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The Museum of Television & Radio Presents Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce

Friday, October 1, 2004

New YorkNY and Los AngelesCA—The Museum of Television & Radio presents Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce at both the New York and Los Angeles Museums from November 5, 2004, to January 9, 2005. The ninety-minute screening package features all of Lenny Bruce's surviving television work, including such rare moments as a very early appearance on Arthur Godfrey and Friends and an unaired segment from The Steve Allen Show. The era's hippest, most daring provocateur, Lenny Bruce knew full well the boundaries of the public arena, but broke them anyway. He skewered the moral and political hypocrisy of postwar America with a subversiveness that forever changed the tenets of comedy and free speech. 

Born Leonard Schneider in 1925, Bruce was coaxed into show business by his mother, Sally Marr. After a stint in the navy, he ushered at the RoxyTheatre in New York, soaking up the double-talking antics of Sid Caesar. Appearing on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, he acknowledged his idol with a Caesar-inspired bit called "the Bavarian Mimic" that won first prize. He spent the next few years touring the theater circuit with his mother, then shipped out with the merchant marine, returning only to marry a stripper named Honey Harlowe. As Bruce and Harlowe worked the jazz joints and burlesque houses of the seedier corners of America, Bruce began to hone his act, developing the hip, bebop banter and daring social commentary that would catapult him to fame, and eventually into court. 

Branded a "sick comic," Bruce was essentially blacklisted from television, and, when he did appear thanks to sympathetic fans like Steve Allen or Hugh Hefner, it was with great concessions to Standards & Practices. Jokes that might offend, like a bit on airplane glue-sniffing teens done live for The Steve Allen Show in 1959, had to be typed out and preapproved by network officials. Finally, after repeated arrests and a barrage of legal problems, he spiraled out of control and died of a drug overdose in 1966 at the age of forty. 

This screening series presents the existing handful of programs that did allow Bruce to take his act outside the nightclub. Among Bruce's known but missing television appearances are his 1949 television debut, a midfifties pilot, and a Tonight Show segment depicting his routine at the Crescendo nightclub in 1957. 

The ninety-minute package will screen in New York Tuesdays to Sundays at 3:00 p.m., with additional screenings Thursdays at 6:00 p.m., and in Los Angeles Wednesdays to Sundays at 3:00 p.m.  

The screening package is comprised of Bruce's appearances on the following programs: 

Arthur Godfrey and Friends (1949)

After winning Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts a few months earlier, Bruce was invited to appear on Godfrey's other show, Arthur  Godfrey and Friends, where his act included the Sid Caesar–inspired "the Bavarian Mimic" and a silly bit about portable radios. Here, as in the next clip, Bruce is still "clean," not yet having developed his socially conscious humor. 

Broadway Open House (1950)

Bruce clowns around with Buddy Hackett, a friend from Hanson's, the Times Square hangout for comedians. 

The Steve Allen Show (1959)

After Steve Allen fought vigorously to have him on the show, Bruce was forced to submit a typed script of his routine to Standards & Practices before the appearance. Bruce was introduced as the "most shocking comedian of our time," and performed the famous airplane glue bit, along with a piece on how having a tattoo would prevent him from being buried in a Jewish cemetery (which, incidentally, it did seven years later). 

The Steve Allen Show (1959)

Bruce was invited back to The Steve Allen Show a month after his show debut, and did a routine that spoofed The Thief of Bagdad, jazz musicians, and reviews of his previous appearance. 

Playboy's Penthouse (1959)

Bruce discusses "sick comedy" with Hugh Hefner, one of Bruce's biggest supporters. The two are later joined by Nat King Cole. 

One Night Stand: "The World of Lenny Bruce" (1959)

A personal vision of Bruce's New York, this rare WNTA-TV special aired only once and features Bruce singing an Irish ditty. 

The Steve Allen Show (1964; unaired)

This rare, unaired segment from The Steve Allen Show features Bruce's infamous "snot" routine, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience. Despite his admiration for Bruce, Allen pulled the segment, fearing it would frighten and offend viewers. 

Close-Up! (1964)

Bruce is interviewed by Village Voice critic Nat Hentoff for this Canadian public-affairs series. Bruce's erratic behavior is characteristic of the downward spiral that marked him in later years. 

Admission to Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce screenings is included with the Museum's suggested contribution: Members free; $10.00 for adults; $8.00 for senior citizens and students; and $5.00 for children under fourteen. Admission is free in Los Angeles. 

The Museum of Television & Radio, with locations in New York and Los Angeles, was founded by William S. Paley to collect and preserve television and radio programs and advertisements and to make them available to the public. Since opening in 1976, the Museum has organized exhibitions, screening and listening series, seminars, and education classes to showcase its preeminent collection of over 100,000 television and radio programs and advertisements and to provide a critical forum for the interpretation of these media and their significance in our society. Programs in the Museum's collection are selected for their artistic, cultural, and historic significance.

The Museum of Television & Radio in New York, located at 25 West 52 Street in Manhattan, is open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 6:00 p.m. and until 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays. The Museum of Television & Radio in California, located at 465 North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, is open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. Both Museums are closed on New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Suggested contribution: Members free; $10.00 for adults; $8.00 for senior citizens and students; and $5.00 for children under fourteen. Admission is free in Los Angeles. The public areas in both Museums are accessible to wheelchairs, and assisted listening devices are available. Programs are subject to change. You may call the Museum in New York at (212) 621-6800 or in Los Angeles at (310) 786-1000.  Visit the Museum's website at