Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce, Keynote by Christie Hefner ’74
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Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce, Keynote by Christie Hefner ’74

October 11, 2019

Good morning and welcome over the next
two days our campus will engage in a scholarly examination of Lenny Bruce, an
American icon, groundbreaking comedian and an ultimate
champion of the First Amendment. Mr Bruce exerted an impact upon his
contemporaries and successors like no one else in his field, and his influence
on comedy and well beyond comedy continues today. This influence is
reflected in the variety of panels that will be held over the next two days. How
many people could be the central subject of discussions of both the unitization
of American comedy and how to talk dirty and influence constitutional law. Just a
few minutes ago we cut the ribbon and officially opened the Lenny Bruce
collection in the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special collections department. This acquisition, announced in 2014, features ten linear
feet of Mr. Bruce’s personal papers and photographs along with numerous
recordings. These papers and recordings join good company in Brandeis’ archives
and special collections, which contain more than 10,000 rare books, manuscripts
dating back as far as 120 CE, the Joseph Heller collection, including the original
manuscript of Catch-22, the personal papers of our namesake Louis Brandeis,
himself a rigorous defender of freedom of speech and much more.
It is quite appropriate that Brandeis, with our motto of “truth even unto its
innermost parts,” is now home to the personal papers of an individual who
deeply believed in that same ideal, even to the point of persecution. We are
honored to have been chosen as the keepers of this historic collection and
we look forward to the scholarly opportunities it will provide to
researchers for years to come. We would not be hosting this conference without
having acquired the collection and that could not have happened without the
blessing of Lenny Bruce’s daughter, Kitty Bruce. Kitty, we are so delighted that
you’re here and with us today for this occasion thank you. We are also grateful
to the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation, Hugh Hefner himself, and his daughter,
Brandeis graduate, Christy Hefner, who will deliver the symposium’s keynote address
in just a few moments, for the generosity in supporting this conference and
enabling us to bring together so many outstanding scholars. We also thank Arlan Ettinger of Guernsey’s, the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice
in Jules Bernstein, and the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts for their
support. Enormous thanks to all of you. [Applause] Now within Brandeis, many offices and
programs have also had a hand in supporting this event, including the
American Studies and Journalism programs, the departments of Near Eastern and
Judaic Studies, English, History and Sociology, and the Office of the Provost.
Since the acquisition was announced, university archives and special
collections department has worked diligently to prepare it for inquiry.
Sarah Shoemaker, Associate University Librarian for
Archives and Special Collections, and Stephen Whitfield, the Max Richter Professor of
American Civilization, have been the driving forces behind making this
symposium happen. In a moment I’m going to turn the symposium over to its
rightful keeper, Steve Whitfield, to formally introduce our keynote speaker.
But first I want to thank all of you for attending today whether you have
travelled from afar and are already closely familiar with Lenny Bruce and his
lasting impact, or you’ve walked up from your residence hall to learn more about
a comedic legend, I hope you all find the next two days to be thought-provoking,
engaging, and enlightening. Thank you. [applause] [President Liebowitz leaves the podium, Steve Whitfield arrives and stands at the podium] Thank you Ron, and I wish to reinforce, to
amplify the welcome that {resident Leibowitz has just provided and to do so
in behalf of Sarah Shoemaker, the Associate University Librarian for
archives and special collections. She and I have indeed been rather
actively involved as co-chairs of the program committee of this conference and
we do wish to of course thank our benefactors, to thank our donors here in
part to amplify really that appreciation and that gratitude for those whom Ron
has just mentioned. And to note that if anybody has any logistical, technical
other issues, Sarah and I, who are right here, are happy to ideally try to remedy
them. I’d prefer you see Sarah rather than me, but whichever you choose to do
is fine. Also wish to announce that at the Shapiro Campus Center, there will be
available Lenny Bruce’s autobiography which will be available for purchase. And
I understand, Kitty, that you will be happy to
inscribe copies of that as well as t-shirts as memorabilia, of course, of
this conference at the campus center. I’m here also to offer
special thanks to Steve Krief, who is sitting over here, who is the other in a
