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Lenny Bruce: A Profile

THURSDAY 29th May 2003
Eddie Izzard calls him "the Jesus Christ of alternative stand-up". Deified and vilified in equal measure, Lenny Bruce certainly paved the way for every taboo-breaking comic working today. His sad life and early death have made him a fitting martyr to the cause of free speech.

King of the Sick Comics

Legal scholars have called Bruce a "quintessential American", in his passionate defence of the First Amendment, the right to free speech. Of his rights, he claimed, "These are mine. I will not relinquish them unto anybody."

A precocious child whose mother took him to strip joints, Bruce grew into a rebellious comic who soon abandoned traditional stand up. Married to a stripper, he perfected a far more risqué technique, and was christened "King of the Sick Comics" for his unprecedented rants on drugs, sex, religion, racism and politics.

Bruce drew a lot of popular attention to himself, but police officers began to form less appreciative groups of his audience. Before long, he had been arrested in almost every city he played, was once deported from England before he'd reached the baggage hall, and had become the target of an establishment, determined to avenge his perceived "vulgarity" and "word crimes".

Overdoses

Despite begging his judges, "Please don't lock up these words", Bruce was finally sentenced to four months in prison on grounds of obscenity. Although his conviction was later quashed, Bruce's friends cited this final showdown as the day the comic lost his own sense of humour.

The man who had blown fresh air into comic language spent his last years lost in a quagmire of legal transcripts, often reading them on stage to humourless effect. All this legal wrangling led his friend, Phil Spector, to say that Bruce "may have died of an overdose of police".

In fact, the beleaguered comedian eventually fell on his own morphine needle in 1966, but his efforts to raise the permissive pole were ultimately rewarded.

His legacy endures in the work of many later artists, from Richard Pryor to Eminem. Controversial topics and provocative language may be a staple of contemporary comedy, but it is worth remembering that, before he fell off it, it was Lenny Bruce who set the stage.

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