'The Trials of Lenny Bruce'

'Obscene' Comic's Free-Speech Struggles Chronicled

Lenny Bruce with his reel-to-reel tape-recorder.

Lenny Bruce with his reel-to-reel tape-recorder. Sourcebooks hide caption

itoggle caption Sourcebooks
Lenny Bruce takes the stand in court.

Lenny Bruce takes the stand in his 1962 obscenity trial in San Francisco. San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library hide caption

itoggle caption San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library

Stand-up comics can say pretty much anything these days — no matter how obscene or offensive their material — thanks in no small part to Lenny Bruce. In the late 1950s and early '60s, the iconoclastic comedian often found himself in trouble with the law for saying whatever was on his mind. A new book details Bruce's legal battles and the free-speech legacy he left behind.

"There really are very, very few topics or very, very few ways of speaking about those topics that comedians are not allowed to do today in the private comedy club, and that's thanks to Lenny," says David M. Skover, co-author of The Trials of Lenny Bruce, The Fall and Rise of an American Icon. NPR's Juan Williams interviews Skover and co-author Ronald Collins on Morning Edition.

Bruce faced prosecutors in San Francisco, Los Angels, Chicago and New York. Skover says that while Bruce's cases never went to the Supreme Court, the comedian played a key role in the free-speech movement. "His obscenity story changed the First Amendment environment... in a very practical way." After Bruce's death of a morphine overdose in 1966, "the very idea of prosecuting a comedian for off-color language ended," Skover says. "Thus, it's really Lenny's legacy that he opened up the comedy club as the greatest free speech zone in America."

Bruce was a tireless defender of free speech and the First Amendment, Collins says. Bruce also was also an amateur lawyer who tried to defend himself in court and paid heavily for defying authority.

Skover says Bruce dared to "speak the unspeakable" about race, religion, sexuality and politics. "He was lampooning the establishment by revealing hypocrisies at every turn and, as Lenny's bit proved, he considered hypocrisy to be the greatest of sins. He never held back in what he said or how he said it. And that's really why he was prosecuted."