sense instigator and driving force of this conference. Steve wrote an enormously rich, enormously informative biography and sort of career study of
Lenny Bruce done in 2005 at the University of Paris. And as a result of
his research in that respect he got to meet and got to know Lenny Bruce’s
daughter and it was really Steve who suggested to Kitty that Brandeis
University would be the ideal site for the papers of her father. So this would
not really happen at all, none of us would be here without Steve’s initiative
and instigation and I want to thank you really for that. You’ll be hearing from
Steve later this morning of course as well as as well as this afternoon when
he will be in conversation with Kitty Bruce. I was not privy to that
conversation in which Steve suggested that Brandeis was the ideal site for
that, but I’d like to imagine what the argument that Steve offered might have
been. We start with the most obvious, which is that we are named for Louis
Brandeis – the same initials as Lenny Bruce. That’s the least
significant feature but we’re an unusual, somewhat unusual university of course
because we’re not named for a benefactor, we’re not named for a donor, however
grateful we are for our benefactors and our donors. We’re named for a Supreme Court
Justice who himself was one of on the half-dozen, or a short list of those who articulated,
really, the case for maximizing freedom of expression. One of
the Supreme Court justices most important for in a sense grasping and
for most fully appreciating the significance of the First Amendment itself,
and particularly in his concurring opinion in “Whitney versus California.”
Justice Brandeis basically made about a strong a case as anybody has ever made
for the connection between the sense of autonomy, the sense of dignity, the sense
of self-respect that has to be connected with the impulse to express oneself and
how that need for self-expression is also deeply connected to any sort of
imaginable dynamic and flourishing democracy. So that is a tradition that we
at the university are very proud of and of course I don’t need to tell anybody
in this audience the connection to Lenny Bruce himself and that Lenny Bruce was
himself a figure who in some ways even went beyond the the boundaries of
nightclub comedy and performance in pursuit of a maximal self-expression. One
of his own favorite expressions was the Yiddish term ms truth a variation of the
un– the hebrew Emmett truth which is in the Brent de Brent the official Brandeis
seal so there’s that connection in a sense as well and just as Lenny Bruce
himself near the end of his life seemed to even burst the bounds boundaries of
comedy and to say very famously quote on not a comedian I’m Lenny Bruce and of
quote was a way of indeed pushing that effort at truthfulness so that these are
at least some of the arguments that Steve might have presented to Kitty as
to why there’s a special significance why the the archives are available here
and that brings me to the pleasure of introducing our keynote speaker because
there are also those particular sorts really of connections as well Christy
Hefner graduated from Brandeis as Ron has mentioned as you know from also from
the program graduated Phi Beta Kappa in English and American literature as the
department was known at the time and a since then been an extraordinarily loyal
extraordinarily dedicated alumna and supporter of the
University and we are deeply appreciative Christy of the allegiance
relieved that you’ve shown to the University in the in the succeeding
decades there’s an historical reason as well and that is that in the mid 1950s
to the late 1950s playboy was crucial in in a sense jump-starting the careers of
three major comedians Mort Sahl Dick Gregory and of course Lenny Bruce and in
that sense playboy played an extraordinary role in the transformation
of American comedy away from simply and I’m not disparaging it away from simply
gags the rata tatata effort at jokes toward a sort of personal effort at
pursuing M s of pursuing truth and in that sense there’s an historic role here
that that Christie Hefner and her family have really played in that particular
change toward something that would indeed alter the direction really of
American comedy and pursue it in the directions that would allow the
understanding really of perhaps uncomfortable truths whether they be
racial whether they be sexual whether they put be political and finally the
argument for Christy Hefner as our commencement as our keynote speaker is
also the sense that her own career both in philanthropy and in her own politics
has also represented a rather gallant dedication to both the promotion of and
the protection of the First Amendment so it is with great pleasure and it’s a
great honor for me to invite Christy Hefner to be our keynote speaker thank you Steve very much actually
wasn’t quite old enough to have had a seminal impact in the late fifties and
in there was a sort of wonderful way that synchronicity happens I actually
had nothing to do with the gift that my father made I was not involved in those
conversations and in some regards that makes it more sweet because instead of
