American Scandal

New episodes come out every Tuesday for free, with 1-week early access for Wondery+ subscribers.

Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

The Lenny Bruce Obscenity Trial - Lenny’s Impact | 3

The Lenny Bruce Obscenity Trial - Lenny’s Impact | 3

Tue, 17 Mar 2020 09:00

Brett Gary is a professor at NYU who studies media and American culture, and focuses on the public battles over censorship. He joins Lindsay to discuss the enduring influence of Lenny Bruce and the comedian’s obscenity trial.

Support us by supporting our sponsors!

See Privacy Policy at and California Privacy Notice at

Listen to Episode

Copyright © © 2018 Wondery, Inc.

Read Episode Transcript

American scandal is sponsored by the new ABC drama Alaska Daily. When an indigenous woman goes missing in Alaska, it sparks new questions about other missing and murdered indigenous women. And that's where the thrilling new ABC drama Alaska Daily begins, and where it's headed, will have you on the edge of your seat. Two time Academy Award winner Hillary Swank stars as Eileen, a veteran reporter, who joins a team of local journalists working to bring the truth to light. From Academy Award winning screenwriter Tom McCarthy, Alaska Daily premieres Thursday, October 6th on ABC, and streams next day on Hulu. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together, and we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. A listener note, this episode contains references to adult content and language, and contains material that some might find offensive. From Wondry, I'm Lindsay Graham, and this is American's Can. Like many comedians, Lenny Bruce started his career telling traditional jokes. In the early 1950s, he could be heard on the radio doing celebrity impressions, but as the decade wore on, Bruce grew tired of doing the same old stick. The postwar America elevated traditional values. The country laughed to shows like, I love Lucy, and Father knows best. Bob Hope, the biggest comedian at the time, was anything but edgy. But Bruce saw a different America than the one portrayed in the mainstream. He was a fan of the beat generation, a group that rejected propriety, embraced sex, drugs, and jazz. Soon, Bruce would weave all those things into his act, and comedy would never be the same. He delivered skating monologues against people and institutions the nation held sacrifice, religion, the role of women, even abortion laws. Critics called him a sick comic, clubs refused to book him, and his act also got him in trouble with the law. Bruce was arrested 15 times in less than two years, often for obscenity. But after a comedy club staying in 1964, Bruce faced the trial of his lifetime. And it wasn't just Bruce on trial, it was the future of free speech in America. Today, we talk to Brett Gary about that trial. He's an associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Here's our conversation. Brett Gary, welcome to American scandal. Thank you very much. Happy to be here. Before we talk about Lenny Bruce the man, I want to talk about the America he was performing in. It's a very different country than it is today. It's the, in many ways, we think of this time as the, they leave it to beaver 50s America. But that clearly wasn't where Lenny Bruce was coming from. So can you characterize America and Lenny Bruce's America for us to set the stage? Sure. Lenny was operating in the subterranean spaces of 1950s America. And I think part of what he's doing is he's arguing against and critiquing the dominant culture, the kind of culture of consensus around family, marriage, Christianity, heterosexuality, kind of the reverence for the government, reverence for the military, reverence for religious officials. So all of those things were kind of objects of mockery or scorn for him. And I think that you know one of the things he's paying attention to is the the deeply racist elements in the society, the suppression of homosexuality or the repression of it, that kind of absence of a free speech tradition, that certainly concerns him. And I think that he's really concerned that there's kind of an absence of a sustained critique that's really available to the public about calling it a question, the hypocrisies of the dominant culture of the way in which official speech is polite speech. So he has a kind of sustained argument with the culture. And I think he also has a kind of sustained argument with it, sort of overwhelmingly Christian dimensions, as a kind of wild Jew on the margins. He's really attentive to the way in which the kind of overarching themes and infacies in the culture are really Christian and their frameworks. So you mentioned that he was reacting to an absence of sustained critique. He certainly brought that sustained critique in his style of humor when he inaugurated his style, when he finally found himself in nightclubs, how was he received by audiences? One of the things that's interesting about him is that he finds his style in strip clubs. Before he makes his way into nightclubs, he's the MC in strip clubs in LA. And in those spaces, anything went. So he could say the most outlandish things, really provocative. He could play to his audience, which was an audience that was not a sort of rarefied audience. So it was a kind of in the language of the time, it was a kind of low clientele, right, and a kind of low brow forms. And he spoke to that and he developed a style and he realized that those audiences responded. So he took that style and he took his stick and his critique into nightclubs. And