Lenny Bruce pushed buttons. A regular at the clubs in the Village, he was also, arguably, one of the leaders of the counterculture movement in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and honed his stand up acts gigging in various Village night clubs. The counterculture movement in our neighborhoods during that time helped numerous comedians evolve more personal — and more explicit — acts as they performed along side beat poets and jazz musicians whose influence was enormous on their writing and performing styles. Bruce was perhaps the most risque of them all and pushed the envelope of what was considered appropriate for the time. Not only was he a stand up comedian, but he was, importantly, a social critic and satirist who irritated the establishment to such a degree that he was ultimately arrested and convicted of obscenity charges while playing at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village.
Bruce was convicted of obscenity charges on November 4, 1964 along with club owner Howard Solomon, who along with his partner, lost their liquor license over this matter. No stranger to legal troubles, Lenny Bruce had been arrested many times over his career due to his profane and unconventional stand up routines, but this was his first conviction.
An icon in the Greenwich Village comedy scene of the mid 1960’s, Leonard Alfred Schneider, known by his stage name of Lenny Bruce, was a trailblazer in comedy. He is now considered one of the most influential stand-ups in history, and remembered for his open, freestyle, often vulgar and critical form of comedy. His unbridled disregard for conventional comedy is known as a bold statement on freedom of speech.
By using his performances as political acts, speaking out against the police, complaining of his arrests, and going on tirades about fascism, Lenny was more than a comedian. He used his vulgar and unfiltered style to speak his mind. His style and legal troubles got him banned from several U.S. cities. He made few appearances on national network television during his career, due to “vulgarities” in his act. When he did book a television appearance, the network would often try to censor his material. The arrest in New York in 1964 served as a trial for not only Bruce himself, but for free speech and our first amendment rights. During the Cafe Au Go Go show, he was recorded by undercover cops, and the evidence obtained was presented to a grand jury. He was accused of violating New York Penal Code 1140, prohibiting obscene material that could aid in the “corruption of morals of youth and others,” and faced a maximum punishment of three years in prison. A petition, signed by many prominent names including fellow Village icons Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, Paul Newman and Woody Allen stated, “whether we regard Bruce as a moral spokesman or simply as an entertainer, we believe he should be allowed to perform free from censorship or harassment.” In court, many recordings of Bruce’s performances were played, and certain profane acts were described to a jury. Bruce responded by critiquing their poor performance of his work.
Lenny, along with club owner Howard Solomon were sentenced to four months in a workhouse. After his conviction, artists did not stop in their fight for freedom of speech in performance. Comedians inspired by Bruce’s brash and unapologetic style of comedy and his persistence on freedom of expression pushed the boundaries of what was “acceptable comedy” in the years after his death. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed years of precedent in a landmark case, Miller v. California, which broadened First Amendment protection for material like Lenny Bruce’s, based on an argument of the material’s underlying literary, artistic, and social value. Lenny’s comedy helped to change the perception of what should be acceptable to be heard on stage.
Unfortunately, Café Au Go Go is no longer with us. The building was located in the basement of the New Andy Warhol Garrick Theatre building at 152 Bleecker Street. It was demolished in 1970, but when it was functioning, Café Au Go Go was the place to be. The venue’s legacy lives on in the stars that were born on its stage. From 1964 to 1969 the Cafe Au Go Go was a beacon in the night for many a disenfranchised performer. The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Bruce, & George Carlin are just some of the once-obscure and relatively unknown musicians and comics who performed there.