feeling that I needed to be an actor to facilitate it
it happened because all of the parties sought as Steve so eloquently put it as
something that was meant to be with many points of intersection and many
connections Steve in terms of points of connection was telling me last night
that this is the last semester that he’s going to be teaching at Brandeis and he
started teaching when I was a student so I think that’s a very nice arc and I
want to thank you for all that you have done because your fingerprints are all
over this and it would not have been possible without you and I also want to thank Kitty who I’ve
known over the years and who makes it a particular pleasure to be able to be a
part of this to share this together we share the experience of having iconic
fathers but beyond that we’re gonna talk over the next two days about the legacy
of Lenny Bruce Kitty is the legacy of Lenny Bruce and it was Kitty’s vision
and passion and fierce protectiveness that preserved all those papers and all
those extraordinary recordings and then had the generosity of spirit to make it
available not just to her family but to all of us and we owe her a deep deep
debt I lastly want to thank YouTube with whom
we’ve partnered which is going to allow many more people than those in this room
to listen in on the next two days and to participate and even as you heard today
in meeting Steve from Paris Lennie himself his life his work his struggles
and the issues raised by all of those are contemporary and global and the more
we can amplify the audience engaged in that conversation the better so these
days we talk a lot about being in an age of disruption Airbnb in hotels Netflix
and blockbuster uber and taxis Amazon and retailers and it’s true that much of
what consumers and businesses knew even 15 years ago has dramatically changed
but while the technologies and globalization have accelerated change in
our times we actually think about the fact that being disruptive and
provocative is not unique to our times and was very much a defining element of
the late 50s and the early 60s it’s been said the times they were a-changin and
perhaps what’s most striking about those times when we compare them to today is
that the changes were less about business models and actually more about
ideas and values about conformity and hypocrisy and the challengers were less
often entrepreneurs and more often activists and artists it’s easy to lose
sight of what America look like in post-world War 2 era the man in the gray
the man in the gray flannel suit the happy housewife the traditional family
that was started in the early 20s the Eisenhower years an age of conformity
but underneath that Placid surface a lot of pent-up demand for change was roiling
The Feminine Mystique the civil rights movement
The Beat Generation a growing questioning of government a questioning
of traditional attitudes about sex and reproduction through the impact of the
GI Bill by 1960 the United States became the first society to have more college
students than farmers the country was poised for a generational prison break
and these non-traditional ideas were being expressed in all media in art in
poetry in music and film in books and magazines there was a space opening up
in the culture more oxygen in the air it was a distinct moment for the
transgressive the avant-garde versus the old guard born Leonard Alfred Schneider
in 1925 Lenny Bruce died fifty years ago at the age of 40 but in his short life
he became a superstar and in the years since then his fame and influence have
only grown Comedy Central ranked him the third greatest comedian of all time
following Richard Pryor and George Carlin to clear successors to Lenny’s
groundbreaking work as Steve alluded to previous generations of comedians Jack
Benny Bob Hope Milton Berle had a style of telling rapid-fire jokes a brief set
up followed by a punchline and Lenny style couldn’t have been more different
he wrote his own material rooted in personal experiences, targeting
the hypocrisy of contemporary society. Along ith the others of his time like Mort Sahl and
Dick Gregory and Elaine May and Mike Nichols, he was more a comic thinker than a comedian, and as Steve mentioned, all of those people had some connection to Playboy, featured in the magazine, or performing in the Playboy Clubs, or on Playboy Penthouse, the syndicated television show my father hosted. A show
as an aside that got no carriage in the South, because its format was to feature black performers in front of an integrated audience on the set. There were many points of intersection between Lenny and
my father, which really led up to the logic of the Hugh M. Hefner foundation, making the grant
that facilitated this acquisition. Playboy was launched in December of 1953, and my father envisioned it as a guidebook for the urban male, that would combine lifestyle information with entertainment and thoughtful and provocative great writing both fiction and nonfiction. It was underpinned, though
by a philosophy, a philosophy that centered around the critical importance of personal freedom and individual rights, and as a result of that Hef and the magazine were especially interested in the other rebels of that time. They published, for example, Jack Kerouac and Fahrenheit 451, they
