Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925, in Mineola, Long Island, New York. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy, at the age of 16, and saw active duty in Europe until his discharge in 1946. In 1947, he changed his last name to Bruce, and performed his first stand-up performance in Brooklyn, New York. Bruce got his first big break as a guest on the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Show.
Bruce’s early comedy career included writing the screenplays for Dance Hall Racket (1953), Dream Follies (1954), and The Rocket Man (1954). Bruce also released four original albums with Fantasy Records, composed of comic routines and interviews on various themes such as politics, religion, race, Jewishness, and the Ku Klux Klan. Lenny Bruce became the most controversial stand-up comic of his time. He began exploring riskier subjects, and receiving much positive and negative feedback on the material. Bruce’s growing popularity led to televised appearances on the Steve Allen Show. On February 3, 1961, Bruce gave a historic performance at Carnegie Hall in New York.
In 1951, Bruce was arrested in Miami, Florida, for impersonating a priest. In 1961, Bruce was arrested again for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Although the jury acquitted him, this led to frequent arrests under charges of obsenity. He was also arrested in 1961 in Philadelphia and in 1963 in Los Angeles, California, for drug possession. Finally, on December 21, 1964, after a widely-publicized six-month trial in New York City, Bruce was sentenced to four months in the workhouse for obscenity; he was set free on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal was decided. In 2003, 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a pardon by New York governor.
In Bruce’s later performances, he would often relate the details of his encounters with the police directly into his comedy routine. Eventually, Bruce was banned from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 he was banned from performing in Sydney, Australia. By 1966, Bruce had become blacklisted by nearly every nightclub in the United States, as owners feared prosecution for obscenity. On June 25, 1966, Bruce took the stage at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, for his last performance.
At the request of Hugh Hefner, Bruce wrote his autobiography, which was serialized in Playboy Magazine in 1964 and 1965. Bruce’s story was later published as the book, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.
Bruce died on August 3, 1966, at the age of 40, in Hollywood, California.