Eyewitness Views

In October 1961, Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco for violating the city’s obscenity laws but was back the next month appearing at the Curran. Gracie Hays not only talks to San Franciscans who dug Bruce back then but also digs up a couple of Herb Caen quotes about the controversial comedian.

On the heels of the publicity about his arrest in San Francisco on obscenity charges, Lenny Bruce was back in the city in the fall of 1961 to appear at the Curran. Producer Hal Zieger - the promoter for both Frank Zappa and Ray Charles who went on to produce JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR - thought with all that publicity he could fill the Curran with a Lenny Bruce performance. Ziegler priced the tickets at $3.50 - $5.50. Only between 300-500 people showed up, however, to see the comedy act of this man who insisted he was not a comedian.

November 19, 1961, was a stormy night in San Francisco. The rains were torrential. The coatcheck room was overstuffed with drenched macintoshes and mauled umbrellas. A wet but grinning Shecky Greene milled about the small lobby with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason, who later co-founded Rolling Stone magazine with Jann Wenner. Judge Albert Axelrod, who had originally been assigned Bruce’s case, was there to keep tabs on the act. Also in attendance were Assistant District Attorney Art Schaeffer and Bruce’s attorney Al Bendich. They and the others who braved the weather that night had to brave as well an intermission-less three hour set by Bruce. (3 hours, 7 minutes, and 25 seconds to be exact.) “Those who were not there missed a great, possibly an historic show,” wrote Gleason in his Chronicle column.

Bruce in his three-hour jazz-like fugue that night at the Curran jammed about Bobby Kennedy, George Shearing, Judy Garland, his earlier arrest in Philadelphia, the difference between Jewish and Goyishe, Russians, integration, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Paul Robeson, Las Vegas, Christ and Moses, tits and ass, marijuana, nuns, Thomas Merton, and Adolph Eichmann.

Lenny Bruce, Illustration by Casey Waits

Lenny Bruce, Illustration by Casey Waits

At one point in his Curran performance, Bruce asked for that week’s issue of Life magazine and flipped through it as he commented on its contents. In the issue there was a review of the Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s THE CARETAKER at the Lyceum Theatre starring Donald Pleasence as the play’s tramp and Robert Shaw and Alan Bates as the brothers who take him in. In its review, Life described the play as “pungently funny in streaks but somber in spirit. The all-too-human tramp is full of the world’s evils - prejudice, arrogance, hatred - and seems to cry out from the dark corners of the human soul. Some audiences seem annoyed and bewildered by the play. But even after it’s over, its prickly, provocative ideas go on itching in the mind.” - K.S.

“You'd always smile a little differently at a Lenny Bruce show. That's what he could do. Lenny Bruce gave you a different sort of smile.”

“They call Lenny Bruce a sick comic - and sick he is. Sick of the pretentious phoniness of a generation that makes his vicious humor meaningful. He is a rebel, but not without a cause, for there are shirts that need unstopping, egos that need deflating, and precious few people to do this sticky job with talent and style. Sometimes you feel a twinge of guilt at laughing at one of Lenny’s mordant jabs - but that disappears seconds later when your inner voice tells you, with pleased surprise, ‘But that’s true.’ The kind of truth that might not have dawned on you if there weren’t a few Lenny Bruces around to hammer it home.”

Herb Caen, championing Bruce, 1959

“I moved to San Francisco in 1959 and started dating a guy named Sam. I ended up marrying him. A marvelous man. He’s gone now. But back when we were dating we never missed a hot act and San Francisco back then was full of hot acts. We saw George Shearing at The Black Hawk. We saw Mingus make use of a bullwhip onstage. Yes, he’d pull out a bullwhip. Duke Ellington played Basin Street West and would come out between sets wearing a silk robe to hold court with the ladies. Lenny Bruce, in his way, was the hottest back then though. We saw him at Enrico Banducci’s club, the hungry i. I was never offended by Lenny Bruce. But he could startle and surprise you. When Sam and I would get shocked by something he’d say, we’d turn and look at each other and kind of smile. But you’d always smile a little differently at a Lenny Bruce show. That’s what he could do. Lenny Bruce gave you a different sort of smile.”

North Beach community activist, Gerry Crowley

“I saw him anytime he was in the city. He was just so clever and funny. I’m talking fall-off-the-chair, wet-my-pants funny. I had seen a lot of other big comedians because I worked my way through college at Bimbo’s, but to me watching Lenny was by far one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. I think part of Lenny’s success in San Francisco had to do with the times we were living in- but he also played good venues. He did Basin Street West and Ann’s 440. He did the Jazz Workshop and the Off Broadway. In the ‘50s, before he got big, he had a really hip beatnik audience here. I mean, I don’t think he would’ve done too well in Fresno.”

John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party

“I can’t remember much about seeing Lenny Bruce other than the fact that he said ‘fuck’ a lot.”

Gina Moscone

“I knew Lenny in passing. He used to stop at City Lights on the days when I was working there. He would buy the newspapers and then would go onstage with the newspapers and do raps on what he found in the news. I saw him perform a few times and he just had that New York gift of gab. That Lower East Side give of gab.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“He was a real rebel. And there weren't too many rebels. There still aren't.”

“Lenny appeared like a cynic, but he wasn’t a cynic. He was actually very romantic. He was very kind and he’d speak to me straight. He was a very soft-nature, storybook kind of guy, just with a Jewish sense of humor. And he was always a hipster, much in the same way that jazz musicians were. I think there’s been an awful lot of emphasis on portraying him as a kind of Jesus-on-the-cross figure, but that’s not the way he was. When he stuck his neck out to tell the truth, they crucified him. That’s the party they emphasize. They never emphasize how much fun he and the audience were having. It started innocent enough. He was a real rebel. And there weren’t too many rebels. There still aren’t. Comedians are all the same now. Lenny was looking for hypocrisy all the time and finding the funniness of what people pretend to ve versus who they are. There aren’t any comedians taking chances anymore though. They’re all very safe with their material. Lenny would always go for the throat. He’d go for the laughs no matter what.”

Mort Sahl

“Confidential to comedian Lenny Bruce: We’re all sorry you’re having personal problems, but an endless airing of them does not constitute nightclub entertainment, sorry. You should be doing this material on a psychiatrist couch, not in a nightclub.”

Herb Caen, feuding with Bruce, 1964