assigned Alex Haley to conduct the very first Playboy interview which was with Miles Davis, who
spent a good deal more time talking about race than music, they broke with the Norman Rockwell tradition of straightforward illustration, to feature the work of great artists like Roger Brown and Andy Warhol. They launched an annual jazz poll, and organized a Playboy
jazz festival in Chicago in 1959 to benefit the Urban League. Hef first met Lenny in 1958, when he went to San Francisco to hear him perform. This was shortly after Lenny was really breaking through with new material and a new style of delivery, that was allowing him to play in night clubs that were not also strip clubs. Hef was so impressed that he contacted friends who owned the
Gate of Horn club in Chicago, and arranged for Lenny to play there. The Illinois obscenity statute
had recently been amended to reflect the 1957 Supreme Court Roth decision, so many people were feeling that clubs, night clubs were really free speech zones. Lenny went on to play Mr. Kelly’s in
Chicago, and that led to his being interviewed by Studs Terkel. The next year, the magazine
profiled him in an article entitled rebel with a caustic cause. In the early 60s, he appeared on Playboy Penthouse, and then the magazine first excerpted, and then the company published his autobiography “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People”. Many times, he stayed at the Chicago
Playboy Mansion when he was in town. I would say, like contemporary art and contemporary jazz, Hef dug Lenny. But Lenny was more than a gifted disruptive artist experimenting with extremes like a Jackson Pollock or a Miles Davis, Lenny became a martyr. Hef also knew what it was like to be persecuted, the magazine was denied its second class postal permit and had to go to court to win it.
That 1959 Jazz Festival I told you about was supposed to be at Soldier Field, but the Catholic Church pressured the first mayor Daley to pull the permit. In later years, Hef would be on Nixon’s enemies list, a source of great pride, and the company would go to court to challenge Reagan’s Meese Commission,
which was pressuring retailers not to sell the magazine, Congress for defunding the
Braille, yes the Braille edition of Playboy, and a bill that was attempting
to limit all of cable to the broadcast network standards which resulted in a supreme court victory codifying that cable standards would be the same as print and online. In another small world connection, that case was argued by Bob Corn Revere. Bob would go on to successfully petition the state
of New York for Lenny’s pardon in 2003, and that inspired Ron Collins’s book, “The Trials
of Lenny Bruce”. That book would win a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment award. But in Playboy’s battles, Hef not only had great lawyers, including some like Harry Calvin,
who also represented Lenny on a pro bono basis, in Hef’s battles, he had a large company behind him, and a powerful platform in the magazine. Lenny had none of that, just friends, and Hef was one of those friends. A friend who
believed in Lenny, and who stood with him in the good times, the bad times, the unpopular times, and all times. Because alone among the many rebellious artists, talented men and women who were his contemporaries, Lenny Bruce was persecuted and prosecuted for his words and his ideas. Because he confronted the
hypocrisy of institutions and of society, because he was willing to criticize and challenge stereotypes,
he became a target. Fundamentally, he was busted over and over and over again for blasphemy. But because blasphemy is not against the law, he was prosecuted for obscenity. Lenny Bruce was very much an artist of his times, Time magazine called him the Elvis of comedy. It was often noted that his
monologues were delivered in the rhythms of a jazz musician, most famously perhaps his, “to is a
preposition cum is a verb”. But at the same time, I believe that his relevance and resonance today couldn’t be greater. While it is a tragedy for Lenny and his family that he died so young, in some ways his best years came after his death. Because he has left us with a critically important legacy, that will begin to be explored over the next two days, by two dozen distinguished
scholars and thinkers. For my part, I would observe the following, we live in a time when Lenny’s comic bloodlines have flourished like never before. Much of the comedy we hear today was pioneered by Lenny, comedy that similarly challenges and channels the contemporary zeitgeist. That includes not
only great male comics like Lewis Black, who we’ll hear tonight, but incredible female
comics like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. Today comedians, as a matter of course, employ their personal lives and voices to comment on society, its mores, its values. When we listen to Steven Colbert, or John Oliver, or Jon Stewart, we’re going to them not just for comedy, but for critical perspective. Just
like listening to Lenny made us both laugh and think and sometimes it also made us squirm.
