April 9, 1964
The local authorities probably won’t believe it, but their best—perhaps only—friend since they arrested Lenny Bruce on an obscenity charge at the Cafe Au Go Go last Friday night is Lenny Bruce.
A petition drawn up by the newly formed Emergency Committee Against Harassment of Lenny Bruce, addressed to Mayor Wagner, challenges “New York City police and censors,” asking if ” ‘obscenity’ is the charge the public’s protectors have happily agreed is the best with which to silence an individual whose position, though popular with his audiences, is unpopular with an official minority?” And comedian Irwin Corey, who volunteered to go on in Bruce’s place at the Bleecker Street coffee house on the night of the arrest, devoted nearly all of his hour-and-a-half talkathon to the subject of “cops.” “A cop,” said Corey, “is an amoeba,” and the Village is a place “surrounded by precincts.”
‘Behind or Ahead’
But all Lenny Bruce will blame is the “mores or the times.” “I’m either behind or ahead of the times,” he explains with incongruous equanimity.
A couple of hours spent with Bruce, however, can be a pretty incongruous couple of hours. First, tagging along with him and his private-detective sidekick to the Fifth Avenue apartment of a prominent civil liberterian, for whom they play the tapes of the shows for which Bruce was arrested. Sitting in a comfortable chair surrounded by wall-to-wall carpeting watching Bruce, in his light blue pants and white shoes and tan suede jacket, sitting stiffly in another comfortable chair, deadpan, listening to himself on the machine. And then watching him get fidgety, though always attentive and polite, as the liberal lectures him on the history of the good fight against censorship in this country and explains that Bruce’s language stems from an anal fixation, when all he really came for was some specific advice on his own case.
Focus on Strategy
Later, in his room at one of the Village’s less elegant hotels, where there is no carpeting, just blankets and miscellaneous junk on the floor, Bruce kind of nervously jumps around, occasionally flopping down on the messed-up bed with a law book, all his attention focused on working out the legal strategy to get him out from under the latest charge against him. His steadily mounting experience in cases like this has made him somewhat of a specialist on the subject. The whole scene is reminiscent of poet Allen Ginsberg spouting the expertise he accumulated in his recent battle with the City License Department for the right of poets to read their work in coffee houses. Here too the authorities are, if nothing else, succeeding in distracting an artist from his work and turning him into a legalist.
But when Bruce is finally lured out of his law book and into a more general discussion of his problems, there is no display of bitterness—against neither the police nor the law itself. In fact, Bruce displays more compassion for the police than just about anyone around the Village these days. “They die for less than $400 a month,” he points out. “And they’re ashamed of being cops. It’s a shitty gig.” He feels it isn’t fair to treat individual policemen as symbols. Newspapers, he says, depend too much on symbols. “When they talk about Alec Guinness they say he’s Chaplinesque. And when they talk about Peter Sellers they say he’s Guinness-like,” Bruce complained, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling and looking exactly like James Dean.
Key Word: ‘Prurient’
As for the obscenity law, he says he thinks it’s “correct.” “The whole issue,” says Bruce, “is not that the state should keep its dirty hands off,” as the liberal he visited had insisted. For Bruce “the key word is ‘prurient.’ Don’t get people horny.” And he says, insisting he is serious, that there should be a law against getting people aroused because “it’s bad for marriages.” He says he’s not for the repeal of obscenity laws because “most laws have been defined and tested under Constitutional law by men like Judge Black and some other pretty wise old cats. . . . Here’s how wonderful the law is,” he goes on, getting enthusiastic. “Even if (what you say) gets people horny, if it has some social importance it’s not obscene.”
Bruce’s quarrel is not with the law as written. He feels that the obscenity law as written and correctly defined does not inhibit his freedom of speech. He is confident that, as has happened in California, if his case has to go to a higher court, the words he has been hauled in on will not be judged obscene. The only fear Lenny Bruce has is “of running out of carfare to the Supreme Court.”
Bruce’s features have a strange quality of appearing both sharply defined and blurry, depending on the angle from which you look at him. And as you listen to him, you get the same uneasy feeling about his words, as though sometimes he is going too far for you to follow. Part of the problem is that his subtlety cuts though and goes beyond the liberal rhetoric we have come to depend on to identify a non-fink. As his friend remarked, “Lenny is fighting for the same things, but in his own way.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005