Long after four-letter words in standup comedy lost their ability to shock, Lenny Bruce — whose foul-mouthed rants started the trend — was posthumously pardoned Tuesday for his 1964 obscenity conviction.
Gov. George Pataki granted the pardon after a campaign that included Bruce’s daughter and former wife, and entertainers such as Robin Williams, the Smothers Brothers, and Penn and Teller.
“Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror,” Pataki said.
It was the first posthumous pardon in New York state history.
Bruce’s supporters called Pataki’s decision a victory for the First Amendment and for the legacy of the pioneering comic, who helped transform his art.
“He was a hero to comedians and to me also, a man who did not change his viewpoints in spite of all the odds against him and never quit fighting for what he believed,” Tommy Smothers said.
“That is important, probably more than the content, the ability to stand up and fight for the right to express oneself.”
Barreling through doors
Bruce’s trailblazing work opened the mainstream door for such comics as George Carlin, known for his “seven dirty words you can never say on television,” Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay.
Bruce was arrested during a November 1964 performance at Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. He used more than 100 “obscene” words, according to undercover New York City police detectives who attended the show, and was charged with giving an obscene performance.
Bruce’s performances at the time were littered with four-letter words, and sexual references to Eleanor Roosevelt and St. Paul, among others.
Bruce was convicted after a six-month trial and then mishandled his own appeal, refusing to follow the court’s rules. He was sentenced to four months in jail but left the state and never served the term.
Unintentional heroDespite Bruce’s frenetic stage presence, carrying the mantle of free speech in the cultural wars of the 1960s wore him down. He died of a drug overdose in 1966 with his conviction still on the books.
“He didn’t choose to be a poster child for free speech,” said Smothers, who lost his network TV show years later over pointed comedy about the Vietnam War and the Roman Catholic Church. “I think he was very uncomfortable with that.”
Nightclub owner Howard Solomon was convicted along with Bruce — although his conviction was eventually reversed.
Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer who campaigned to pardon Bruce, said Pataki’s decision was “a New Year’s gift.”
“I think the decision today is really a major step forward in recognizing the mistreatment of Lenny Bruce personally and of the First Amendment that Bruce defended,” Abrams said.
Bruce’s life was the subject of numerous articles, books and documentaries. In 1974, Bob Fosse’s film biography, “Lenny,” earned Dustin Hoffman an Academy Award nomination.
In 1999, HBO aired “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” a documentary narrated by Robert De Niro that also was nominated for an Academy Award.