Because a part of Lenny’s genius was how he related to an audience, how he created for them, and with them, the experience of being overcome with laughter, over that which was both hilarious and transgressive. In a time of the Charlie Hebdo murders, we would do well to be thoughtful about the
role of humor in human affairs, and to think about what are perhaps unacknowledged, the off
limits of today. As Marty Garbus has said, and we are very fortunate to be hearing from him later
today, quote the history of the law of free expression is one of vindication, in cases involving speech that many citizens find shabby, offensive, or even ugly end quote. After all, we don’t need a First Amendment to protect popular speech. The First Amendment is unique to America, and in theory widely
admired, but so much of our discourse about freedom of speech is abstract, starting with the fact that it’s important to understand that free speech and the First Amendment are not the same thing. The First Amendment is necessary but not sufficient. Almost everyone attempting to limit free expression starts by saying I’m not for censorship, but as Hugo Black noted, we must not be afraid to be free. We should be asking ourselves what is transgressive at this moment, and how do
we not just protect, but nurture it. We come together on the campus of a great university founded in the name of a brilliant jurist, who established the standard for the only kind of speech that I
believe should be banned, that which is intended and likely to cause immediate violence. Let’s be
careful that our more developed sensitivities around inclusion and diversity don’t turn into ways to protect people and especially students from challenging ideas. As Robert Zimmer, president of the
University of Chicago has said, “Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but
rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex
environments. In the 60’s, students were demanding the right to free speech, now at least some students
demand the right to be free from speech that they find to be offensive, upsetting, or emotionally
disturbing, and while private universities like private companies such as Facebook and Twitter are not bound by the First Amendment, I share the belief of Jeffrey Rosen, legal scholar and head of
the National Constitution Center, that they would do well to resist pressure to moderate speech or
content in the name of promoting civility. as Salmon Rushdie, someone who certainly knows firsthand what it means to offend has said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend,
it ceases to exist.” This conference is extremely timely, as during this election season much has
been noted about the need for greater civility, in our politics, and in the media. I concur. I too worry that whereas a different race or religion used to be the greatest concern of parents regarding who
their child would marry, now it’s political affiliation, and whereas back in the 60s everybody watched
the same TV shows and read the same magazines, now it’s so easy to be balkanized and choose to only
be exposed to those ideas and points of view that we agree with, and that agree with us. Yet even as we work towards a more civil union, let’s be sure that we remain equally committed to that
transgressive idea and ideal, that underpinned Lenny’s work, that nothing is sacrosanct,
everything is open to being questioned and challenged and even mocked. Because that is also what underpins our Democracy. When Lenny was pardoned back in 2003, it was said in fact, that pardon was for the rest of us. Let’s be sure we earned it, thank you. [applause] [inaudible speaking] MODERATOR: Great, sorry, could you just use the mic?
CHRISTIE HEFNER: If you wait, ’cause then that’ll get recorded. AUDIENCE MEMBER: The Library of Congress keeps Playboy magazine in the rare book room which, is a very strange place if you’ve ever done any research there. It got very thick carpets, and very polished tables and all. Some years ago when I was doing some research on stand-up comedy, I had opportunity to go down there and look it, because playboy published an interview
with Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Jules Feiffer and I forget who, oh Jonathan Winters, and I wanted to
use that material. So I went up to the Library Congress rare book room and the librarian very aggressively said what do you want that for and I said I don’t have to tell you that I said I’m a professor at the University of Maryland and even if I weren’t, as a US citizen, I have access to
this. So she brings the volume and then she does a lot of dusting to kind of
watch what I was doing, and so I waited till she got within eyeshot, and I turned around to the centerfold
I started taking notes. She’s probably still reeling from that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This isn’t really a question but I just want to say that this is really
a good thing this is happening you know I was thinking the other day at the end of his life, I mean the day he died the Bank of America foreclosed on his house. He hadn’t worked in a long time in his, you know it [EDIT he]
could get an occasional [30:50 EDIT remove “conch”] concert, and that was it. You know I’m told, I’ve read that he was afraid at the end that no one would remember, and I think it’s wonderful that fifty years after his death at a Northeastern Ivy
League school, which is about as far from Lenny Bruce’s Hollywood as is possible to get in the
continental United States. Here we are gathering to discuss his, I mean, a scholarly discussion on his
life, on his career and a celebration of his life. I tend not to refer to Lenny Bruce as a
comedian, I call him a humorist because in my opinion he’s right up there with
Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, Will Rogers, the best of ’em, you know and I think he’s the most
important humorist of the 20th century and thank you again, my name is Tom Deacon nice to meet you, thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you please elaborate a little bit on what you see the dangers to in free speech on the
campuses, whether its limits of too much political correctness and things like that so just want you to
elaborate on that a little bit please.
