Lenny Bruce Was Bad


Almost 40 years after being conviced of obscenity in New York, comedian Lenny Bruce, who has inspired countless imitators and at least two of the very worst rock songs in recorded history (by the execrable Phil Ochs and the maestro Bob Dylan), has been pardoned by Gov. George Pataki. From the Newark Star-Ledger's account:

"Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve," Pataki said in a statement.

It goes without saying that Bruce never should have been arrested for anything, much less convicted of anything. All of us who benefit from free expression are forever in the debt of the man dubbed "America's #1 Vomic" by the idiotic Walter Winchell.

That's not to say that Bruce's shtick is–or was–particularly funny. Like many crying-on-the-inside-clowns, he quickly degenerated into that most vile of humorists–the moralistic, self-aggrandizing "satirist." As I wrote a year ago in a review of Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover's fascinating The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,

Bruce?s targets—organized religion, politicians, sexual hypocrisy, racism—long ago lost whatever widespread, uncritical support they once might have enjoyed. (To be sure, Bruce himself contributed to this.)…Bruce?s insistence on his didactic function—"I?m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values," he used to say—transformed him into an adults-only version of the tedious magazine Highlights for Children, whose subtitle threatens to deliver "Fun With a Purpose."

Collins and Skover argue persuasively that Bruce helped pave the way for the rejection of 1996's Communications Decency Act. Here's hoping his ghost hovers over this new attempt to regulate "obscenity."