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“The Trials of Lenny Bruce” by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover Sourcebooks Trade, 576 pages, $29.95 It’s not hard to imagine Lenny Bruce performing in a Nehru jacket. What is hard to fathom is the comedian and social critic doing so while acting as his own counsel before Thurgood Marshall and other judges on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That scene, recounted in “The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,” is but one of many compelling moments in this account of Bruce’s labyrinthine legal travails and their impact on free speech in the United States. Authors Ronald Collins and David Skover, who have teamed up on other First Amendment works, studied both the comic and the tragic in Bruce’s life to produce a riveting book and CD, arguing convincingly that Bruce had a more profound effect on obscenity law than any court of the time. The 2nd Circuit case, one of a handful of desperate civil rights complaints against various judges and prosecutors, was the least of Bruce’s legal battles. The book’s focus is three obscenity trials, starting in San Francisco in 1961, then in Chicago, and then an epic six-month misdemeanor trial in New York City in 1964. In these cases, Bruce’s were word crimes. He said lots of nasty words, he lampooned the mightiest political and religious leaders, made many people uncomfortable about their own unspoken assumptions and biases, and was utterly unapologetic about it. Or, as the authors quote Bruce, “I’m pissing on the velvet, that’s what I’m doing.” Bruce beat some of the raps while, the authors and many of their sources agree, the raps ultimately beat him. He was hounded out of work in major cities and legal fees sucked up his money. He grew more obsessed with the trials, incorporating them heavily into his act and making a series of decisions that aggravated his attorneys. His roaring heroin addiction — aided and abetted by those other travails — drove him to overdose in August 1966. Obviously, Bruce’s is a fascinating tale. But the authors use his story to make a deeper point about law and society, and especially about the “community standard” used then, as now, to define obscenity. They explore the principal legal precedents and constitutional arguments, concluding that Bruce should not have been prosecuted and that the standard is flawed and dangerous. Perhaps most significant, they show that Bruce, even without setting any lasting legal precedent, changed the application of obscenity laws. The book benefits from an exotic ensemble cast (Hugh Hefner, Allen Ginsburg, not-yet-Supreme Court Justice Marshall, Johnnie Cochran, Jack Kerouac, George Carlin, First Amendment scholars from Harry Kalven to William Kunstler) and many fascinating and telling anecdotes. For example, one week in December 1962, Bruce was busted for obscenity in Chicago on a Saturday, scheduled for a court date on an obscenity charge in Beverly Hills, Calif., on a Tuesday, and was expected to appear for arraignment on a drug bust in a different Los Angeles courtroom on a Friday. At the Chicago trial, where the charges stemmed from a comic “bit” in which Bruce mocked leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, Bruce’s attorneys walked into the courtroom on Ash Wednesday to find the judge, the prosecutors, and jurors wearing a cross of ash on their foreheads. After a priest backed out of a promise to testify on Bruce’s behalf, Bruce asked him, “What can they do? Bust you to nun?” The book makes no pretense of being a biography. Bruce’s family, lovers and drug busts are introduced only to put the free speech fight into context. The New York trial — the best litigated of the three — is the book’s centerpiece, and formidable Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Richard Kuh is clearly the anti-hero. While the authors evidence an understandable if occasionally overzealous tilt toward Lenny, every point of view is laid out before the reader. And despite the fact that both authors are constitutional experts making some fairly involved arguments, the book reads more like a magazine piece than a law review article. The accompanying CD is similarly fun and illuminating. It contains the very bits that got Bruce arrested, includes snippets from the New York trial, and is narrated in a style that closely tracks the text by noted columnist Nat Hentoff, who testified on Bruce’s behalf and championed Bruce in his columns back in the day. Like a good joke, the real punchlines in the book are not always where or what you expect them to be. Bruce’s free speech victory came only after he OD’d, when he was instantly transformed into a superhero. His act was suddenly available everywhere in the form of movies, books and records, and his innovations have long since become the springboard for other provocative feats by comedians, social commentators and even First Amendment scholars. Bill Kisliuk is senior editor at Legal Times.

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