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In today's world of stand-up comedy, there are many comedians who use their comedy to make political statements or gain a reaction. In the 1960s, there was only one person who was really pushing the boundaries of comedy. Lenny Bruce was a true original; he wrote and performed material that was funny, thought provoking and radical for the time.
Lenny Bruce was born in 1925 in Long Island, New York. His mother was a dancer, and with her help, the young Lenny Bruce began performing in small nightclubs. Bruce slowly began honing his stand-up comedy skills in New York City jazz and strip clubs. His act was soon recognized as completely different from other comedy routines at the time.
Dark and slender with an intense energy, Bruce would prowl the stage attacking taboo subjects. His act was full of four letter words and he would force people to examine their own prejudices. Racism, religion, drugs and sex were all covered in Bruce's monologues. Writers were beginning to sit up and take notice as he gained notoriety. Bruce was soon seen as the comic who would go where others feared to tread.
The real problems for Lenny Bruce began when his fame started to spread. He was continually arrested for obscenity charges. At one of his court cases, Bruce pleaded with the judge to allow him to perform his act in court. Bruce wanted the judge to understand his humor in context; not just the profanities the police would read out in court. The judge refused and Bruce was sentenced to several months in prison.
Bruce became increasingly depressed and paranoid due to police harassment and the drugs he was taking. He continually found himself in court on various charges due to his refusal to tone down his act. He saw this censorship as a strike against his freedom of speech. Every time Lenny Bruce performed onstage, the local police would be watching, waiting to arrest him for any obscenity he uttered.
By 1965, due to court costs, Lenny Bruce was broke and in debt. At one of his last gigs in Los Angeles in 1966, he appeared onstage bearded and overweight. He performed to a very small crowd, including hecklers and the obligatory vice police. His material consisted of his current obsessions; his constitutional right to freedom of speech and his never ending court cases. Lenny Bruce died six months after the gig from a drug overdose at the age of 40.
Lenny Bruce has been a great influence to many comedians. The late Bill Hicks and stand-up performers such as Dennis Leary have all paid tribute to Bruce. Today we take freedom of speech for granted, but it is because of individuals such as Lenny Bruce that we are able to do so.
Dick Schaap gave the comedian a now-famous eulogy in Playboy with the last line: "One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That's obscene."
Lenny Bruce's official cause of death was "acute morphine poisoning caused by accidental overdose."
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