Lenny Bruce, the man who made comedy the frontline for free speech, was famous for swearing and using racial and ethnic slurs on stage. Off stage, however, his act was much cleaner. Once, when he was being harrassed by a detective who followed him to his room at the Hotel Marlton in New York, claiming the comedian was with a 16-year-old girl, Bruce called down to the front desk. The woman was 27, he said. Please tell the detective "to go fuck himself."
"It was the only time I heard him swear," said Carl Montgomery, the hotel manager, who was Bruce's close friend during the years he lived there.
Bruce, who overdosed in 1966 after famously fighting his prosecution on obscenity charges in New York, L.A. and San Francisco, is the subject of a new documentary, Looking for Lenny, which puts the comedian's far-reaching legacy into context for a new generation. The film, newly available on many Video on Demand services, features dozens of comedians and entertainers, including Robin Williams, Lewis Black and Henry Rollins, Bruce contemporaries including Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
Bruce's use of profanity had a moral purpose, said Paul Krassner, the radical journalist who edited Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: "He was parsing it, demystifying it.
"If somebody was given a free-association test today and they didn't know Lenny's work, just his image, they'd say, 'Oh, he made it easy for comics today to use profanity,'" Krassner told Rolling Stone. "But what Lenny did as a performer was break through the traditional targets of humor" – nagging mothers-in-law, for instance – "and talk about things that really mattered. Everything from teachers' salaries, racism and sexism to abortion rights and atomic testing – all different forms of injustice."
"Every story had a moral point behind it," said the 92-year-old Montgomery, who managed the Marlton, home to many writers, performers and musicians, for decades. "It was not just dirty language. And I'm a better human for having known him."
Oddly, though Bruce was "crazy about words," Montgomery told Rolling Stone, "he was a terrible speller."
Bruce, as comedian Rob Riggle says in the film, effectively martyred himself for the right to speak freely and call out hypocrisy. "Usually it's the first guy through the breach that takes all the bullets," he says.
Looking for Lenny examines recent controversies over the use of language, including racial slurs used by talk show host Don Imus and comedian Michael Richards. When Bruce used similar language on stage – often incessantly – it was to expose its absurdity. The real crime in the Richards case, says comedian Orlando Jones in the film, was that "there was no punchline."
Such incidents demonstrate Bruce's prescience, said Krassner: "When he was called a 'sick' comic, he was really trying to reflect the implications of a sick society. And the critics blamed the messenger."
In a belated victory for the First Amendment, Bruce was posthumously pardoned by the state of New York in 2003. One of Bruce's spiritual heirs, comedian Jim Norton, says in the film that Lenny represented all comedians who "just want people to understand."
"You want to drill it through their thick fucking skulls," Norton says.