Reading Group Guide



Questions for Group Discussion

or Individual Analysis of The Trials of Lenny Bruce  

  1. Lenny Bruce died some 35 years ago. Why should we care about him today? How is his obscenity law story relevant today?  
  1. Think about the following: “The First Amendment is the only strength our country has. A country can only be strong when it knows all about the bad – the worst, worst things. When it knows the bad, then it can protect itself.”  Do you agree with Bruce’s words or do you find them too negative? 
  1. It is said that Lenny Bruce revolutionized the world of American comedy by inventing “comic realism.” What do you understand that to be?  In your opinion, what aspects of Bruce’s comedy were revolutionary for his time, and possibly still for ours?
  1. One of Bruce’s favorite devices was to use disrespectful and taboo words in his comedy – to repeat them over and over in order to defuse their power to shock, wound, or paralyze.  What do you think about Lenny’s mission to speak the unspeakable? What is your opinion of his aim to liberate words of their negative social power? Idealistic or naďve? Unrealistic or pragmatic?  A combination of those qualities, or others not mentioned?
  1. Lenny Bruce’s routines often aimed to blend serious political and social commentary with fanciful comedy. Can you think of any particular bits that achieved those objectives?  What is your sense of them? 
  1. Despite its character as political expression, Bruce’s comedy was targeted for prosecution under state obscenity laws – laws that were then subject to free speech limits set by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 1957 decision, Roth v. United States (the subject of Chapter 2).  Can it fairly be said that the Supreme Court’s decision contributed much confusion to the state of obscenity law and helped to enable the prosecutions of Lenny Bruce?
  1. To what extent, if any, do you think prosecutors were justified in prosecuting Bruce for obscenity? What do you think were their strongest arguments?  Or their weakest? (consider Chapters 6, 7 &  8)
  1. Over the course of some four years (1961-1965), Lenny Bruce was arrested nine times for “obscene words” spoken in his comedy acts, and was prosecuted six times in San Francisco , Los Angeles , Chicago , and New York . These misdemeanor obscenity prosecutions required more than a dozen State attorneys and double that number of billable-hour defense lawyers, consumed untold amounts of public monies, and entailed appeals and/or petitions to state high courts, federal appellate courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court (presided over, in total, by 25 state and federal appellate judges). What does this extraordinary chain of events suggest to you?  Did Lenny Bruce abuse the legal system or did that system abuse him?    
  1. Does the story of Lenny Bruce’s arrest and trial in Chicago (the subject of Chapter 5) suggest anything about the state’s power to use obscenity laws to reach morals offenses that the state cannot formally prosecute, such as “blasphemous” attacks on religion? Are obscenity prosecutions more problematic, in your mind, because they might be used to enforce religious morals?
  1. Lenny Bruce’s obscenity prosecution in New York (the subject of Chapters 6, 7 & 8) was labeled by the press as an “historic event” – the trial “of the absurd.” Do you agree with that characterization? What aspects of that nine-month proceeding, if any, seemed absurd to you? Was it the prosecution’s doing? The Court’s? Or Bruce’s own doing?
  1. In your mind, who – or what – killed Lenny Bruce? What does your answer suggest about your attitudes towards Bruce, the purposes and strategies for obscenity enforcement then and now, the tolerance of the American free speech culture then and now, or any other relevant factor?
  1. Peter Hall wrote (Chapter 11) that “every age needs a Lenny Bruce, and every age will try to kill him.”  What do you make of that?
  1. Because Lenny Bruce never successfully appealed the New York trial court’s judgment on his obscenity violations, he died a convicted man. Can it be said, however, that First Amendment law and/or our modern free speech culture eventually vindicated Lenny Bruce, if only in principle?  Is that important?  If so, why?
  1.  When Lenny Bruce once complained of being crucified under the law, Mort Sahl reminded him: “Don’t forget the resurrection.” What are the various forms of “resurrection” that Lenny experienced after his death? In your opinion, is the resurrected Lenny Bruce significantly different in any fundamental respect from the deceased Lenny Bruce? 
  1.  What is Lenny Bruce’s legacy for today’s comedians? In what ways do modern stand-ups – from George Carlin and Joan Rivers to Chris Rock, Richard Jeni, and Margaret Cho – owe a debt of gratitude to Lenny Bruce? 
  1.  Should what Lenny Bruce said in nightclubs be allowed on radio, TV, the Internet, or in public places like concert halls? (the subject of the Epilogue)  If so, why?  If not, why not? 
  1.  What is Lenny Bruce’s legacy for our modern First Amendment freedoms? In what ways did Bruce’s prosecutions ensure that the American comedy club remains one of our culture’s strongest “free speech zones” today?   
  1.  As a biographical account, The Trials of Lenny Bruce is unique in the sense that the audio CD accompanying the book was purposefully designed to supplement and enhance the text. In what respects did you find that your experience of reading this biography was affected by listening to some of Lenny Bruce’s most famous routines and by hearing interviews with others who were relevant to his obscenity law story? In your opinion, is the oral “intrusion” on the printed text a valuable contribution to your understanding of the comedy and legal life of Lenny Bruce?