The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it's a library, so keep it down.)
Not too long ago, a fella by the name of Daniel Tosh stirred up a debate on the Internet about what is okay to joke about and what isn't. Do we have the freedom to joke about anything or are some topics too offensive and off limits? Well, guess what? This is not a new debate. In the late-50s and 60s there was no comic that brought this question to the forefront more frequently than Lenny Bruce.
On March 4th, 1964, Lenny Bruce was invited by Steve Allen to make his third appearance on his show, his first in several years. As Lenny jokes, he had been on television quite a bit in the intervening time, in the form of newsreels. However, to give you an idea of the type of reputation Lenny had during that time, before he is even introduced Steve Allen gives the comic a four minute introduction, warning viewers about what they're going to see tonight. Allen insists that Bruce is not a comedian who tells dirty jokes. Instead, "he deals with subject matter which many people consider off limits. Religion. Sex from the philosophical viewpoint. Things that will shock you." He goes on to suggest that if his viewers don't want to be shocked, they should turn the show off for the next ten minutes. "Go watch Johnny Carson. Or the late night movie. (Although ten minutes of it won't do you much good.) Go out in the backyard and have a beer, if that's what you do. Go in and kiss the kids if they're asleep. Go do something constructive. But don't sit there and then send me a stupid postcard."
The reason for these four minutes of disclaimers? Allen tells his audience that on the show tonight, Lenny Bruce is going to do a routine that involves a four-letter word that WILL shock them. And it might shock you, too.
Lenny Bruce was brought into show business by his mother, a stage performer, and broke in by working as an usher at the Roxy Theatre in New York. It was here that he was greatly influenced by the work of Sid Caesar. Caesar's "double-talk" routines, in which he would expertly mimic the cadences of foreign languages, are firmly routed in Lenny's material as he quickly switches accents and characters as if he were flipping a switch. After a brief stint with the Marines and a tour of the jazz clubs and burlesque houses of America, Lenny developed his act. As Steve Allen said, Lenny was not a dirty comedian, but his statements about modern society branded him as a controversial figure, and as he traveled from town to town, the local law-enforcement began to notice. Bruce was arrested many times, usually for violating whatever-town-he-was-in's standards of decency, but also, as Steve Allen mentions later, for narcotics possession. The Glaser Foundation, which supplied this clip to The Paley Center, quotes Lenny's autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, where the caption beneath a photo of the comedian being frisked by a police officer reads, "Here I am living up to my public image. A true professional never disappoints his public."
After Steve Allen's lengthy preamble, it's time for Lenny to take the stage. Now, admittedly, I am writing this as someone who is not an expert on Bruce's material, but it's clear that on this television appearance he was given the freedom to perform in the freeform style that he most commonly used. He begins with a little bit of talk about his reputation and the First Amendment. He states that America was founded on the basis of freedom of speech and his problems occur when someone who "isn't hip to the law" watches his show and gets offended on behalf of the people who get offended. He explains that the present litigation he's involved in surrounds a four-letter word that starts with an "s" and ends in a "t." (Get ready for it.)
"The word is 'snot.'" The routine continues and Bruce describes the difficulties of getting snot out of a suede jacket. If you try and throw a jacket with snot on the sleeve into the cleaners, they'll bust you. One important thing to recognize about television at this time is that this isn't Lenny playing the old switcharoo with the words "shit" and "snot." (Well, he is a little bit with that misdirect…) This really is the offensive word that Steve Allen was alluding to earlier. Later in the episode when Bruce and Allen are talking at the desk, Allen discusses the idea of how one person's most offensive word may not be all that offensive to someone else and uses the examples of "armpit" and "belly button." When I write these articles I try not to do a lot of "look how different things were back then!"-style observations, but I think it's important to realize that Bruce isn't being cutesy here; he's actually inching towards the line of what was allowed on TV.
From here, Lenny does a chunk on religion. "The Jewish god doesn't have a face. The Christian god has a family. A mother, a father, and he's been in three films." His god is different. He doesn't believe the selflessness exists in a real life, so he looks instead to the Lone Ranger, who does good and doesn't accept anything in payment. He then moves into a character piece in which he plays a member of a town the Lone Ranger has saved, confronting the masked man for not accepting a gift. He jumps back and forth from the townsperson to the noble Lone Ranger as the hero explains that he doesn't accept gifts because all of the "thank you masked mans" that he gets would distract him from saving others. The Lone Ranger agrees to take one present, for the kids, and decides that he wants Tonto the Indian, so he can "perform an unnatural act."
Lenny ends his monologue here and concludes by saying that all of the words that he's said this evening, "lie closely with the ear of the beholder. What those words meant to you." Lenny then sits down with Steve Allen to discuss this point of constitutional freedom. According to Bruce, the law prescribes true freedom of speech, and what is considered "dirty" to one may not be "dirty" to another. Allen points out that even in the Bible there are stories, words, and references to acts that you could not say on television, at which Bruce warns that someone tuning in right now would think that this was a religious program and then turn it right back off.
When asked if when he started working if he did more conventional jokes ("about the freeway and your wife's cooking") Bruce responds that he still does. The main problem he has now is his public persona. "You get arrested in Town A, Town B has to follow suit. And then Town C is already ready for you." It's clear that Bruce believes he is right to say the things that he does, and doesn't just do it for the headlines, but he also understands why his words offend some. He doesn't blame the police as a whole. Instead, "Certain individuals…think a certain way and they interject their personal point of view." While he's careful to never directly say this, with a few references to the Communist party he alludes to the idea of the censoring of words being a slippery slope in which all civil liberties are threatened. Towards the end of the interview, Steve Allen sums it up thusly: "This is not a problem that can be viewed in black and white. Unbridled freedom would result in pure anarchy, and yet when you begin inching in, you find that you are moving into inhibitions of freedom… There is no way to solve the problem. What may be too much freedom may be not enough to someone else."
Ultimately, this segment of The Steve Allen Show was never shown on television. The sponsor of the show, Westinghouse, demanded that Bruce's performance not be broadcast, even after Allen offered to record an additional disclaimer. Reflecting on the experience in his book Funny People, Allen wrote, "It was a nightmarish experience for all involved, and most of all — I assume — for Lenny."
Things have changed quite a bit in the almost 50 years since this episode was recorded. Today, with the advent of cable, there really isn't much that you can't say on television. However, the process of dealing with freedom of speech has become more self-policing; rather than criminal charges being levied, if there is a disagreement about something that is said there is a debate on the Internet. Sure, these debates can get nasty and carried away, but that's just the way the Internet works. But sometimes actual opinions change and viewpoints are broadened as a result of these conversations. And I think that's something Lenny Bruce would've been all for.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.