then he found that people responded very strongly to it. They appreciated his stuute observations about the culture, his play with language, his use of vulgarity. He was not afraid of the vernacular. He used vulgar words. He talked about sex. He talked about masturbation and oral sex and homosexuality. And so those audiences who came to the night clubs often, which were still kind of marginal spaces, they were there for that. They were very interested in hearing dirty linear, you know, linear the sicko. They knew what they were getting or they knew what they'd hoped to get. So they were attracted to that space. But I think that that's an important part of the Lenny story too, is that he is operating in these kind of marginal cultural spaces that don't have the kind of protection around them that say the print culture has, that the book publishing industry has, or that the film industry has, or that universities have. He's in operating in spaces that are much more vulnerable to surveillance. They're much more vulnerable to police raids. They're much more vulnerable to vice squads. That makes them edgy spaces and the audience go, they go there for their edgyness and they're rewarded for going there. But his provocations are observed as well. Let's talk about his provocations, his vulgarity and especially his relationship with obscenity. You know, he started in strip clubs and was clearly very close to this line in society. Let's listen to a clip from Lenny Bruce's sets in which he addresses specifically the word obscenity. You know the meaning of obscenity don't you? Perhaps you know, see if I do a disgusting show, we'll use any disgusting words, they're just going to be talking about pork. That's my right, you see, as an American citizen, to discuss pork on stage. Although we've discussed all of you vegetarians and Jews and Muslims, that is my right. And if you come in this would like to suppress that right to talk about ham and pork, that's, and that's your right. Now if I do a vulgar show, I sing rock and roll tunes. Justin most vulgar form with the big bulb of snow is that is not obscene. Obscenity has one specific meaning to appeal to the prerent interest, to get you horny. That's essentially, yes. See, if that's why strip doesn't get arrested for being obscene, they can out and they do horny dance. The viewer gets horny and raps somebody who didn't see the show. That's why we have the Lord. So this word obscenity will be used against Bruce many times throughout his career. But rather than ignore it, like we just heard, he weaves it into his act. Getting in the head of Bruce for a moment, what do you think he felt was missing from comedy, even the broader public discourse at the time that he embraces obscenity? I think truthfulness about sex was part of it. That people are driven by these profound urges and they're not necessarily the urges that they're supposed to be driven by. People have perverse sex. So I think that's part of it. The social silences around sexuality, especially the kind of verbal silences around sexuality, is partly what he's getting at. And I think that what he sees is on in this obsession with obscenity is he's obsessing on the laws, the obscenity laws that are silencing this conversation about sexuality. So there's a long history of obscenity laws being used to silence discussions about information, about ideas, about human sexuality, human desire, fantasy, or rousal. And Lenny realizes that that's the very thing that he's up against. And increasingly as he gets arrested and he becomes acquainted with obscenity law, then that becomes kind of central to his his critique, his inquiry, his performance is the kind of the problem of obscenity law and the way in which obscenity laws run up against the first amendment. And so that becomes a real centerpiece of his performances, is riffing on obscenity law in its meanings, and then sort of testing out the words that are seen as being obscene or offensive or immoral or lured all of those kind of synonyms that define obscenity law. So he's really, he's provoking the law by using those words as part of his kind of query about it or his, his, you know, reflections on an examination of obscenity law. Let's review these obscenity laws. At this time, what were they and what were their purpose? They've been around for a long time by the late 1950s. They're laws that are passed at the both the federal level and the state levels in the late 19th century. The big federal law, the Comstock Act of 1873, becomes the blueprint for all of the different state obscenity laws. Actually, though New York State's obscenity law was the blueprint for the Comstock law, but that kind of the federal law becomes the template for all of the state obscenity laws. And essentially in the late 19th century, there's this, there's an explosion of more sexual materials after the Civil War kind of photography becomes cheaper, more easily reproduced. So there's the distribution of what are called French postcards, kind of early pornographic postcards. Print publications that are much more sort of about erotic materials become more widespread. And contraceptives and abortion are being used much more readily. There's a kind of steady decline of the birth rate of white middle class and upper middle class families. American women, especially of the upper classes and middle classes, are they're clearly using contraceptive devices. And so the obscenity laws, they curtail the flow of information about anything having to do with birth control and abortion, what the devices