that it is created by We The People. They think there is a good and evil in the law
instead of a right and wrong in the law - that the people who enforce the law are the goodness
and anybody who has a prescription for any medication is obviously fooling the law because they
are not supposed to have that unless they are in the hospital.
PIERRE: You suffer from a nervous disorder that requires certain drugs?
LENNY BRUCE: I never use any narcotics; I use a stimulant called methedrine which is listed as a
dangerous drug. It is the same drug that the astronauts take.
PIERRE: And you carry around with you a doctor's letter saying that you require the drug?
LENNY BRUCE: Yes, and their opinion was that I was just doing that to trick the law.
PIERRE: And it's your belief that, if you hadn't been up on the obscenity charges, there would
have been no narcotics charges against you?
LENNY BRUCE: That's really where it's at.
PIERRE: Then let's talk about really what we are here to talk about: the seven charges against
you for obscenity which really get down to your use of four-letter words in night clubs, don't
they? Or do they?
LENNY BRUCE: Well, they really don't. The law is very precise on what is obscene. I think that
anyone will take judicial notice of the fact that what art is is a portrayal. For instance, if I
was now to take a motion picture of you as an artist, all that anyone could judge would be my art
as a motion-picture producer depicting another artist at work. And, since all art is just
another portrayal of another art, what happened in my case is that a peace officer would view my
art and then go before agrand jury or magistrate and would say: "Here's my resumé of Lenny
Bruce." And the magistrate would watch the peace officer be a comedian and he would say: "That
PIERRE: The peace officer would be doing your act in court?
LENNY BRUCE: Yes.
PIERRE: But you weren't allowed to do your act in court?
LENNY BRUCE: Well this was before the court case . This was on the complaints made against me.
The peace officer says: "I saw a man who did an obscene show." The magistrate says: "Well, if
you have the evidence...." The peace officer says: "I can do it for you." And he does the show.
The magistrate, in effect, says: "That's a terrible show" and has me arrested for the peace
officer's act. The irony of it is that I have to go to court and defend the peace officer's act.
That's why, in the last case, I refused to appeal: I don't want to win the right to do another
PIERRE: Let's get this clear: if something is considered art, it can't be considered obscene.
You say that what you are doing is art. Even if it requires the use of certain taboo words,
those words may be part of that art as, indeed, they are in books like Ulysees and Lady
Chatterley's Lover. But you can't let somebody else do your act and still call it art. And
that's what the police officer does when he gets the summons to haul you into court?
LENNY BRUCE: Which is against the law.
PIERRE: And that's really the irony of the whole thing?
LENNY BRUCE: The reason it's against our law came from the British law. It was a case called
"Regina versus Hicklin," and at that time there was a book called The Confessional Unmasked, and
the judge was the Lord High Cockburn. It was in 1869. He ruled that the test of obscenity was
it's effect on the most corruptible mind in the community. And that was the test the American
courts adopted until about 1931. In 1931, when Ulysses came up, Judge Wolsey, and Judge Learned
Hand in another case following, said: "I don't think that will be a good American system - to
judge the work by the most corruptible mind in the community. Because if we use that for a
standard, all the literature in our country will be directed at the most corruptible mind in the
community." And, he said, instead of that we had better have it directed at the normal, average
man with the normal, average sex instincts - and not use the isolated excerpts. Rather, judge
the work as a whole. In this way, no artist will ever be judged on somebody else's work. That
is the clear rule, and the Supreme Court has held to that rule. And people who don't agree with
the Constitition - people who again have a quasi-religious view - continually interfere with
PIERRE: You know a lot about the law.
LENNY BRUCE: I've spent the last two or three years now reading about ten hours a day. First,
the United States Constitution very thoroughly; then all the laws that were passed to enforce
the provisions of the United States Constitution; then all the people who violated the
Constitution - their arrests, their cases, and their appeals, their exceptions, and every
PIERRE: This has changed your life, hasn't it?
LENNY BRUCE: Oh yes, I have a much different view of the law.
PIERRE: When you were first arrested in 1962, allegedly for an obscene act, did you think you
LENNY BRUCE: Well, the first time I was arrested for obscenity, I was ashamed. Because I never
dreamed that the man who was arresting me didn't know the law! Because when a man says to you:
"You're under arrest for violation of 326!" and he is a law enforcement officer, you assume that
you must have violated the law. But after I was arrested for the second and the third time, I
started reading the law, and I realized that I was not violating the law. I realized that the
California legislature passed the law. I realized that We The People are the law! Any law
that's on our books today, we agree to it either by not voting against it or by voting for it,
and that the only people who enforce the law correctly are the people who do enforce it
PIERRE: You've had a rough road, and yet you don't feel very bitter about this. Instead, you
seem more intrigued and interested.
