Lenny Bruce: Tragedy Plus Time

July 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

LENNY BRUCE: This is the criminal court, city of New York, part 2-b, county of New York. “The people of the state of New York versus Lenny Bruce and Howard O. Solomon.”

CLARENCE PAGE: Almost 40 years after his death, Lenny Bruce does not rest in peace. There is the matter of his conviction on charges of using obscene words in a New York nightclub. He died before it could be appealed. Now his family and friends are asking the governor of New York to grant Bruce a posthumous pardon.

LENNY BRUCE: And I figured out after four years why I got arrested so many times. Dig what happened. It’s been a comedy of errors. Here’s how it happened. I do my act at perhaps 11:00 at night. Little do I know that 11:00 A.M. the next morning, before the grand jury somewhere, there’s another guy doing my act who’s introduced as Lenny Bruce in substance. ( Laughter )

CLARENCE PAGE: It’s not hard to imagine Lenny somewhere getting a big laugh out of this. It was he, after all, who famously declared satire to be a formulation of tragedy plus time. “Give any tragedy enough time,” he said, “and people will let you make fun of it.” ( Singing ) Indeed, today even a musical with a song called “Springtime for Hitler” can be a Broadway hit. But heaven help the performing artist who is ahead of his or her time. If Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like, Lenny Bruce never met an obscene word he didn’t like to repeat over and over again, draining it of its punch and power, and using it to make a larger point about real obscenity in the world, like war and bigotry and greed. Compared to that, Lenny would say, “heck, words won’t kill you, man. Like, they’re only words.”

SPOKESMAN: I’d like to ask you, do you have any information that you received at any time from any source?

CLARENCE PAGE: But naughty words could have great consequences in the 1950s. It was a paranoid time. Lenny was shadowed by the FBI, arrested and convicted for word crimes; obscene words he used onstage in a Greenwich Village nightclub. He died in 1966 with a drug overdose in his veins and a conviction on his head. Had it been the 1970s, Lenny might have been another Richard Pryor.

RICHARD PRYOR: I don’t want to never see no more police in my life… ( laughter and applause ) at my house… ( laughter and applause ) …taking my ass to jail. ( Laughter and applause )

CLARENCE PAGE: Living large on albums, movies and national television, instead of preparing the way for Richard Pryor, or Freddie Prinze, or Ellen Degeneres, or Margaret Cho, or numerous other irreverent comedians who followed his lead in testing limits and challenging our prejudices.

ACTOR: This equation shall be the most helpful throughout the course of your study because…

CLARENCE PAGE: Had it been the 1980s or ’90s, Lenny might have had his own movies, like Eddie Murphy. ( Laughter ) or his own HBO cable show like Dennis Miller or Chris Rock.

ACTOR: You know, this old studio is steeped in tradition. ( Laughter )

CLARENCE PAGE: Reporter: Or he might have been a radio talk show entertainer pundit, bleeped or unbleeped, like Rush Limbaugh, challenging the liberal establishment the way Lenny challenged the Eisenhower era. Yes, one hears echoes of Lenny whenever any social critic– left, right, or extreme middle– seems to rush just a bit ahead of his or her times. ( Applause ) Bill Mahr lost his ABC comedy show, “Politically Incorrect,” when shortly after 9/11, he lived up to his show’s name with an offhand remark about terrorists having courage. He lost his ABC show, but reappeared later on HBO. The secret to success, comedians say, is timing. Apparently, America needed more time to permit hijacker jokes. Terrorism frays our nerves today, the way McCarthyism used to. At a time when most popular entertainment offers escape from such worries, a salute to Lenny Bruce is a tribute to those who seek not only to make us laugh, but also to make us think. The problem with posthumous pardons or apologies or reparations is that most or all of the principle players, the victims and the perps, are dead. But a pardon for Lenny Bruce would reinforce the notion that each of us has the right to decide for ourselves what we want to see or hear.

LENNY BRUCE: The dominant theme of the performance appeals to the prurient interests.

CLARENCE PAGE: Creativity thrives in free spaces. Shakespeare decried art made tongue-tied by authority. Art naturally competes with authority. Powerful art competes powerfully when it is doing what art is supposed to do, which is to provoke us to not only be entertained, but also to think.

LENNY BRUCE: Hello. How are you? There’s a dirty Lenny in here. Dirty Lenny is going on soon — a pornographer.

CLARENCE PAGE: I’m Clarence Page.