A comedian's mugshot (Photo: Getty)
When you talk about groundbreaking stand up comics - the ones who really pushed the envelope and the conversation - you've got to talk about Lenny Bruce.
It may be hard to believe now, when comics say all kinds of potentially offensive or challenging things, but back when Lenny was on stage, speaking out about bigotry, racism, and censorship could get you into serious trouble.
How much trouble? Well, 50 years ago this month, Lenny was refused entry to Britain and sent back home to the U.S. where his act had been deemed "obscene".
That was on April 8, 1963. Then on April 15... he was deported from the U.K. a second time.
The British government said it was "in the public interest" to keep Lenny out of the U.K., calling him "an undesirable alien."
Lenny Bruce, trapped at the airport in the U.K. (Photo: Getty)
Now if you're wondering why Lenny had U.K. authorities so concerned, here's the story of his legal troubles related to obscenity.
In 1961, Lenny was first arrested for obscenity in San Francisco, after he used the word "cocksucker" during one of his shows, and riffed on the idea that "to is a preposition, come is a verb."
Here he is talking about the arrest (and neatly avoiding the word that got him into trouble with police).
He was eventually acquitted, but the trial got him noticed by law enforcement, and several more arrests followed - once for using the word "schmuck" (a Yiddish word - the original meaning is "penis") on stage, and once in Chicago in 1962.
And before Britain decided to kick out Lenny, he was prevented from performing in Sydney, Australia two years earlier.
A play about that is currently on in Sydney, called 'Lenny Bruce: 13 Daze Un-Dug in Sydney 1962'.
It's being billed as "a surreal investigation of the attempted 1962 tour of the pioneering U.S. comedian who spent 13 days trapped in Kings Cross, searching for jazz, drugs, companionship and a stage."
Lenny was also arrested in the early '60s for soliciting donations for a leper colony and pocketing them. He was acquitted, but later revealed in his autobiography that he'd actually done it, sending $2,500 to the colony and pocketing another $5,500.
He was also booked for drug possession several times.
But it was his trial for obscenity in 1964, that caused many other artists to rally around him, including Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer, and turned him into a symbol of freedom of speech.
Lenny was found guilty of obscenity on November 4, 1964 and sentenced to four months in a workhouse. He was released on bail during an appeal, but died of an accidental drug overdose in 1966 before the case was decided.
On December 23, 2003, 37 years after he died, New York Governor George Pataki granted Lenny a full posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction.
It's also worth noting there was a lot more to Lenny's comedy than provocation. A lot of his work was profound and thought-provoking. This short soundbite from the documentary 'Swear to Tell the Truth' is a great example:
He also helped pioneer the confessional style that many comics use today, and his stand up had a cool musicality and jazz to it.
Here's critic Benito Di Fonzo's take:
"He wrote with rhythm in mind, playing with the musicality of language, like the jazz musicians and beat poets of his day. He created a kind of word-jazz, only his instrument was his microphone."
For an example of just how heartbreaking, seemingly off-the-cuff, and musical a Lenny Bruce bit could be, check out this TV performance called "All Alone":
If you want to read more about Lenny and his legacy, check out the official Lenny Bruce website, created by his daughter Kitty.