LENNY BRUCE: I think you get sort of depersonalized when you start to read. From reading,
especially now, I believe we are the most successful country in the world because we worship a
charter, a blueprint - the United States Constitution. In some countries that are ruled by a
religious faction, they can hand out franchises, like Howard Johnson, and each person can use
the franchise in their own way. In our country, you can't. You go right to the charter. The
charter is correct; it is precise. If it's not there, it's just not right.
PIERRE: Now tell me what happened. Is it hard for you to get work? Because of the charges
LENNY BRUCE: Like what happened to me in England: I liked England, and I was very well received
by the press; but then, when i came back from this country, I was arrested. I was arrested in
town A, and if towns B, C, and D don't arrest you, they are not doing their jobs. That's the
big problem we have in our country: unfortunately we elect people on their record. I think that
law-enforcement officers should be treated like the postman. They shouldn't have to be keeping
busy all the time. We demand that the man do his job and keep busy; and when the crime rate
drops - which it has in this country because the welfare is up and the economy is up - it results
in a lot of false arrests. The poor police officer is put in the position of doing his job when
he's not required to do his job. Because he's of shore tenure, and that's what he's elected on.
You find it with a [civil rights] demonstration. How do we have law in our country? Well, let's
reduce it to the very first law. Let's say we all made an agreement; we said: "We'll sleep in
area A; we'll eat in area B; we'll throw our garbage in area C. Because that's the rules."
Everybody agreed on it. Everybody went to sleep. Then, say, some guy woke up and he got a face
full of garbage. So he says: "What's the deal here? I thought we had a rule: A, B, and C."
So they discovered that although they had a rule, there was no way to enforce it. So then they
had to get somebody to enforce the law. So they said: "All right; this is what we'll do: if
anybody throws any garbage on us while we're sleeping, he gets thrown where the garbage is.
But the problem is that we have to do business with these people so we can't throw them where
the garbage is. So we'd better get someone else to do it. We'll get some 'law-enforcement
officers.'" And they said: "Look, we're trying to get some sleep, but people are throwing
garbage on us. So if anybody throws any garbage on us while we're sleeping, they get thrown in
the garbage. But don't do it in front of me - because I want somebody to be the bad guy, and
I've got to do business with these people, and you've heard me say a lot of times that it takes
a certain mentality to do this work." So when the demonstrations come, that's the way the law
is. You can't change the law without repealing it. So you've got a poor peace officer with a
stick in his hand, and fifty thousand people throwing rocks, sticks and stones - and the thing
stopping them is him. In fact, he is really doing the job of a public servant, but people
always sort of want to beat the devil. The newspapers - they can only sell papers, you know,
by showing what they assume is the bad guy. This creates, you know, a bit of a problem.
PIERRE: Now, Mr. Bruce, let's talk about the business of taboo words - the so-called four-letter
words that you do use. What is their purpose? Is it necessary to use these words?
LENNY BRUCE: Well, first of all, I never talked about sex on the stage. I discuss religion . . .
I criticise the authorities . . . but sex, that's not my point of view, that's not my interest.
The way I do my act is that I portray many different characters throughout many different
regions. I do the dialect of the regions; therefore, I do the portrayal of the character. To
have each character speaking like a Cockney, but talking as an Italian, the people would think
I was absurd. So the character has to be real. And that cliché about freedom of speech doesn't
mean you can go far in a crowded theatre. Because the stage is make-believe: you can kill
Christ on stage, and no one takes you away at the end and puts you in jail. It's make-believe!
The mistake is to believe that the American theatre is an instruction of morality, which it is
not. The reason the Supreme Court is very concerned with the First Amendment is that it is the
only strength our country has. In freedom of speech, the accent is on freedom, not on speech.
It's the right to get it across, to communicate - the right of the reader to read it and the
person to say it. In other words, a discussion on syphilis is not an instruction to get it.
A country can only be strong when it knows all about the bad - the worst, worst things. When it
knows about the bad, then it can protect itself. The country that only knows all about the nice
things about itself ends in failure, as Hitler did.
PIERRE: What you're saying is what is being argued on behalf of novels - that in dialogue, to
be realistic, you must let the character speak the way he would in real life - in the army, say.
