Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Unpardonable Lenny Bruce


No doubt Lenny Bruce would have laughed with at least a tinge of bitterness if — like millions of Americans — he picked up a newspaper the day before Christmas 2003 and read that he’d been “pardoned” by the governor of New York for an obscenity conviction.

In their own time, people who are stubbornly ahead of it usually get a lot more grief than accolades. And decades later — in this case, 39 years after Bruce’s bust for a nightclub performance and 37 years after his death — the belated praise from on high is predictably insufferable.

The New York Times lead sentence on Dec. 24 called Bruce “the potty-mouthed wit who turned stand-up comedy into social commentary.” Actually, far from being “potty-mouthed” in an emblematic way, Lenny Bruce was a Fool in the Shakespearean sense, jousting with a society dominated by various aspiring Lears — and quite a few Elmer Gantrys.

Most people who can remember Lenny Bruce have their favorite moments. I think of when he took the opportunity, on a network TV show, to “play” a dollar bill as a percussion device, snapping it in front of the microphone. Or his bits, taped and then captured on record albums, satirizing the entrepreneurial zeal of evangelical moralists. He anticipated the unctuous likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and, yes, George W. Bush.

Lenny Bruce lampooned hypocrisy, yet he avoided the earnest fervor that dulls the teeth of much would-be biting humor. Bruce may have occasionally lapsed into sermonizing, but he was not pious. The 1974 movie “Lenny” strayed when actor Dustin Hoffman wasn’t quite able to portray Bruce’s righteousness without preceding it with the hyphenated “self.”

Bruce was a consummate mimic who spent many hours fiddling with tape from his on-stage routines. As an instrument of enormous versatility, his voice was orchestral in scope.

Protracted struggles with judicial repression for saying “bad” words made him obsessed with absurdities in law books. For Bruce, legalistic labyrinths culminated in August 1966 with a morphine overdose, two months short of his 40th birthday.

We ought to note that his last two years spanned from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through a period of rapid military escalation in Vietnam, with U.S. troop deployments mounting into the hundreds of thousands.

On a noncommercial radio station about 30 years ago, while the war was still raging, I used to air an obscure record that featured some of Bruce’s final performance. He did a bit he’d presented many times before, reciting (with a thick German accent) a poem by the radically humanistic Trappist monk Thomas Merton — a meditation on the high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.

Here are words I’ve often remembered over the course of three decades:

“My defense: I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?”

Such questions are still too hot for mainstream media to handle. We may congratulate ourselves on how risque the words and images are now, in mass media, but the lasting power of Lenny Bruce’s caustic humor has nothing to do with four-letter words. Today, naughty language and sexual images are big media sellers. The tacit taboos are in other realms of expression.

Though it wasn’t then the propaganda mantra that it has recently become, President Johnson referred to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Vietnam as “terrorists.” These days, President Bush is fond of applying the “terrorist” label to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Naturally, as one of the home-front politicos eager to boost the latest war, New York’s Gov. George Pataki could not resist combining the announcement of his pardon for Bruce with a plug for the sanctification of present-day militarism under the guise of combating terrorism. “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties,” Pataki declared, “and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

But the question that Lenny Bruce kept voicing from the stage, meanwhile, still hangs in the air: “Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?”

NORMAN SOLOMON is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy in San Francisco. He is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You. (Context Books, 2003).


Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future