are, what the techniques are, what the technologies are, and also where they might be obtained. So all of those things are banned under the obscenity laws. And also any information or materials that are being seen as impure, lewd, lascivious, immoral, and that might lead to the arousal of lust. So that the obscenity laws are sort of aimed at two things, right? They're sort of inhibiting lust, inhibiting the flow of materials that might lead to the arousal of lust, that might lead to the arousal of baser instincts. And then also information that might make contraception more easily available and more widespread. So from the late 19th century on, that becomes a really powerful censorship tool for federal authorities, postal authorities, customs authorities, and then also state authorities. So local police departments and vice societies and district attorneys in different cities use the obscenity laws as a way to crack down on people who are sort of printing dirty books or distributing pornography or selling stuff out of their secondhand bookstores or on magazine stands or selling condoms at barbershops or in dance halls and saloons. It's a kind of powerful weapon that's used to control the sexual. So the New York state that Lenny's prosecuted under in New York, but he's also prosecuted in San Francisco, he's prosecuted in Chicago, he's prosecuted in LA, right? All of the for violating those states obscenity laws. So New York state has sort of two different statutes on its book that it's different. It's public law 1140 and it's public law 1141 are both kind of obscenity statutes aimed at kind of curbing obscene, indecent, impure entertainment in the case of the public law 1140 and then the kind of same thing for print materials. One of the things that's interesting is the birth control movement is up against these obscenity laws, Margaret Sanger's combating these obscenity laws. The publishing houses in New York and Boston and elsewhere are combating these obscenity laws. So that's the thing that keeps James Joyce's Ulysses unavailable to the American people until 1933. It's the thing that keeps Henry Miller's novels, or novel, tropical cancer is still successfully prosecuted as being obscene in New York state in 1963. So those laws have a long kind of continuous power as instruments for keeping sexual materials out of kind of the public sphere. I'm curious, I think you use the present tense when describing the actual specific New York obscenity laws. Are they still enforced today? Well, I think they could be enforced. I don't think they are. I don't think that they've, I don't believe in New York state that they have ever been overturned. It's just it's much more difficult to enforce them at this point. But the federal obscenity laws are still in place. So, in fact, in the late 1980s, the Helms amendment in Senate was extended the obscenity law to prohibit the use of federal monies for art that is obscene, lude, immoral. So, one of the, in the kind of in the big public art scandals of the late 1980s, the obscenity law is expanded and says, all right, if you're going to, if you're going to use federal monies to exhibit art, it can't be art that is offensive, immoral, obscene, lude, etc. And it's really, it really sort of targets the kind of art that's around the AIDS crisis in particular. So, those laws are still on the books. It's just a matter of whether they're enforced or not. And getting prosecutions is much more difficult. So, these laws were hindrance to Bruce immediately. And he didn't just walk the line. He deliberately crossed it. And the question why line was even there, this provocation, this poking at the prevailing culture is probably an outgrowth of the beat movement of the time. Can you describe beat culture in the mid 50s as it was at the time of Lenny Bruce? And was he a part of this movement or did he just draw from it? Was he adjacent to it? Oh, I think it was definitely adjacent to it. You know, the beat movement is, it's also about subterranean critique of the dominant culture, the kind of absence of authenticity in the dominant culture. It's part of the beat culture is a kind of search for euphoric moments. It's also, there's a kind of, you know, confluence of jazz stylings, jazz riffs, marijuana, kind of black American culture, and black American vernacular is being this sort of richer, more authentic tradition and kind of space of sexual honesty, the suppression or the repression of queerness is certainly part of beat culture, right? That there is a kind of the need to acknowledge people's queer urges. And so I think that Lenny's drawing on all of this and he's participating in it. There's a flow back and forth. And his prosecution in San Francisco, he's found not guilty in San Francisco. And the lawyer who defends him had been the lawyer who defended Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Firlingetti for the public reading of Allen Ginsburg's Howell at Firlingetti's City Lights books store in San Francisco. And so that's, he's sort of in the tailwind of the beat culture or he's drafting the beat culture, but he's definitely, he's part of it as well. He's part of the kind, the same kind of riffs and rhythms and critiques pointing to the same hypocrisies and also in search of a kind of truthfulness in the culture that the beats are trying to get after. And trying to liberate human beings from Eisenhower, Eisenhower's America, I think, is not inaccurate. What if your family was the victim of a home invasion, or you woke up in the morgue, or you were seriously