Story by Paul Krassner

When I met Lenny Bruce in 1959 at the Hotel America near Times Square, he was still using euphemisms like “frig” onstage. I gave him an advance copy of an interview with psychologist Albert Ellis in my countercultural magazine, The Realist. At one point, Dr. Ellis talked about “the campaign which I have been waging, with remarkable lack of success, for many years, in favor of the proper usage of the word fuck. My premise is that sexual intercourse, copulation, fucking or whatever you wish to call it, is normally, under almost all circumstances, a damned good thing. Therefore, we should rarely use it in a negative, condemnatory manner. . . . It should be: Unfuck you!”

I didn’t want to insult the readers’ intelligence by resorting to asterisks or dashes, as other magazines did at the time, but my printer wouldn’t even set that portion of the interview in type until I brought a note from my lawyer. Lenny was amazed that I could get away with publishing it.

“Are you telling me,” he asked, “that this is legal to sell on newsstands?”

“Absolutely. The Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity is that it has to be material which appeals to your prurient interest.”

Lenny magically produced an unabridged dictionary from the suitcase on his bed, and he looked up the word prurient. “Itching,” he mused. “What does that mean—that they can bust a novelty-store owner for selling itching powder along with the dribble glass and the whoopie cushion?”

“It’s just their way of saying that something gets you horny.”

Lenny closed the dictionary, clenching his jaw and nodding his head in affirmation of a new discovery: “So it’s against the law to get you horny.”

He asked me to give out copies of the Ellis interview at Town Hall before his concert that night, and he brought a copy onstage and proceeded to talk about it. As a result, he was (temporarily) barred from performing there again. In those days, stand-up comics told stereotypical jokes about Chinese waiters, mothers-in-law and their own wives’ cooking, driving and frigidity. Lenny Bruce broke through that tradition with incisive routines about racism, teachers’ low salaries, abortion rights and nuclear testing, serving as a pioneer for the liberty of the current crop of controversial comedians like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock, even though the FCC is trying desperately to turn the clock back.

Satire was Lenny’s way of responding to a culture wallowing in its own hypocrisy. If it was “sick” to have a photo of him, on the cover of his first album, picnicking in a cemetery, he knew that it was really sick to enforce the racial segregation of the bodies buried there. I was fascinated by the way he played with ideas, and became increasingly inspired by the way he wove his targets—from teachers’ low salaries to religious leaders’ false piety—into stream-of-consciousness vignettes.

I was intrigued by the way he would play show-and-tell with an audience. When he heard “There Is a Rose in Spanish Harlem” on the radio, he bought the record, came onstage with a portable phonograph and played it. “Listen to these lyrics. This is like
a Puerto Rican Porgy and Bess.”

And when Gary Cooper died, he brought the New York Daily News onstage to share a headline: “The Last Roundup!”

Introducing the audience to a bizarre concept, he’d say, “I found this today,” as though it were as tangible as a record or a newspaper. Then, in each succeeding performance, he would sculpt and re-sculpt his findings into a theatrical context, playing all the parts, experimenting from show to show like a verbal jazz musician, with a throwaway line evolving from night to night into a set routine. Audience laughter would turn into applause for the creative process itself.

“Please don’t applaud,” Lenny would request, unlike contemporary comedians. “It breaks my rhythm.”

His first arrest for obscenity occurred in 1961 at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco for playing an agent who used the word cocksucker to describe a drag queen. He got busted for aptness of vocabulary. The officers said they came because of an anonymous phone call the previous night, although the doorman insisted that there had been no complaints or walkouts.

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