The story of acerbic 1960s comic Lenny Bruce, whose groundbreaking, no-holds-barred style and social commentary was often deemed by the Establishment as too obscene for the public.
Interview-style biography of controversial and pioneering stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce. The film traces Bruce from his beginnings as a Catskills comic to his later underground popularity based on his anti-establishment politics and his scatological humor.
- In an interview, Honey Harlow Bruce (Valerie Perrine), ex-wife of stand-up comic Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), recalls her life with him:
In 1964, Lenny shocks his audience by stating that Eleanor Roosevelt gave Lou Gehrig "the clap," but then says the real point he wants to make is about the suppression of words. Venereal disease he says, is an epidemic because people will not talk about it.
Honey then recalls seeing Lenny for the first time in Baltimore, when he was a comic impersonator:
In the early 1950s, Honey, a stripper known as Hot Honey Harlow, is eating in a cafeteria when she sees Lenny watching her from across the room. The next time Lenny and Honey see each other, they go off together to have sex. Afterward, the smitten Lenny calls Honey his "shiksa goddess" and follows her to Miami.
In another interview, Artie Silver (Stanley Beck), Lenny's manager, discusses the delicate balance of involving himself in both Lenny's professional and personal life:
Shortly after Lenny and Honey meet, Artie warns Lenny that Honey, who had done jail time as a teenager, would be trouble. Despite Artie's misgivings, Lenny marries Honey, then takes her to meet his mother, Sally Marr (Jan Miner), and her sister Aunt Mema (Rashel Novikoff). Later, Lenny, who is uncomfortable with Honey's stripping, adds her to his act. They are hired to perform in the Catskills, where, during a show, Lenny makes an impulsive, crude joke to the band that is overheard by the audience. After this incidence, Sherman Hart (Gary Morton), an established comic, advises Lenny not to use "dirt" in his routines, but, at his next performance, Lenny intentionally insults his audience, thus losing career opportunities.
In a 1960s performance, Lenny asks his audience, "What is dirty?" He says he would rather his child watch a stag movie than 'The King of Kings' , because nobody gets hurt in porn.
In a flashback to 1950s, Honey is seriously injured and, while in the hospital, guesses that Lenny has an affair with her nurse. This incident becomes the source of a routine Lenny performs a decade later, in which Lenny advises men to deny their indiscretions at all costs, even if their wives catch them in the act. Explaining the difference between men and women, Lenny says that a woman is physical with someone she likes, but a man will seek out anything, even on a desert island.
In the 1950s, the couple moves to Los Angeles, Honey returns to stripping, Lenny to small gigs and they become involved in the show business drug culture. Lenny pushes to experiment sexually, but then accuses Honey of enjoying the other woman in their ménage a trois "too much." In her interview, Honey recalls that after their daughter, Kitty, was born, she and Lenny parted.
During his stand-up act in the 1960s, Lenny says that "divorce is great at first, but then you realize the women you meet are also divorced and burdened with children or poodles". He claims the only satisfaction is the revenge of gaining child custody, but then you are responsible for getting up in the morning to raise the child.
In her interview, Honey at first accuses Lenny of stealing Kitty, but then admits she had a problem with drug abuse:
In the late 1950s, Honey, an emotional wreck from loneliness and drugs, calls Lenny collect from Hawaii, where she has been arrested for possession of marijuana.
In a 1960s performance, Lenny explains that the problem is that we live in a "happy ending" culture instead of a "what is" culture. He thinks that true human responses are denied and lied about, causing people to feel guilty when they act in a natural way.
In an interview, Sally says that she moved to California to help with Kitty, and that Lenny had by then given up impersonation and begun to improvise:
In the late 1950s, Lenny works in strip clubs, content that no one censors his act. Eventually, Artie and Sally convince him to take engagements at college and political venues, where his irreverence soon becomes trendy. During a performance, Lenny risks audience alienation by boldly referring to individuals using racial epithets. Then, explaining that suppression gives words power, he advocates using offensive words until they can no longer cause pain. When a Time magazine reporter suggests that Lenny's act has social impact, Lenny denies it, saying he likes attention and wants to "make a buck." Now, Artie commands high fees for Lenny's appearances.