injured miles from help? What would you do? This is actually happening, asks our listeners this very question, while we bring you captivating real life stories of trauma and perseverance. This is actually happening brings listeners extraordinary true stories from the people who lived them. You'll hear stories about conflict, turmoil, or threats that dramatically alter the course of someone's life. Each episode is an exploration of the human spirit and how survivors manage to overcome hardship and move on with their lives, even thriving afterward. The new season of this is actually happening is available ad free only with Wondry Plus. And if this new season isn't enough, you can listen to more than 120 exclusive episodes available only to Wondry Plus subscribers. Join Wondry Plus on Apple podcasts or on the Wondry app. Much more recently, people might recognize the name Lenny Bruce, because he is portrayed in the TV show The Marvelous Mr. Mazzle. In the show Bruce is played by actor Luke Kirby, though some critics have said that he plays a sort of a fairy godmother equivalent of the real Lenny Bruce. You've watched the show. What do you think of his portrayal? Well, he certainly looks like him. And I think he has kind of the same vocal quality. There is not that kind of fiery underground subterranean critic, I think, in that performance. And certainly not the junky Lenny Bruce, right? Lenny Bruce winds up arrested a lot for possession of drugs. He dies of a drug overdose. And you don't get that sense of Lenny as somebody who's sort of frayed. Right? His nerves are frayed. His sensibilities are frayed. He's kind of parapetetic. It really inhibits his defenses, his legal defenses. So I think, you know, it's a very cleaned up version of Lenny Bruce, though I must say I have not watched beyond the second season to know where they've gone with Lenny Bruce as a character. And whether he is sort of, there is the kind of descent of Lenny into his sort of near madness. I think that's the thing about the beats too, right? There is a kind of understanding of madness, right? That these sort of central beat characters are, right? They're aware of madness. They're aware of their own kind of insanity. And that's part of their poetics. Well, let's talk about the fiery underground junky Bruce that might be missing from that characterization. Bruce continued to perform his brand of comedy into the 60s, but he was in and out of jail, being arrested for insanity, and of course arrested for his addiction to heroin as well. At the same time, he was growing in fame, but then came his bust in the spring of 1964, a sting operation set up in Greenwich Village, the cafe gogo. He described this arrest for us, how it was it set up. Well, one of the things that Lenny was up against, right, is sort of ambitious, district attorneys, ambitious prosecutors, and I have angry white ethnic Catholic cops. He's, you know, when he's arrested in San Francisco, in LA, in Chicago, and in New York, right, he's arrested by kind of politically ambitious prosecutors who want to get dirty Lenny, right? And they send their cops into the clubs and they watch his acts and the cops become the, um, kind of states witnesses in his acts. So Richard, Richard Q in New York is, he's running for mayor. And Frank Hogan, the assistant district attorney, Richard Q is the attorney, district attorney. They want to clean up New York. And so Lenny becomes this really kind of useful symbol, right, of the kind of smuddingness of New York, the dirt of New York that they want to go after and shut down. And so they send cops in to watch his shows at Cafe AgoGo on three different occasions. And the cops accumulate this body of evidence about Lenny and they sort of come back with these, you know, this is the kind of language that he's using. This is how he's talking about orgasms and body parts and his offensive language, right, his blasphemous and sacrilegious language. And that's, and so then the prosecutors are able to kind of mount an argument that he has, that he has kind of offended contemporary community standards and tastes. And that's part of the, kind of the language of the obscenity law. Um, and then he's also because he's talking about sex and body parts that he's also appealing to prerent interest. So the operation sets him up is, it's not, I mean, I, I, I, staying is kind of accurate, but it's just, they just send in the cops to watch him and they get evidence from his performances. And that evidence is used in his trial, which was followed by many people gained a lot of media attention. Celebrities attended and testified Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, sociologists, others, right, they're, they're 30 different witnesses. So certainly it's a spectacle. And it begins to consume Lenny Bruce's life and, and, and enters his comedy routines as well. So I'm interested for Lenny Bruce, what do you think he thought was it's taking his trial beyond just his freedom? The first amendment, right? He's really, um, he's very literal about the first amendment, right, that he has this free speech. And the first amendment ought to protect that right of free speech and that obscenity law is obstructed, it obstructs the first amendment, right? So there's this kind of collision between obscenity law and the first amendment. And he thinks that the first amendment sort of purely understand ought to protect his, his right to speech. And so that for him, that kind of ability to stand up sort of naked in front of a microphone and front of a group of people and