Questions for Group Discussion
or Individual Analysis of
Trials of Lenny Bruce
- Lenny Bruce died
some 35 years ago. Why should we care about him today? How is his
obscenity law story relevant today?
- Think about the
following: “The First Amendment is the only strength our country
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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 &
- 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
. 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
- 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
Bruce’s obscenity prosecution in
(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
- 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
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?
Lenny Bruce never successfully appealed the
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
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?
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
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?
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”
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?