During one performance, Lenny says that he has been accused of making "sick jokes," but that a true sick joke is that Zsa Zsa Gabor earns $60,000 a week in Las Vegas and a Nevada school teacher's top pay is $6,000 a year. After wisecracking about masturbation and integration, Lenny says his financial success is based on violence, segregation, disease, despair and injustice, and if the world suddenly became pure, he would be unemployed. When he visits Honey in prison, he shows her an album cover of a recording of some of his performances.
At an appearance in San Francisco, Lenny protests the dismissal of homosexual teachers, saying the men were considered good at their jobs and their actions occurred far from school grounds. Because of one of his crudely worded comments, Lenny is arrested and charged with the use of an obscene word in a public place.
During his interview, Artie recalls that Lenny became obsessed with his legal battles and would read court transcripts to his audience:
At Lenny's trial without jury in San Francisco, the judge orders a continuance and cautions Lenny not to repeat any of "those words."
At Lenny's next performance, after pointing out to the audience several uniformed and plainclothes policemen posted around the room, Lenny talks about his arrest, substituting the sounds, "blah blah blah," for provocative words. When the trial resumes, the humorless judge finds Lenny guilty, after which his counsel requests a jury trial.
In his interview, Artie states that Lenny began to study law books and record his trials:
During the appeal trial, his lawyer forces the arresting policeman to admit that one of the words that Lenny is being charged for saying in public is often used at the police station, which also is a public place. Then his lawyer suggests that Lenny's work is found in the social satire of Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift. A professor of religion testifies that Lenny's routines convey a sincere message that exposes hypocrisy. A recording of a performance is played, one in which Lenny riffs on the phrase, "to come," and arranges his words into a kind of beat poem. Although the judge is offended, the jury votes for acquittal. Lenny, however, is dissatisfied, feeling that he won because of the jury's idiosyncrasies rather than the acknowledgment of First Amendment rights.
According to Artie's later recollection, Lenny, who added jokes about the Pope and other religious leaders to his routines, developed a following, although some people attended shows just to see if he got arrested. After Honey is released from prison, she and Lenny spend time together taking drugs. Artie and Sally try to cancel Lenny's Chicago performance, but when the manager refuses, the drug-addled, coughing Lenny goes onstage. After an attempt at coherence, he apologizes, admitting he is not funny. Backstage, the police arrest him.
In the present, Honey recalls that Lenny was arrested a total of 13 times, and Sally states that he suffered from pleurisy. Artie says Lenny dealt with depression, and was going broke from lawyer and doctor bills. In a performance at the height of his career, Lenny tells the audience that there has been an "obscenity circus" for years, starring the district attorney and the lower and Supreme Courts, and that he is the "schmuck" who fell off the high wire into the ring. As he wonders aloud why it is permissible to show photographs of maimed breasts injured in war, but not the beautiful breasts of a lovely woman in the audience, a policeman rises to arrest him.
At the trial, words Lenny has spoken are presented out of context and a gesture he used is incorrectly stated to signify masturbation. Increasingly frustrated, Lenny speaks out, asking to talk to the judge and jury as human to human, but his interruptions anger the judge. Expecting a guilty verdict, his defense team plans to appeal to a higher court, but Lenny, no longer thinking clearly, is uncooperative. He tries defending himself, but the judge declares him in contempt of court. Lenny states that he has no money left and his cabaret card, which allows him to perform, has been confiscated. As he is removed from the courtroom, Lenny claims he hurts no one and pleads that they do not take away his words.
In her interview, Sally says the New York court found Lenny guilty, but an appeal was being planned by his defense team. When the interviewer suggests the possibility of suicide, Sally denies it. Honey describes Lenny as funny, and Artie, pleased that Lenny's records are selling again, states that he is negotiating a film about his life. Intrigued, the interviewer mentions that Lenny's speeches are now-after less than a decade-considered harmless.
Back in 1966, when Lenny is found dead in his apartment, naked, with drug paraphernalia nearby, the police allow news photographers to film his death scene.