hold forth is a kind of fundamental guarantee. And promised in the constitution or the Bill of Rights and that, and so I think for him that's really what's at stake. And then the kind of the right to be truthful, the right to be critical. Stuff that would be protected in print is not necessarily protected when performed orally. And I think that he's, he's kind of astonished that obscenity law is still effectively used to silence provocative speech, sexual speech, speech that offends. And he does give offence, right? And he's deliberately giving offence. So yeah, I think for him, it's like that. I think he thinks of himself as kind of a martyr for the first amendment. And that's certainly how he's been received over time. His trial in New York for you is a bit special because you in your capacity as a professor have reenacted held mock trials for Lenny Bruce in your classes. I'm very curious about what the purpose of this exercise is for your students. And, and how did these trials go? Well, they were fun to do. And, and I think the, you know, the purpose was that in 1963 and 1964 in New York, obscenity law is still very ambiguous. All right. It is both the kind of decisions in the Supreme Court in the Roth case in 1957 and the Jacob Bellas case, right? They have kind of provided more space for speech that is sexual speech and that serves a kind of larger public interest. In the Roth case that Supreme Court said that all ideas that have even the slightest redeeming social importance, right? Unorthodox ideas, hateful ideas even are protected, right? But they're not protected. So there's protected speech, but then they're not protected if they're obscene, because obscene speech is not protected. So the court, it give us and it take us away. And then then they have these tests, right? If it's to the average person applying contemporary community standards, if the dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to prerent interest, then it's obscene. And then the Jacob Bellas case a few years later, sort of uses the language utterly without redeeming social interest. So the thing that I wanted my students to look at was, all right, is Lenny's speech does it have redeeming social interest or is it utterly without redeeming social interest? Does it offend contemporary community standards for the average person? And so I think what was rich about it is that they could look at Lenny's performances and some can say, wow, that is really offensive. And others could say, yeah, but he's making the social argument. And they were not, and they really went back and forth because his narrative, right? That was part of the problem was Lenny's performances as he rift. And so they were kind of, they were broken stream of consciousness things at certain points. He would be, he would just sort of break from one thought to the next. So it was very hard for him and for his lawyers to say there was a kind of sustained argument. So the taken as a whole thing was complicated. And so for the students, I think it was really interesting to see how that law, given its vagueness, could still be used to find him guilty of obscenity. And for those who wanted to defend him, they could say, no, this, his work really did have redeeming social interest. It spoke to even if it wasn't cohesive, even if these weren't kind of cohesive coherent arguments that was enough in them, that it was a kind of sustained critique that did have social interest. I think that's what that kind of the ambiguity of the law and how he could both stake out a successful defense and also how the prosecutors could successfully prosecute him was, it was a rich way to look at how obscenity law functioned in the early 60s, right? Kind of on the, on the verge of the 60s. That was pretty interesting. And so I'd get students to perform Lenny, you know, the kind of the most creative and theatrical person would perform Lenny and would have prosecutors, witnesses, a panel of judges and they usually found him not guilty, but there was always a strong argument about his, his offensiveness. But for Lenny Bruce, the real person he was found guilty. He was the three judge panel, they convicted him of obscenity and sentenced him to serve four months, but he was not well behaved during this trial. And I'm wondering if you think his guilty verdict came in any part because he interfered in his own defense. He did. Lenny was not patient for the law or he was, and he was not patient for his lawyers. And he had kept firing lawyers. He would not, he didn't sustain lawyers for one trial to the next. He offended the judge, judges. Yeah, he has kind of unwillingness to sit by and let his lawyers do their work, I think really interfered with his defense. Because there was a body of argument by 1964 that his lawyers in Illinois had worked out his conviction in Chicago was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. His successful defense in San Francisco. There was a kind of body of argument about his work that was available to the lawyers and Lenny was just really impatient with his lawyers. And interjected, interrupted. And do you think that affected his verdict? Oh, it definitely. Yeah, no question. If he had been more patient and allowed his lawyers to do their work, they would have been able to, they would have been able to marshal a defense that would have used the most recent rulings in the Supreme Court and in the Illinois Supreme Court as precedents to defend him. The owner of Cafe Ago Go. He was also prosecuted, right? And this was kind of the thing about like