Lenny Bruce blazed a trail the hard way. Coming up against obscenity laws throughout his career, the comedian was never afraid to speak on taboo topics or question ’50s and ’60s era social norms. He was arrested numerous times, including at the Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago, on December 5, 1962.
According to The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon it was Lenny Bruce’s “Christ and Moses” bit that finally did it for the undercover cops in the audience.
A 25-year-old George Carlin was in the audience that night, and when he refused to show ID, he too was arrested, along with the Gate of Horn staff.
Carlin was greatly influenced by Bruce, and was himself arrested under obscenity laws in 1972 for performing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest.
Carlin’s use of those words was ruled “indecent but not obscene” whereas Bruce was found guilty on his obscenity charge. It’s always easier to go second than first, as Carlin himself knew.
“Lenny Bruce opened the doors for all the guys like me; he prefigured the free-speech movement and helped push the culture forward into the light of open and honest expression,” Carlin once said in an interview.
George Carlin Remembers Getting Arrested with Lenny Bruce (Video Transcript)
George Carlin: “And then, suddenly, this policeman stood up. And I believe he actually said the words, ‘Alright, folks, the show is over.’ Which is of course a cliché that policemen use just at a killing, you know, in a bar when they want to break up the crowd, ‘Okay, the show’s over. The show’s over.’ He actually said it in context.
Cop (audio from show): “Show’s over, ladies and gentleman. Everybody have a seat please. I’m a vice cop.”
Carlin: “They began to check people’s IDs. They had the people leave the club through the only door, the upstairs only door, one by one, show their ID. Because basically what they wanted to do was to catch someone underage so they could give the club trouble.
“And they found this girl apparently, I guess she was fifteen or something, I forget now – but in checking everyone, Vince and I just kept drinking our beers, all the beer we could get because the upstairs bar was right there, the service bar was in there. You know, I was good and juiced by the time they got to us, and we purposely waited to be almost the last people, just to watch all this going on.
“So when I got to the door and the police were there and said, ‘ID, we want to see your ID.’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe in ID.’ You know, just a smart ass Irish guy, a little drunk, who didn’t like authority anyway, you know. I didn’t really care much for regulations my whole life. So I always give them a hard – give them some shit, you know.
“So I said, ‘I don’t believe in ID.’ So he was a little exasperated by this point, this policeman, I guess he was a plainclothes, and he sort of grabbed me by the collar of the suit and the baggy pants of my ass, and kind of bum rushed me down the stairs, you know kind of forcing me down the stairs.
“And downstairs there was a place that you passed through and on the left there were two little portals that lead into the bar area and the cocktail lounge area, and I knew Brenda (Brenda Hosbrook, his wife) was in there, so as they’re rushing me past that I said, ‘Tell Brenda I’m going to jail!’
“And I got outside into a paddy wagon, an old fashioned regular paddy wagon. This writer for Swank Magazine was in there, and I don’t really remember if Lenny was in there. Because he said, ‘What are you in here’ – Yeah, I think, I guess he must have been in there, because he probably said to me, ‘What are you here for?’ And I said, ‘Ah, I didn’t give them my ID.’ And he said, ‘Don’t be a schmuck.’ You know.”
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