CHRISTIE HEFNER: Sure, I quoted president Zimmer. I live in Chicago, and I think all universities are grappling with this and where’s Greg, so stand up Greg. So Greg is the founder and
head of an organization called FIRE, and we’ve worked together through the foundation and around
First Amendment and you should make a point of finding Greg after this session when we’re on coffee break, because we used to support and still do the Student Press Law Center which is a really wonderful organization that has worked on behalf of the rights of students in, whether they’re
working on their school newspaper, or they are organizing on campus, because many of us feel that there’s a double harm when you censor, you know, student speech or student journalists, the first is the censorship itself, but the second is the message that you’re sending to people who are in a learning environment, which is so contrary to the message you want to send them. FIRE now, is
aggressively also working in that space, and Greg can tell you a lot about individual cases. I mentioned President Zimmer because a friend of mine, Jeff Stone, who’s a distinguished constitutional
lawyer, and actually wrote a book called Free Speech in Perilous Times that won a Hugh M.
Hefner award a few years ago, was tasked by the University to write a kind of a mission statement that would
express the university’s view that it would not and could not and should not trade off its commitment to freedom of expression for comfort, for students, while at the same time being respectful
of different voices, and that kind of mission statement, if you will, or code is being
adopted by a number of other schools, and I think they’re striking the right balance. But I think that we have all seen examples in the press of the hecklers veto, of dis invitations to controversial speakers, and as I tried to reference in my own remarks, you know, I am, like everybody else gratified by the
continuing advancement in our society of respect for diversity, and inclusion, and tolerance that wasn’t always there, so holding on to those values is important. But where they actually run up against the right of free expression is, I think, the moment where we have to say the best antidote to speech
that we not only don’t agree with but we find distasteful or even hateful is more speech. [applause] AUDIENCE MEMBER: I want to raise the Jewish Question Lenny Bruce allowed me and many of my contemporaries in 1950s and 60s to re-identify with the Jewish experience, and my first article ever published was Lenny Bruce a
Jewish humorist in Babylon. Right now, I’m working on a film inspired by your father, it’s called taking sides, it’s a film about Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Dick Gregory. I’m wondering why the foundation hasn’t considered a similar kind of film, because our young people today, given the polluted political atmosphere that has come into the discourse, I think we need to reawaken consciousness of Lenny Bruce,
Mort Sahl, and Dick Gregory.

CHRISTIE HEFNER: Yeah, well the foundation isn’t a filmmaker, but there they have given grants
to films, wonderful films from the celluloid closet, which sort of traced the history of representation
of homosexuality and film to, gosh, the atomic cafe, so all I would say in answer to the direct
question, is if you are working on a film you should make an application for support from the foundation, and you’re quite right that all three of those people had a very deep connection to Playboy, and in fact
a Dick Gregory, who’s kind of a casual friend, is unbelievably generous and outspoken about how he
would not have had a career but for Playboy. Because for a black comic to be able to play in front of an integrated audience, either in a club or on television, was really unheard of in the time that he was
coming of age, and he would say that Playboy gave him the chance. So those issues of race, and personal
freedom, and free expression, were also I think integrally related. Well, I’m going to turn the podium back
over to Steve. I’m going to be here all day and all evening and it’d be my pleasure to visit with any and all of you during that time so thank you again.

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