Monday Night — 01.12.04 – Banned Film Series — Lenny Bruce Performance Film

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What: A screening of “The Lenny Bruce Performance Film”
Where: 16 Beaver (Directions at end of email)
When: 7pm, Monday, January 12, 2004
1. About the Screening
2. About the Pardon
3. Lenny Bruce Links
1. About the Screening
As part of 16 Beaver’s “Banned Film Series,” please join us for a screening of Lenny Bruce’s only filmed standup act, “The Lenny Bruce Performance Film.” Although the film is not banned, and is not quite standup, Bruce’s performance is as much about censorship as it is darkly humorous. Filmed during a 1965 performance at San Francisco’s Basin Street West, this recording documents Bruce’s penultimate show. He would be found dead of a morphine overdose less than a year later.
In 1964 Bruce was busted for using over 100 obscenities during a performance at Greenwich Village’s Café au Go Go. He had already been arrested in San Francisco and Chicago. Prominent writers and reporters such as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Nat Hentoff, Lionel Trilling, and James Baldwin publicly defended the author. The trial became the most costly obscenity cases in US history, and would end in a conviction for Bruce. The trial effectively ended Bruce’s career; few club owners wanted to risk booking him. The comedian was left broke, exhausted, and isolated.
Lenny Bruce once famously declared that he was not a comedian, preferring only to be Lenny Bruce. Don’t expect “The Lenny Bruce Performance Film” to be a comedy act. Difficult to follow, at his wit’s end, ironically amused and deeply pissed off, Bruce’s commentary on American moral hypocrisy is more than standup. For Bruce, it was an act of personal freedom and dissent.
Governor Pataki pardoned the comedian last month, the first such pardon in New York State history. Pataki hoped “this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.” As Bruce’s lawyer Martin Garbus mused: “Lenny would be astonished that the governor had pardoned him in a manner that somehow justified America’s war against terrorism.” (See part 2 below.) It was a fittingly bizarre ending to the travails of a man who said: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’”
More about the film:
2. About the Pardon
‘Obscene’ Comic Bruce Gets a Pardon
Wed Dec 24, 1:33 PM ET
By Josh Getlin Times Staff Writer
NEW YORK — Lenny Bruce, the provocative and profane satirist who revolutionized the art of stand-up comedy, on Tuesday received a posthumous pardon from Gov. George E. Pataki for a controversial 1964 obscenity conviction.
The pardon, the first for a deceased person in state history, represented “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the 1st Amendment,” Pataki said in a statement, adding: “I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”
Bruce was charged after reportedly using 100 obscene words during a freewheeling set at Cafe Au Go Go, a Greenwich Village nightclub that was staked out by an army of plainclothes police officers. The pardon came about through the efforts of authors and lawyers who believed there were significant 1st Amendment freedoms at stake in the effort to clear Bruce’s name. They recruited several entertainers to sign a letter to Pataki, including Robin Williams, Margaret Cho, the Smothers Brothers and others.
Bruce was known for his lacerating, often brilliant comedic attacks on a host of sacred cows, ranging from the pope and organized religion to Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy. He didn’t seem to care whom he offended, and his comedy routines were liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. Long before late-night comics stretched the bounds of taste and decency, he spoke bluntly about sex, racism and other taboo topics.
The comedian appealed his misdemeanor obscenity conviction and promptly turned it into fodder for yet another stand-up routine. But he insisted on handling his defense on appeal, and “badly bungled” the case, said Martin Garbus, a prominent 1st Amendment attorney who originally represented Bruce.
Two years later, Bruce died in Los Angeles at 40 from a heroin overdose. He was spiritually and financially broken, friends said.
Pataki’s surprise pardon is long-overdue vindication for Bruce, Garbus said, because it shows that “the world has changed, and I’m sorry Bruce isn’t here to see it.”You should never send people to jail for laws based on morality, because it keeps changing,” Garbus added.
Championing Bruce has been a cause celebre for many comedians, who say they owe their careers to his trailblazing. Yet the drive to secure a legal pardon began only this year, after publication of “The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon” by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover.
The authors discovered that Bruce’s conviction had never been overturned, even though that of a nightclub owner convicted along with him had been overruled by a higher New York court. Bruce — who was ordered to spend four months in New York’s Rikers Island jail — fled to California and never served his sentence.
Joined by Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington-based 1st Amendment attorney, Collins and Skover decided to lobby Pataki for a pardon.
“There’s only one reason he [Pataki] would do this, and that’s for the principle involved,” Corn-Revere said. “We live in a free society, and you don’t turn people into criminals and lock them up just for speaking their mind. That, incredibly, is what happened to Lenny Bruce, and it’s astonishing given his tremendous legacy.”
Bruce rattled cages with content, as well as language, and many observers credit him with rescuing stand-up comedy from staid jokes about mothers-in-law and tired Borscht Belt gags, Corn-Revere said.
“He helped invent topical, political humor, and he made stand-up into a uniquely American art, just like jazz.”
During one memorable routine, the comedian told of a weary door-to-door salesman who checked into a hotel and ordered up a $100 prostitute: “A few minutes later, there’s a knock on the door and a bearded writer comes into the room.”
Toward the end of his life, Bruce was haunted by numerous court battles over his comedy routines, and some believe his legal legacy was no less important. The comedian only grew more outrageous as law enforcement pursued him, and “he tested the limits of the law at a time when society was changing so dramatically,” Garbus said.
Bruce’s irreverent, explosive spirit would take Pataki’s pardon with a grain of salt, the attorney said, suggesting that “Lenny would be astonished that the governor had pardoned him in a manner that somehow justified America’s war against terrorism.”
“If he was alive,” Garbus said, “he’d build a whole comedy routine around that.”
3. Lenny Bruce Links
FBI files:
Lenny Bruce Trial Book:
Bob Dylan: Lenny Bruce