New book revisits legal history of Lenny Bruce, First Amendment warrior

"Not a single book on these shelves mentions Lenny Bruce in the context of First Amendment law," declared law professor David Skover, gesturing broadly at the wall of books in his Seattle University office.

"This is a man who sacrificed his life, ultimately, for the American principle of freedom of speech."

Skover's outrage, albeit genteel, over the legal legacy of the granddaddy of stand-up comedy has led him to co-author a book with Ronald Collins, "The Trials of Lenny Bruce" (Sourcebooks MediaFusion; $29.95). Within its 560 often dramatic, copiously researched pages, the volume documents Bruce's obscenity trials for the first time, making a vivid case for the comedian's contribution to the defense of the First Amendment.

Skover is imminently qualified to write about the subject. He teaches constitutional law, has published articles in the Harvard, Stanford and Michigan Law Reviews, and previously collaborated with Collins on a book about pop culture and the First Amendment, "The Death of Discourse." The idea for the new book was suggested by Nadine Strossen, national president of the ACLU.

"The Trials of Lenny Bruce" is part of a general resurgence of interest in Bruce, including two Entertainment TV documentaries and Robert Weide's 1999 award-winning HBO documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth." Skover's book already has prompted interviews with People magazine and National Public Radio.

Bruce's capacity to fascinate endures. In the late 1950s, he did for stand-up comedy what Bob Dylan would do for pop music, exploding, then rebuilding the genre as a kind of psychodrama of social criticism. With brutally incisive street humor, he exposed society's hypocrisy about taboo subjects such as race, sexuality, religion and drugs.

Bruce paid for this assault with his life. Harassed for five years in a series of notorious arrests and obscenity trials, Bruce died of a heroin overdose in 1966, exhausted, dispirited and unable to fill a theater.

"We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him," reflected Vincent Cuccia, who served in the D.A.'s office during Bruce's New York prosecution. "We used the law to kill him."

Skover, who quotes Cuccia in his book, agrees with this popular view of Bruce as a martyr — albeit a self-destructive one — reinforced by the dark, 1974 Dustin Hoffman film "Lenny." But he'd like to brighten it by reminding people that Bruce also was brilliant, funny and a free-speech hero. In an interview last week at his Seattle University office, Skover was passionate.

"The cases Bruce was involved in never went on appeal to the Supreme Court," he explained, "so he's not important for legal precedent. But as a practical matter, his obscenity trials ended the prosecution of comedians for vulgar words."

High-court vs. street law

Bruce's troubles began the night of Oct. 4, 1961, at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop, when he was arrested for using street slang for a person who commits fellatio.

Thus began a string of court cases, People v. Bruce, the legal foundation for which was meant to be the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court judgment in Roth v. United States. Roth established the famous criteria for determining obscenity: "Whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest."

The problem, however, was that Roth was so ambiguous as to be useless. Bruce was convicted only twice, once in Chicago, where the verdict was overturned, and again in New York, where, had he appealed, according to Skover, he also would have prevailed. (Bruce never did jail time, however, because he fled the state).

"His story is important," said Skover, "because it is positioned at exactly that juncture where the law as expressed in high court opinions and the law as it was enforced on the streets were at a great dissonance."

But Lenny, Skover emphasized, "paid the dues." "The Trials of Lenny Bruce" offers snapshots of biography but is more of a legal history. It could have used one more fierce edit, but one of its strong points is its detailed descriptions of each prosecutor, defense attorney and judge whose personality played so crucially into the trials. The book also includes an excellent CD, narrated by jazz critic and First Amendment specialist Nat Hentoff, one of Bruce's early champions.

The disc provides unexpurgated snatches of Bruce's most famous bits, such as "Christ and Moses" and "Religions, Incorporated," which hold up well, after 40 years.

So how did Skover, a 50-year-old product of parochial schools, Princeton and Yale Law School, become obsessed by a foul-mouthed, lower-middle-class Jewish hipster from Long Island?

'There's still censorship'

"It's not so much that I related to Lenny's smart-alecky, almost con-man ways," said the animated professor. "But I did relate to his willingness to strike out and be different. Lenny was always authentic. He's like the North Star I wish I could sometimes be."

Is Bruce still worth fussing about, in a world of rap vulgarity and cable TV? Skover answered by repeating the word Bruce was busted for, in Chicago. "Are you going to promise that [THAT WORD] appears in the newspaper?" he challenged.

"There's still censorship, both of the kind that Bruce knew and a more nuanced form." Closer to the front page, Skover points out that only a year ago, comedian Bill Maher lost his TV show, "Politically Incorrect," for attacking the war on terrorism.

"Granted, that's commercial censorship," he said. "And Bill Maher's not going to prison. But today, commercial censorship may have exactly the same silencing effect as governmental censorship did for Lenny Bruce."

In the bigger, historical picture, Bruce led the vanguard of a social revolution that toppled the American church and state as moral authorities, putting the market — and various subcultures — in their place. For many, this new, moral pluralism is a sign of decline, not progress. Not surprisingly, Skover passionately disagrees.

"I think it's a better world because of Lenny Bruce," he said, nodding his head slowly. "But certainly my parents wouldn't believe it."

Skover then recalled that in Wenatchee, where he recently did a radio talk show (one of 50 he's scheduled for, so far), someone called to complain that Lenny Bruce was a no-goodnik. "But then he said Lenny should never have been arrested," said Skover. "Suddenly, I saw how different even the conservative ideologue has become. Because he was saying Lenny Bruce shouldn't have paid the dues. And that's what my book is about."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

Author reading

David Skover appears at 7:30 p.m. today at Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; free) for a reading and book signing. He also speaks at 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Seattle University Law School (5:30 p.m. reception) and appears on a panel Oct. 19 at Northwest Bookfest.

For more details, see The Trials of Lenny Bruce site.