50 years ago, Lenny Bruce’s arrest no joking matter

Sunday, April 6, 2014

By Justin Abodalo
For the First Amendment Center

The First Amendment is serious – except when it’s not.

Comedian Lenny Bruce, a hero of stand-up comedy, was arrested April 3, 1964 — 50 years ago — in New York City during his act for saying profane words on stage. Bruce’s routine was mild in comparison to what today’s comedians say on stage – but at the time, it meant a series of confrontations with local police in various cities.

Eight years later, George Carlin was arrested at the Milwaukee Summer Fest after performing his legendary “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” act. Fortunately, they can be said on stage, and on YouTube. Carlin’s act became the central issue in a Supreme Court decision, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, which found that Carlin’s performance was not obscene, but that it still could be banned from the airways because the government has a compelling interest in protecting children from inappropriate material.

The nature of stand-up is inherently silly, but the freedom it embodies must not be taken for granted. Comedy can be a powerful tool to change society. Dick Gregory, for example, is a true renaissance man. Comedian, social activist, politician and author all rolled into one, Gregory is the first black comedian who performed and was interviewed on NBC’s “Tonight Show with Jack Paar” – the place for comedians of the era to be seen. Gregory helped propel the civil rights movement by using his time in the limelight to make fun of Jim Crow laws and the absurdity of segregation.

Today, the First Amendment still protects our freedom of laughter. While speaking at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Stephen Colbert mocked President Bush’s administration, standing just 10 feet away from Bush. Colbert even joked that Bush “calls his wife his better half, and obviously America agrees.”

There are very few places in the world where a comedian can lock eyes with a commander-in-chief and relentlessly josh him. People in other countries are imprisoned for statements not nearly as harsh.

In the Middle East, stand-up comedy is growing in popularity. However, Arab comedians cannot perform routines discussing sex, politics or religion. For example, Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef was arrested last spring for making fun of that nation’s president. In Burma, a comedian was sentenced to 59 years of prison for speaking out against his government. His stage name: Zarganar, or “Tweezers” in English. Zarganar chose this name as a nod to how his humor pulls political fear from audience members.

Many comedic performances are censored throughout Europe as well. England has a law that prohibits inciting religious hatred or using insulting words. A noble objective, it has caused disfavor among British comedians such as Rowan Atkinson, better known as Mr. Bean, who has spoken out against censorship.

In Italy, you can be sentenced up to five years for lampooning the prime minister or the pope. Sabina Guzzanti, one of Italy’s most beloved political satirists, was almost prosecuted in 2008 after she gave Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church a brutal tongue-lashing for its stance on homosexuality.

Even now in 2014, the French government is preventing comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala from performing shows with anti-Semitic undertones. French authorities also are working to keep M’bala’s material from circulating online.

Try to imagine “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour,” “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, or NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” if comedy was censored more within America. It would not be nearly as funny, for sure. Comedy is not only a huge part of our culture as a nation, but is also a healthy outlet. There is truth to the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.” By pushing boundaries and discussing taboo subjects, comedians enhance their listeners’ lives and help many of us deal with personal insecurities. Laughing at a comedian’s controversial or offensive jokes with others creates a sense of social acceptance. Laughing in unison satisfies our primal need of belonging; it conveys inter-sympathy. You discover something shared in common with everyone else and no one feels like a stranger.

Having strong protection for our freedom of speech should generate appreciation of the First Amendment. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and the nation’s Founders gave us the freedom of speech and the freedom of laughter. In freely exploring our sense of humor, we find our sense of humanity.

Justin Abodalo is a legal-issues intern at the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., and a law student at Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. He can be reached at jabodalo@newseum.org.

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