A comedian as transgressive as Lenny Bruce would may very well not be welcomed on college campuses, were he alive today. But his spirit, and his unique and uninhibited brand of comedy, was welcomed to Brandeis University last week for a two-day conference dedicated to his legacy, “Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce.”
Brandeis is in many ways, a natural place for a Lenny Bruce conference. It’s a Jewish-sponsored university, named for a First Amendment stalwart, which in recent years has been a frequent battleground for fights over political correctness. The first-of-its-kind conference doubled as the formal opening of an exhibition of Bruce’s papers and personal effects—a deal made possible in 2014 by a gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation—coming just a couple of months after the 50th anniversary of the comedian’s death.
Hefner’s daughter, Christie, was on hand to deliver a keynote address, and Bruce’s daughter Kitty Bruce cut the ribbon—two women whose fathers were major cultural figures of mid-century who fought titanic free-speech battles, with very different outcomes. “We need more Lenny Bruces,” Kitty Bruce said. “My father caused some people to become very uncomfortable, because he poked around their core belief systems. My father said: Let me tell you the truth.”
To say this wasn’t a typically dry academic conference would be an understatement. There was, for one thing, a lot more cursing—one presenter began his paper by reciting George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words,” an act no doubt inspired by Bruce—and a lot more Yiddish: It’s probably the first academic forum in history to include use of the phrase “the knish versus the schlong,” as mentioned by Brandeis professor Joyce Antler while presenting a paper called “From Sophie Tucker to Sarah Silverman: The Subversive Potential of Jewish Women’s Humor.”
There was, of course, much analysis of Bruce’s comedy itself, along with the work that both influenced him and was influenced by him—at various times, academic viewpoints and analyses were backed up by clips from Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sarah Silverman Program, and Seinfeld. In all, it was a two-day deep dive into about a century of Judaism, humor and subversion. There were multiple instances in which a presenter quoted an old Allan Sherman song or Mel Brooks routine and the crowd finished the sentence along with them. At one point, a presenter asked the audience to name the lone Yiddish term in Sarah Silverman’s 2005 concert film Jesus Is Magic. The (correct) answer soon emerged: Tuchas!
As pointed out by Alexander Wohl in a paper called “Not Your Mother’s Borscht: Lenny Bruce and the Yiddishization of American Comedy,” Bruce never shied away from his Jewishness. He spoke Yiddish on stage, which at one point was a way for comics to sneak material past censors. He performed routines like “How Negroes and Jews Became Entertainers” and “Jewish vs. Goyishe.”
Speakers included several non-academics, including the pioneering TV writer Susan Silver, and Cantor Jeff Klepper, who performed Bob Dylan’s eponymous song about Bruce. Lewis Black, another noted Bruce comedy heir, spoke at the conference’s dinner. Bruce’s longtime lawyer, Martin Garbus, pointed out that Bruce may well have been horrified by the notion of a conference celebrating his work.
“No comedian in American history collided more directly than Bruce with censorship, and none therefore exerted a greater effect upon the evolution of freedom of expression,” Brandeis American Studies professor and conference organizer Stephen Whitfield said afterwards. “What made his comedy so subversive and so transgressive, and how the law has been reshaped, are the sorts of topics that brought scholars from several disciplines to [the conference].”