Name at birth: Leonard Alfred Schneider
An American counterculture icon from the 1960s, Lenny Bruce's obscenity-laced social satire paved the way for modern stand-up comedy. Bruce served in the navy during World War II (1942-45) and began performing stand-up comedy in 1946. As he gained popularity in New York night clubs, his brand of comedy shifted from impersonations to free-wheeling monologues satirizing religion and politics. He released several comedy albums and appeared occasionally on TV, especially as a guest of Steve Allen and Hugh Hefner. In 1961 he was arrested after a performance in San Francisco and charged with obscenity. Bruce was acquitted, but for the next few years he was frequently in trouble with the law for using raw language on stage -- a no-no back then. In 1964 he was convicted of obscenity in New York and jailed for a few months (in 2003 Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned him). As his legal troubles mounted, he performed less and less and used drugs more and more. He died of a drug overdose (probably either heroin or morphine) at the age of 40, but his style went on to influence the next generation of comedians, from George Carlin and Richard Pryor to Robin Williams and Chris Rock.