Pioneering comedian and free-speech warrior Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred Schneider) died on this date in 1966 at age 40 from a drug overdose. In the early 1950s he worked a double-act with his wife, stripper Honey Harlow, and began to make a name for himself with four recordings of his controversial rants about race, religion, patriotism, abortion, drugs, Jewish identity, and other subjects that were rarely messed with in that conformist decade. In 1961, Bruce appeared on the Steve Allen Show on television (one of only six TV appearances throughout his career) and on the Carnegie Hall stage, and was then arrested on obscenity charges in San Francisco. He was acquitted but began to face arrest so frequently that he was blacklisted by many nightclubs. In a six-month trial in New York in 1964, despite testimony and petitions on his behalf by such cultural icons as Bob Dylan, William Styron, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and Woody Allen, Bruce was convicted of obscenity; he died during the appeals process and was posthumously pardoned by Gov. George Pataki in 2003.
“Liberals can understand everything but people who can’t understand them.” —Lenny Bruce
Watch a clip from Lenny Bruce’s second to last performance in 1966 (his act starts at 1:32; one of seven clips from “Lenny Bruce” on YouTube)