Main content

Lenny Bruce - In His Own, Unheard, Words

It is 50 years since comedian Lenny Bruce died. Mark Steel explores his legacy in the 21st century, drawing on personal tape recordings from a newly established Lenny Bruce archive.

Fifty years since Lenny Bruce died, Mark Steel explores his legacy in the 21st century, drawing on personal tape recordings from a newly established Lenny Bruce archive at Brandeis University, as well as classic clips from some of his ground-breaking comedy and social commentary routines. With contributions from Lenny's daughter, Kitty Bruce, and from those who knew and wrote about him, including author Laurence Schiller.

Dubbed a 'sick' or 'dirty' comedian, Lenny Bruce burned a pioneering trajectory through the late Fifties and early Sixties America, breaking social taboos on what it was acceptable to say.

In later years he was pursued through the courts and convicted of obscenity, ending up bankrupt before being found dead of an overdose.

Subsequently, Lenny Bruce was the subject of books and films during the 1970s and 1980s and a campaign to have him posthumously pardoned was successful in 2003.

But today it seems, the words and ideas that made him notorious in Sixties America may not have lost their power to offend and Lenny Bruce might struggle to be heard on some American campuses - campaigners are using his example to highlight the dangers to free speech.

Presenter: Mark Steel
Producer: Philip Reevell

A Manchester Digital Media production for BBC Radio 4.

Available now

58 minutes