Looking for Lenny: Lenny Bruce, comedy and free speech

Looking for Lenny is a new documentary about Lenny Bruce and the way that free speech issues still resonate today. It's packed with comedy/spoken word legends talking about Bruce, from Robin Williams to Phyllis Diller, Mort Sahl, and Henry Rollins.

Looking for Lenny (Thanks, Dustin!)


  1. I am a great fan of Mr. Bruce. It will be interesting to see how far Lenny is “stretched” to fit into the producers view. I guess there is only one way to tell.

  2. If you want to hear the original material that he and Cheech & Chong used then you could” Google”  Murray Roman. 
    Much much funnier but less mainstream.
    Yet another artist that was ripped off by the “Royalty” system.

  3. P.S.
    Blind Man’s  Movie had the best cover ever….All the pages were black.

  4. The biopic with Dustin Hoffman is superb if you haven’t seen it.

    “You take away my right to say fuck you; you take away my right to say fuck you to the government.”

    – Lenny Bruce

  5. I’m glad to see that Boing Boing is celebrating the virtues of free speech, regardless of how offensive some might find it. Of course, one could argue that the attacks on Lenny Bruce’s speech back then were functionally equivalent to the attacks on Rush Limbaugh’s speech right now… it just depends on whose sacred cow is getting skewered, and what is defined as “offensive” and “over the line.”

    (Yes, yes: everybody has the right to boycott whoever they want for whatever reason they want. That’s part of your free speech rights. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of unseemly glee around here at the idea of shutting up someone they disagree with, which is not a pro-free-speech action.)

    1. Free speech always only applies to your side.
      If you want to annoy/offend/attack the other side then Freedom of Speech is the most important thing in the world.

      If, OTOH, the other side may want to say something that you find absolutely inappropriate, then to hell with Free Speech, and instead it’s “let’s put things into perspective”, and “he can have his Free Speech at home, in his basement”…

    2. One more thing.  The right and in particular the Christian right has never been the least bit hesitant to call for a boycott when their delicate senses of propriety have been violated (which is to say pretty much perpetually).  Good for the goose, good for the gander.

    3.  How is Rush Limbaugh’s free speech rights being attacked.  He still has his radio show…no police officers have come into the studio, stopped his show and taken him away in handcuffs and tried throw him in jail. 

  6. one could argue that the attacks on Lenny Bruce’s speech back then were functionally equivalent to the attacks on Rush Limbaugh’s speech right now

    If one were intellectually incapable of distinguishing between police power and consumer choice.

    1. Demanding that the police shut someone up is functionally equivalent to demanding that no company sponsor a radio show, and thus shut them up.

      “I’m defending living in a country where people don’t have to be afraid that they might go out of the bounds for one minute. Do we all want to be talking like White House spokesmen?… I would rather put up with Rush Limbaugh and live in a country where people do have freedom of speech. And the people who I’ve heard who say ‘You know what, when they put pressure on his sponsors the system is working’ — no, it’s not. That’s the system being manipulated. I lived through that 10 years ago.” —Bill Maher, tonight.

      1. Demanding that the police shut someone up is functionally equivalent to demanding that no company sponsor a radio show, and thus shut them up.

        Wrong. Rush would still be free to say what he says. He’d just be doing so in more appropriate places, and for less money –pocket change tossed into a tattered hat, for instance, by people who feel sorry for another crazy person.

        1. Exactly right. Police power is *not* the same as commercial advertising.

          (And freedom of speech doesn’t mean Limbaugh has the right to a sponsored megaphone. I will defend to the death his right to say *anything* without being imprisoned or harassed by police. Doesn’t mean he’s entitled to be paid to say it.)

        2. Let’s say Lenny Bruce was never prosecuted by police, but an organized boycott directed at nightclubs and record companies meant that he could only make a living with his schtick by working for “pocket change tossed into a tattered hat.” Would he still be considered a martyr for free speech? I think so.

          Or let’s say there was a boycott against Boing Boing’s advertisers and their web host. Hey, without a website, Mark and Cory and Xeni and company could always stand in a park and talk for pocket change, right? Commenters could still travel to the park to hear them, and moderators could still snark at their comments. That would not be an infringement on anybody’s speech rights…? 

          1. No, it wouldn’t be an infringement on anyone’s speech rights. 

            Boycotting advertisers =/= infringement of free speech. It simply doesn’t stop anyone from speaking.

