Louis CK directs and stars in one of the most fascinating television shows ever. “Louie” is a combination of behind the scenes of stand-up comedy and a realistic and sometimes depressing depiction or real life while raising two daughters. Yet, “Louie” is completely indebted to Lenny Bruce, arguably the most influential comedian ever.
Bruce was born in New York in 1925 and died in Los Angeles in 1966, but those details don’t matter nearly as much as his legacy.
Imagine comedy in the 1950s with jokes like, “I have a brother who is afraid to go to sleep … he dreams he’s working.” These one-line jokes were clean, bland and prone to theft.
This particular joke was attributed to Milton Berle, a known joke thief, and does not contain an authoritative voice to identify the original creator. Because of this conundrum, comedians did not spend much time creating jokes, thinking they would just be stolen in the end anyway.
Bruce changed comedy by telling long form stories about religion, language and sex, all revolutionary topics in the 1950s. His material contained an authoritative voice so listeners could identify a Lenny Bruce joke. No longer could comedians steal other jokes without them being recognized. Today, stealing jokes is the ultimate sin.
But Bruce’s legend is greater than just changing how comics perform their art. He later became a champion for the First Amendment by challenging the government.
In 1961, Bruce was arrested for obscenity for using one of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” at a club in San Francisco. Under California penal code section 311.6: “Every person who knowingly engages or participates in … presents or exhibits obscene live conduct … in any public place … is guilty of a misdemeanor.” This language has been changed since 1961, but the law still exists.
Bruce spoke out about how words are just words: “It is the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, and the viciousness.” He fought the charges and was later acquitted.
But this didn’t matter as Bruce was constantly getting arrested across the country for obscenity charges. Eventually, clubs stopped booking him to avoid large fines and being shut down. In 1966, an overdose of morphine finally killed Bruce, who was no longer able to find work.
Today, Lenny Bruce’s legend is more important than his material.
You can find his routines online but be warned they are incredibly dated. Instead, seek out the Dustin Hoffman film “Lenny” — which captured Bruce’s essence — or the work of his successors George Carlin and Louis CK. But remember, every time Louis CK talks about “objectionable” subjects in front of an audience, as “Louie” or as himself, he owes thanks to Lenny Bruce.