One evening in 1962, a fresh-faced Sheriff's deputy, Sherman Block, busted comic Lenny Bruce for obscenity. The comic's crime: Saying the word "schmuck."
The scene was The Troubadour, on Santa Monica Boulevard, back in the days when it was chic to bust Lenny Bruce. Block's superior officer had sent the sheriff-to-be because he spoke Yiddish and could follow Bruce's scathing act, which was always peppered with mame'loshen -- usually off-color. That night, Lenny improvised a bit about his ex-wife fressing the maid.
The courtroom scene was something right out of a Lenny Bruce bit, says Bob Weide, the writer-director-producer of the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth," which airs Aug. 9, at 10:15 p.m., on HBO. Imagine a deadpan Block up there on the stand, under oath, defining schmuck and fress for the judge.
The story is funny, but Weide's documentary is anything but. The engrossing film follows Bruce as he evolves from shticky comic, to taboo-busting social critic, to impoverished pariah. Arrested repeatedly for obscenity in the early 1960s, he was caught in a downward spiral of lawsuits and drugs that left him broke, out of work and, ultimately, dead of a heroin overdose in 1966. He was 40.
Weide, 40, insists that it was Lenny's scathing diatribes against racial, sexual and religious hypocrisy, not obscenity, that precipitated his downfall. The documentary includes rare clips of Bruce on a censored episode of "The Steve Allen Show"; the comedian stoned on bennies during an interview with Nat Hentoff; his naked and dead body in a doorway of his decrepit Hollywood Hills home.