LENNY BRUCE: Well, anywhere they speak Jewish, they speak Jewish. And if they speak a verbotten
language, then they speak a verbotten language.
PIERRE: This right has now been won by the authors who write the printed word.
LENNY BRUCE: It's never been lost. That's the thing: the protection has always been there.
There's been a misreading. Actually, it's a handful of insurance attorneys who don't practise
law. They feed upon all of these cases. There's a lot of money to be made in pornography. Let
me tell you where the money is made: there is a whole department devoted to pornography. And
none of these pornography cases is ever brought by the people. They are always brought by the
police officer. So what we have is an army of peace officers searching about in cellars for
pornographic books. They find the books - they're supporting all of the books - and then it goes
to court. It's a bunch of nonsense! It's an obscenity circus! The people are not concerned
with it; and it costs a fortune. And, of course, there's the fact that each book costs five
dollars and it comes from some kind of a fund. We end up with a dirty-book tax fund to support
these cases, which is nonsense. People who are so on the band wagon for cleanliness really
don't realize what's happening.
PIERRE: Let me ask you this, in this connection: is there such a thing as obscenity, and if so
what does it mean to you?
LENNY BRUCE: All right, "obscenity," in the dictionary sense, is entirely different from
"obscenity" in the legal sense. The reason those things have to be different is that none of us
voted on the dictionary. When we agree on the legal sense of the word, that's where its firmed
up and nobody can change it. Now, the legal meaning of "obscene" is that, first, you have to
take the thing, judge the matter, whatever the work is - whatever the medium of expression is.
And the law writes with sort of parenthetical statements: such as "obscene" means "to the
average person" - which refers to the earlier case we talked about, "Regina versus Hicklin" -
and in the second parenthetical statement - "applying contemporary community standards." Of
course, realizing that a judge that doesn't get out much, doesn't see too much - might perhaps
be a little Victorian in his standards - they keep warning the laws to provide for exceptions.
Obscene means again "to the average person applying contemporary community standards" - that
must be the predominant appeal. That's what we are really talking about: to be "obscene," it
must appeal to the "prurient interest." That means that if the work is dedicated to do nothing
else but to upset the happily married couple, then the people decide they don't want it. And
that's what "obscene" is. You see the difference between the artist who depicts life and the
artist that takes out a piece of life and predominantly pushes that point across for just one
reason: to exploit that part of life that is considered forbidden. There is no artists work
that ever gets into court because, if it is art, the court doesn't look at it. You see, that's
the mistake of all these cases: that the right of property has to be forfeited before the trial
starts. The bad thing has to happen. In other words, somebody had to bring the work before the
judge and say: "Here it is; here is the bad thing."
PIERRE: Somebody had to decide that without recourse to anybody but himself.
LENNY BRUCE: Yes; "Here is the contraband." When it is decided that it is contraband, then the
PIERRE: Do you think that it is necessary for us to have an obscenity law at all?
LENNY BRUCE: Any law that we have on our books is necessary.
PIERRE: You accept that?
LENNY BRUCE: Oh yes. In other words, we make the law - the people. And the way to solve any
judicial abuse, any legislative abuse, is right at the polls. The only way you can argue it is
to vote against it, and that's where it's at. All of our laws. So there's nobody can say:
"Well, what do you think about our law?" They have to obey the law.
PIERRE: So you don't object to the law. You object to the way it has been used.
LENNY BRUCE: Yes, but unconstitutionally applied. The law is crystal clear, and these people
who abuse it are very dissatisfied with the law.
PIERRE: How do you earn your money now? How do you support your child and your mother?
LENNY BRUCE: Well, I haven't in the last six months.
PIERRE: Is this mainly because you have occupied yourself with the law, or mainly because you
just can't get work? Your albums aren't selling; you can't get people to buy them? They won't
stock them and put them in their windows.
LENNY BRUCE: Well, no; I'm a fugitive from justice from New York, which I intend to solve by
going to Federal Court and bringing these people to justice.
PIERRE: You can't work in the New York night clubs?
LENNY BRUCE: Yes, and that's what has happened all over - just through hearsay. The people whose
duty it is to preserve the moral fibre of the community are naturally not put upon to search
around and see if I got a fair trial. If they just hear about it that there may be a danger to
the community, it may be their duty to keep me out - which is understandable. The fact is that
they would have no idea that i've been arrested nine times maliciously without provocation. It
wouldn't seem reasonable until that point is brought out. The way to bring it out is in the
proper place, and that is in court. I intend to go into the Federal Courts and sue these
people under the civil rights act.