the shrinking spaces for Lenny is that the club owners could be prosecuted or they could have, they could lose their licenses. One of the versions or a kind of ancillary instruments that were used in the obscenity laws is, is it New York State passed the Wales Act or the Wales padlock law that meant that the city's commissioner of licenses could go in and shut down clubs where there was obscened materials being performed. And so that the club owners were really vulnerable to, right? If they, if the police were raiding their joints, they could lose their licenses, they could be hauled into jail as well. So Howard Solomon, who owned that Cafe Ago Go. He was also successfully prosecuted, but then his conviction was overturned by an appellate court in New York. Essentially said that Bruce's performances did have social importance, right? That he was addressing serious problems and of religious hypocrisy and racial and religious prejudices, etc. And that argument was there that that's kind of legal framework was available. But Lenny, his impatience, right, really, really hindered him. And then he was also, at the same time that he was being prosecuted in New York, he was in the courts in LA for jumping bail and for possession of heroin. So he's sort of flying back and forth between New York and LA. He's missing court dates. His heroin addiction really kind of overwhelmed him and made him sort of less able to focus. It was ultimately that heroin addiction that led to his demise. He never served the four months he was sentenced. He appealed. He rained free on bail. But he, the shrinking spaces that you talk about forced him into a situation where he couldn't work. No club wanted to book him out of the figure they be dragged into a case themselves. And then in 1966, Lenny Bruce, well, he overdosed and died while working on that appeal. A curious fact, he left his typewriter on and his last sentence typed ever was conspiracy to interfere with the fourth amendment. And we just won't know what that meant to him. In his own mind, he'd become a kind of constitutional scholar, right? So he was he was thinking hard about these issues of the Bill of Rights. And in fact, the nation, because of his trial, had to think hard about these issues. His trial and his efforts to to bring forth these questions changed the nation in a way. I wonder what do you think changed after Bruce's death and what part did he play in that change? Well, I think he really, he opened up the space for comedians to be much more kind of rebald and provocative, much more willing to kind of challenge the cultural conventions to challenge sort of assumptions about what constituted decency. So I think, you know, his kind of transformation of the comedy industry is huge. People like George Carlin, who like watched Lenny perform and then would open for Lenny, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, we wouldn't have Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, right, without Lenny Bruce. There's no question that he really paved the way for a different kind of comedic performance. But I also think the fact that Lenny died as a junkie, made it kept him marginal, right? So the kind of critique that he offered up to the mainstream culture gets a little bit silenced as well by his death because it becomes evidence that this guy was a kind of crazy person on the margins. And so I'm not sure that in the mainstream, he transforms the culture that much. But I think that people who are operating as comedians and social critics, he becomes a really powerful, a kind of powerful symbol, a powerful voice, and then a kind of model who they emulate, and they slowly but steadily help transform the culture. Let's talk about comedic culture today. Certainly we have a discourse, an ongoing discourse about cancel culture, and what is appropriate for comedians to say or do while obscenity laws may have fallen by the wayside and remain unenforceable. The social pressure is certainly rising. Last year, comedian Dave Chappelle faced a backlash for his Netflix special titled Sticks and Stones. And after he shared some controversial opinions on topics like the Me Too movement or Michael Jackson in the transgender community, if the goal of obscenity laws was to prevent people like Lenny Bruce from corrupting the public, what would you say is the goal of online activists today? That's a hard one. Well, there's a lot of attention to speech and ideas and arguments that give offence on the kind of online activist culture and cancel culture. So there's a kind of deep sensitivity to and kind of the antenna are really out there for speech that offends ideas that offend and kind of representation, right? It's so critical. How are queer people represented? How are trans people represented? How are people of color represented? Who gets to say what about whom? And so I think there's a lot of patrolling and policing about speech that particular groups feel like is offensive to them. We're really in a moment of a kind of heightened awareness of that. Here's an example which was so interesting to me. My students yesterday gave a presentation on the film Life of Brian from the late 1970s, 1979 by Monty Python. So the film is audacious, right? In so many ways it takes Jesus figure and kind of burl asks the Jesus figure, right? So that the crucifixion scene is just incredibly a powerful image, idea, moment in history. The Life of Brian, all of the different people on the, you know, who are on crosses, they're singing, you know, look on the bright side of life. And it's