Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 16, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 39
How Many 4-Letter Words Can a Prosecutor Use?
By Stephanie Gervis Harrington
Sitting in on Lenny Bruce’s current New York “obscenity” trial, one gets the feeling of being present at an historical event — the birth of the courtroom of the absurd. Of course, if you sit through it long enough, you gradually adjust to the fact that eight grown men are actually spending weeks of their time and an unreckoned amount of the taxpayers’ money in deliberation — passionate deliberation on the prosecutor’s good days — over whether another grown man should be able to use four-letter words in public without going to jail.
To describe the contest between the prosecutor (assistant District Attorney and Villager Richard Kuh), and defense attorney Ephraim London is much like reporting on a debate between Burt Lancaster and Abraham Lincoln.
On the one hand there is Kuh — year-round tan, athletic build and ram-rod stiff posture, brisk movements, a shrillness that enters his voice when he raises it and a gleaming white-toothed smile, the kind that Lancaster flashes after he has raptured someone from behind. And there is London — tall, lanky, his shoulders slightly bent, his manner gentlemanly and his voice quiet, except when he is indignant. Kuh darts from his chair to the attack; London unfolds slowly.
And then, of course, there is the defendant Bruce, who is beginning to look like the martyr the authorities are making of him. He usually wears a Nehru-like tunic and carries a black bag that contains the red flowpens he uses to write notes to his attorneys. He appreciates Kuh’s dramatic sense and on good days gives him good reviews. One day he broke into Kuh’s cross-examination of a witness to object to the manner in which the prosecutor was referring to a portion of a Bruce monologue. “Stop calling it the mezzuzah bit!” Bruce shouted, half-rising. Kuh thereafter inserted the word “bit” at every opportunity when referring to sections of Bruce’s monologues.
The defense’s case, which began on June 30 and ended last Friday, July 10, consisted chiefly of the testimony of expert witnesses, who ran the gamut from Nat Hentoff to Dorothy Kilgallen. Filling in the gap were Jules Feiffer, sociologist Herbert Gans, Newsweek drama critic Richard Gilman, Alan Morrison, editor of Ebony, Random House editor Jason Epstein, Daniel Dodson, associate professor of English at Columbia University, the Reverend Sydney Lanier of St. Clement’s Church on 46th Street, and the Reverend Forest Johnson of the Edgehill Community Church in Riverdale. In their various capacities as experts on satire, moral attitudes, nightclub entertainment, and the use of language, they testified that Bruce is a brilliant satirist who deals with socially important issues and whose language not only does not offend them but is used in circles in which they travel.
On cross-examinsation, Kuh asked them whether they thought the words in question were necessary to the effectiveness of Bruce’s material, whether other comedians don’t get along without using such language, and whether they, the witnesses, would use such language in “mixed company that included women who were strangers to them.” There were no “no” answers to the last question…
And when it’s all over the court record may show that in the course of this trial Kuh has used the words he is prosecuting Bruce for using more than Bruce did in all the performances of his abbreviated New York run. For instance, typical prosecution routine was to show a witness a section from a Bruce monologue in which even Bruce didn’t use any four-, ten-, or twelve-letter words and to ask in ringing tones whether the omission of c–t, c—–r, m—–r, or f–k made that passage less effective. Kuh also employed a reverse play in which he would refer to passages that did include words like (insert above) and then ask whether words could not have been substituted for the ones in
Jules Feiffer, who it seemed is some kind of culture hero to Kuh, was treated with more apparent reverence than the men of the cloth. Addressing Feiffer as though he were an IBM funny machine, Kuh said, with proper respect,
“You puncture holes in almost anything…”
“Only things I don’t like,” Feiffer corrected him.
“…government authority that tends to run away with itself…”
“That’s all government authority,” said Feiffer…
“Have you found it necessary to use all these words?”
“I haven’t used them because I can’t get those words in a newspaper.”
Whereupon Kuh pointed out that he had seen “fuck” in The Village Voice. Mr. Feiffer pointed out that he was syndicated in certain other papers where that word had never been seen.
Under direct examination by Martin Garbus, who is handling the defense with London, Feiffer called Bruce “brilliant,” saying that he goes beyond social commentary “into an area I would think of as metaphysical, going to the very core of life in America today, especially for my generation…When he’s on there’s nothing like him.” Feiffer pointed out that Bruce began working his way up as a comedian during the McCarthy era “when no one would dare say anything” and that in that sense he is “part of the history of liberalism in this country.”
…The Bruce trial is now in recess and will resume on July 27 when the prosecution may present rebuttal witnesses.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 23, 2009