From `Newsweek' July 20, 1964
In one of Lenny Bruce's nightclub routines he tells how his lawyer urged
him to wear a blue suit for one of his numerous appearances in court: "A Blue
suit, Lenny, that's how they tell who the criminal is." For the past two
weeks Bruce has been wearing the suit - pale blue dungaree trousers and
matching collarless jacket - in a large air conditioned room in New York's
Criminal Courts building. But it was becoming harder to know who the
criminal was, for Bruce's trial on charges of having given obscure
performances at a Greenwich Village cafe last April was developing into an
arena for broad, complex, and traditionally befogged social issues.
The basic issue was to define the limits of language and behaviour of an
entertainer who is at the same time a disturbing social critic. As one
witness said: "There's been a new type of humor in American nightclubs in
the past ten years - topical type - and Bruce is the most important of the
comedians on this theme." These comedians are people such as Mort Sahl,
Shelley Berman, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and Bob Newhart. Their humor is
the probing, jaundiced, irreverent look at the way we live, whose two poles
are the domesticated, ingratiating spoofing of a Vaughan Meader and the
scathing, self-lacerating, jivey j'accusing of Bruce himself.
Bruce hits his audiences where they live - or think they do - in their
religion, their sex lives, their politics, their prejudices and
prevarications. And he does this by using many of the same shock techniques
of language and behaviour that modern writers, artists, and even musicians
are using to cut through the crust of custom and apathy. He has become a
hero to thousands of young people who want to laugh, but at something more
important than Crosby's money or Hope's golf score.
MISTAKEN IDENTITY: At the trial, Bruce sat at the defense table like a
case of mistaken identity - long, black, curly hair, a prophet's beard
(which he shaved off halfway through the court proceedings - "Let's not make
it too easy"), heavy pouches under his eyes, his gaze on his fingertips or
on the raised gold letters on the wall behind the judges banc: "In God We
Trust" ("It should be `No Smoking'," he remarked during a recess).
The language at issue in the trial was heard in police-made tape
recordings, scratchy and at times unintelligible, of the performances at the
Cafe Au Go Go. They were listened to solemnly by a three-judge tribunal
headed by Administrative Judge John M. Murtagh, and with obviously repressed
enjoyment by the spectators. Here, in Bruce's rapid-fire delivery was his
mordant inquiry into conremporary manners and morals, with it's familiar
four-letter words and a slightly less familiar hyphenated twelve-letter one.
UNIQUE EXPERIENCE: To Assistant District Attorney Richard M. Kuh, a
square-jawed defender of the public good, the performances were obscene
because they offended prevailing community standards in matters of speech
and lacked any redeeming social value. Against this, Bruce's chief counsel,
Ephraim London (who has won a series of key censorship cases), sought to
establish the ubiquity of Bruce's "dirty" language throughout broad segments
of society. When Judge Murtagh declared that he had never heard such
language in the army, London replied, "Your experience is surely unique."
But the conflict went much deeper. In the face of continued opposition
on the part of the D.A., London brought to the stand a steady line of
witnesses to establish the artistic merit and social utility of Bruce's work.
NEWSWEEK'S drama critic, Richard Gilman, led off with a detailed appreciation
of Bruce's comic and imaginative gifts; critic Nat Hentoff said that "Bruce
makes people think, he provokes his audience with absurdity and gets them
to react"; satire cartoonist Jules Feiffer said that after seeing Bruce, "I
leave thinking I don't hit hard enough." Episcopal minister Sidney Lanier
thought that Bruce's performances were "in some ways helpful, and even
But the most startling and in some ways most effective witness was Hearst
columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. Sitting demurely on the stand, she withstood
a biting attack on her qualifications - "You write a chitchat column, don't
you?" asked Kuh - and went on to describe Bruce as a "brilliant...moral man"
with "valid, important comments whether or not I agree with them."
Against this array of witnesses from the entire cultural spectrum, the
prosecution was able to marshal only their tapes, some officially humorless
policemen, and Department Licenses inspector Herbert S. Ruhe, whose notes on
Bruce's performance were unsuccessfully challenged by the defense, which made
its objection on the ground that they were selective and therefore a
At the end of the week the trial was abruptly adjourned. Judge Murtagh
announced that his vacation had been postponed long enough and attorney
London had a pressing case in Memphis. For London, the respite was
particularly welcome. In the atmosphere of hostility, bickering, and
semantic confusion, he had succumbed to the pressure only once when he
asked a witness who had seen the Cafe Au Go Go shows: "Did you see Mr.
Crotch touch his Bruce?" He is pessimistic about the verdict but expects
vindication on appeal. "I'm certain of ultimate acquittal. It will come
on one of two grounds: either his performance is not obscene by any
standards, or, in the light of recent Supreme Court decisions, the statute
he's being tried under is unconstitutional."
PETITION: The trial is Bruce's third for obscenity (he was acquitted in
San Fransisco in 1962, convicted in Chicago last year, a decision which the
Illinois Supreme Court at first upheld but last week agreed to reconsider)
and he has had two other trials on charges of possessing narcotics, in both
of which he won acquittals. "Why are they hounding Lenny?" London has
asked, and the question was recently repeated in a petition to New York's
Mayor Robert F. Wagner which was signed by dozens of writers, critics, and
educators, and such diverse personalities as Mr. and Mrs. Richard Burton,
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, psychologist Theodor Reik, and singer Rudy
One result of Bruce's lacerating transcontinental skirmishes with the
law is that he has become "possessed", he says, with American legal
processes. Last year he spent $9,000 trying to get a new trial for a
convicted California murderer whose trial he thought unfair. As for
himself, he wishes only to be allowed to continue performing. "I am
busted," he says, "not for my obscenity but for my attitudes."