this incredibly cheeky sacrilege. So when my students were talking about it, like that part, they kind of could not admit that people would be offended by that. But what they did find offensive was that the punchest pilot character who speaks with a list, right, is mocked by the people in the audience who are listening to him speech, right? And they're taunting him about his list. There's a moment in which one of the Brian's acolytes reveals to his fellow acolytes that he'd like to be a woman and he'd like to have a baby. And so there's this long riff, right? On his, on his right to be, you know, kind of have a sex change and to have a baby. But the students found that kind of offensive. Even though they said it was progressive, it's still like not very, it's not sympathetic. And the, and the list thing was ableist. And then one of the, in one of the kind of crowd scenes, there's somebody in blackface. And so that is, so that was just fascinating to me, that those were the issues that they seized upon. But this, the, the, the burlesqueing of the crucifixion, I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm, I suppose that was offensive back then, but it's not now. So the kind of incredible secularization of the society, but then these other places of representation, right, they see this. Well, that was offensive, right, the kind of the use of the list. So I thought that was really fascinating. And, and kind of suggests, right, how cancel culture works. If the dominant culture is being burlesked, that's okay. Because that's where the power resides, right? So, but people who are sort of less powerful have less authority over institutions. If they are being misrepresented or burlesked, then that's not okay. So I think there's a, you know, kind of shrinking space for, or humor's patrolled. You mentioned that there's a disparity between what is able to be printed and what is able to be performed at this time. Why is there a difference? A big difference is that the kind of institutional support, the institutional importance of, and the kind of legal history surrounding the protection of the publishing industries. And the cultural value that's given to the printed word, the cultural value that's given to like serious novels, artistic novels, right, becomes part of the accumulating legal defense of, of literary expression. The spoken word in marginal spaces doesn't have any of that institutional support, right? And those are spaces. Again, this kind of subterranean clubs and jazz clubs. Those places get rated, right? They get rated. The musicians get arrested for possession of drugs. The licenses get taken away, right? They're just, they're already vulnerable spaces. And then, so then you have this sort of crazy man, right? Kind of brilliantly crazy, critical guy on the stage that there's no kind of institutional mechanism that supports him. So he's really challenging. And already very unsettled free speech tradition, without the kind of undergirding of, of an institutional history, an illegal history that protects that kind of speech. And I think that's an important thing that the, the first amendment is really unsettled in this period, right? Communist speech in the 1950s was illegal. It was illegal to be a member of the, of the Communist Party. It was illegal to be distributing communist materials. It's not, you know, kind of the, the idea that we have this sort of always strong, always present first amendment tradition is just not true. It, first amendment's really vulnerable in moments of crisis. And the kind of cold war crisis doesn't even, you know, sort of extend to protecting radical speech. So Lenny's producing radical speech in another venue, right? And I kind of, in another arena, but, but he's also then running up against obscenity law. So he has neither the first amendment as a kind of certain guarantor of his speech, right? And then he's running up against this very powerful, still operative obscenity law mechanism that makes his speech very, very problematic, right? It's not necessarily protected by the first amendment. Brett Gary, thank you for coming on American scandal. Very happy to have had the chance to talk with you. Thank you very much. That was my conversation with Brett Gary, associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Next on American scandal, the branch dividends were small religious group based outside Waco, Texas. In the early 1990s, the group's potential illegal activities caught the attention of the federal government, leading to a long standoff and a bloody conflict. The resulting tragedy opened the door to questions about religious freedom in America and the federal governments use a force on its own citizens. From wondering, this is episode three of three of Lenny Bruce for American scandal. In our next series, the branch dividends were a small religious group based outside Waco, Texas. In the early 1990s, this group's potential illegal activities caught the attention of the federal government, leading to a long standoff and a bloody conflict. The resulting tragedy opened the door to questions about religious freedom in America and the federal governments use a force on its own citizens. American scandal is hosted, edited and executed produced by me Lindsey Graham for Airship, sound designed by Derek Barons. This episode was produced by Austin Cross. This series on Lenny Bruce was written by Hamel DS, edited by Christina Malsberger, produced by Gabe Riven. Executive producers are Stephanie Jens, Jenny Lauer Beckman, and her novel has for wondering.