          2. That would not be an infringement on anybody’s speech rights…?

            Correct.  Consumer choice has nothing to do with free speech rights.  One has to use the law to suppress speech before it violates free speech rights.

        1. Butbutbut, surely The Left is doing SOMETHING wrong in this whole situation! There must be SOME way Rush’s minions can get the finger pointed back in the other direction. 

  7. With all due respect to what Lenny Bruce accomplished–which was not nothing–the trailer seems like one can expect the same old vision of Lenny, which is appealing and romantic (especially if you’re in showbiz) but not really accurate, and certainly not too useful today. I would encourage people to actually listen to his material and read the biographies that exist, because they put the lie to some (but not all) of this romantic ideal. 

    The cultural trend towards honesty and individuality was well-established by the time Lenny rose to prominence (1957-60)–in jazz, for example, or even in comedy at The Second City, etc. The new ground that Lenny broke was in his insistence on using private language in public arenas, in the belief that the suppressive power of taboo words (racial epithets and obscenity) came from its hidden quality. Fifty years later, we can see that Lenny was wrong; free use of taboo words in popular culture has not given us a fundamentally more humane or just society. 

    What it has done is given us a comedy full of people who think that by using the word “motherfucker”, they’re doing something political. Just as in journalism, a profession that pre-1950 could be counted on to restrain and mock power because it was looked down upon, comedy is now a respectable protector of the status quo. With all due respect to Bill Maher or George Carlin (to pick two people who are often called Lenny’s “heirs”), all the pleasure they’ve given to people over the years is probably outweighed, politically, by one day’s donating by the Koch Brothers. That’s OK–comedy and politics are different–but we need to stop indulging in this fantasy that laughing at something necessarily changes it. Changing it does.

    There are better icons to follow, if one needs an icon. Richard Pryor—easily Lenny’s equal as a comedian, and by far a better performer, both in terms of technique and emotional honesty—fundamentally disagreed on the issue of taboo language. Peter Cook, who loved Bruce so much he tried to import him to England in 1963, was smarter about satire when he talked about “those wonderful Berlin cabarets…which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler.” And finally, there’s Lenny’s main rival Mort Sahl, who once said (I’m sure I’m mangling the quote, but I can’t find it at the moment), “The right-wing took over everything in this country but Hollywood, so the liberals sit around trying to convince themselves showbiz is the only thing that matters.” 

    “It’s all showbiz” is Lenny’s core idea, and it’s incorrect. If we want comedy to change society (and maybe we don’t, but acolytes of Lenny always say it should), people need to move on. By the time Lenny OD’ed—maybe an accident, maybe not—the Sixties were well underway, and he could’ve made a fine living performing for the Baby Boomers that already idolized him. But he chose not to–he said he “couldn’t connect” with that generation. Only he knows what he meant by that, but I’ve always suspected that Lenny’s humor required a buttoned-down society around it for him to stay interested. The idea of Lenny-as-martyr is a cartoon which explains very little. It just makes us feel superior to people in the past, and virtuous and smart for having watched the program. Meanwhile the world outside of showbiz grinds on.

    1. Fifty years later, we can see that Lenny was wrong; free use of taboo words in popular culture has not given us a fundamentally more humane or just society.

      Let me guess…you’re a straight white man?  This is so wrong I can ignore the lesser instances of wrongness sprinkled through your post.

    2.  Michael, your argument is wrong on every level.  Show me where “it’s all showbiz” was every Lenny’s stated or implied “core idea.”  Your estimation of Lenny’s ability as a standup and social satirst/commentator is also fatally subjective.  If Pryor makes you laugh more or harder, that’s fine.  Without Lenny I’m not even sure we would have heard much from Pryor.  Mort Sahl’s approach was far more ironic and academic…Lenny’s was a frontal assault.  As for comparing the financial rewards of being a stand up comic — even successful ones like Carlin or Maher — to robber baron scumbags like the Koch Brothers and their brand of Neanderthal politics, I fail to see the comparison.  May I suggest that educate yourself in the  work and words of Lenny Bruce before you make specious comparisons.

      1. On the ‘showbiz’ point, Gerber is correct. See Pauline Kael: “Bruce used show biz as the metaphor for everything squalid and hateful-and lively- in the world.”

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