Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

487 Topics: The Lenny Bruce Trial; American Cancer Society; to assume versus to guess; turtle versus tortoise

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 487.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 487. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Go to our website at ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast. When you do, you can download a Learning Guide for this episode that contains a complete transcript of everything we say.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous legal trial from the 1960s in the United States involving an American comedian by the name of Lenny Bruce. We’re also going to talk about the work of a charitable organization in the U.S.: the American Cancer Society. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Lenny Bruce was a comedian and satirist in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. A comedian is a person who tries to get other people to laugh, to make people laugh. A “satirist” (satirist) is a particular kind of comedian or writer who makes fun of the weaknesses of other people – or, more commonly, of society. A satirist makes fun of certain aspects of our culture or society as a way, usually, of trying to improve the culture or improve a society.

Some of the greatest writers in literature have been satirists – the great Jonathan Swift, for example, was an English satirist who wrote stories that made fun of some of the problems in his society as a way of trying to get people to realize that these things were problems. Sometimes we recognize problems more through comedy than we do through the newspaper, and that’s what Lenny Bruce tried to do, at least in part.

Bruce had a relatively short career as a comedian, but it was one that had a significant impact in many ways on American popular culture in the 1960s. Bruce was born in October of 1925 in the state of New York. Bruce was born under the name “Leonard Alfred Schneider,” but he changed his last name to “Bruce” in 1947 when he began his career as an entertainer. “Lenny” is just a nickname, or an alternate name, for “Leonard.”

Bruce began performing comedy right after the end, or at the end, of World War II in 1945. As he performed, like many comedians and entertainers, he began to hone his act. The verb “to hone” (hone) means to perfect something – to make it better, to refine it, usually over a long period of time. Most great writers and artists hone their skills over many years, and that’s what Lenny Bruce did when it came to being an entertainer and a comedian.

He created what we would call an “act” (act), or a group of jokes, really, that people found funny, but not in a traditional way – not like a lot of other comedians during this time. He instead used a lot of what we would describe as “dark humor.” Dark humor refers to jokes that perhaps are about subjects that we don’t normally make jokes about, but people still find them funny. This is also sometimes called “black comedy” or “dark comedy.”

“Black” here doesn’t refer to people whose skin color is black – African Americans – but rather to the fact that it’s about these very serious, what we might describe as “dark” topics. The topics that Lenny Bruce talked about were religion, politics, sex, and drugs. He also was famous for using a lot of obscenity in his acts. “Obscenity” (obscenity) means words that other people find offensive, words that we would describe typically as being “vulgar.”

Now, we have to be careful in describing Bruce’s humor as one that had obscenity in it, because technically there are certain kinds of speech in the United States that are protected by law. Obscenity is not one of those kinds of speech, and so Lenny Bruce would not consider what he was saying to be obscenity, but people who didn’t like his jokes – didn’t like the vulgarity that he was using in his humor – would classify that and in fact got Bruce into trouble because they said he was using obscenity. I’ll come back to that point in a few minutes.

Bruce’s act was somewhat unique during this time in that there weren’t a lot of comedians who were using vulgarity and who were using dark humor as part of their acts. In the 1950s, people in the media – especially in popular culture: television, movies, songs – didn’t use a lot of swear words, and there wasn’t a lot of discussion of the use of drugs or things that had explicit sexual themes. People didn’t tend to criticize religious institutions and, often, the government.

This at least is the impression that we now have of this time. I’m sure if you talk to people who lived in the 1950s, they would have a different opinion, but relatively speaking – compared to how things changed in the 1960s and 1970s – we consider the 1950s perhaps to be more of a conservative time in American culture.

Despite this idea that America was a conservative culture at this time, Lenny Bruce had a very successful career. In fact, in 1948 he appeared on a national television show called Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. This appearance gave him the opportunity to be known by millions of people, and soon he was working regularly as a comedian and an entertainer.

In 1951, Bruce married a woman by the name of Harriet “Honey” – that was her nickname – Harlow. She was what we would describe as a “stripper” (stripper). A stripper is a woman or man who takes off her or his clothes so that other people can see her or his body. I think you understand what I’m talking about here. We usually find strippers in places that are called “strip clubs” – in places where it’s legal for you to have this sort of entertainment.

Well, Lenny Bruce, then, and his new bride – the woman he had married – moved here to Los Angeles soon after they were married, and Bruce began performing in some of these strip clubs. Not as a stripper, of course, but as a comedian. Why would anyone go to a strip club to listen to a comedian? I’m not sure, but in any case, Bruce was doing his act in these strip clubs.

Eventually he got the opportunity to appear on another popular television program during this time, The Steve Allen Show. Allen introduced Lenny Bruce on his show as “the most shocking comedian of our time.” The word “shocking” comes from the verb “to shock” (shock). To shock someone means to surprise someone, usually in a bad or negative way. Bruce continued to be successful as a comedian despite being “shocking” in his humor.

In 1961, he performed in one of the best-known places for performances, a place called Carnegie Hall in New York City. Later that same year, however, Bruce got in trouble. He was arrested right here in California for obscenity. Now, remember I said that “obscenity” is a kind of speech that is not legally protected, and many states at this time had laws against people using obscene words or performing things that were considered obscene.

You may be wondering, “Well, what’s the difference between vulgar words” – bad words, “swear words,” we would call them – “and words that are considered ‘obscene,’ or even actions that are considered ‘obscene’?” Well, this really depends on the community where these things are happening. It depends on, in most cases, what a particular judge finds obscene. Bruce was accused of using obscenity in public when he was talking about sex and sexual acts.

However, when the government tried to prosecute Bruce, when they tried to get him sent to jail for this crime, he was acquitted. “To be acquitted” means that the judge or the group of people who decide whether you’re guilty or innocent – a group we call the “jury” – decide that you are not in fact guilty, that you didn’t do anything wrong, that you did not break the law. Nevertheless, the police didn’t give up. They continued to watch Bruce, and during the next three years, Bruce was arrested three more times in different states – not just in California – on obscenity charges.

Twice his case was dismissed because the jury couldn’t agree on whether he was guilty or innocent. Juries in the United States usually consist of 12 people, and all 12 people have to agree. If they don’t, you have what’s called a “hung (hung) jury,” which means the jury can’t make a decision, and when this happens, either the government gives up or they have to have a new legal process – a new “trial,” we would call it.

The third time that Bruce was brought before a judge and jury on obscenity charges, however, he was found guilty. This was in the state of Illinois. However, Bruce did what a lot of people do when they’re found guilty in a court of law – he appealed the decision. “To appeal (appeal) a decision” means that you go to another set of judges and say the original decision made by the judge and/or the jury was wrong, and you have to, of course, give a reason why you think it’s wrong.

In the United States, there are different levels of courts. The very highest court in the U.S. is called the U.S. Supreme Court. But within each state, there are also different levels, and each state has its own supreme court that decides on state laws. Well, Bruce was found guilty, so he decided to appeal his conviction – the decision that said he was guilty.

When he did this – during this time – he went to England to perform, but the British government didn’t like him any better than the Illinois government, and so he was deported from Great Britain. “To be deported” means that a government takes you and kicks you out, makes you leave the country. This can only happen, of course, if you’re not a citizen of that country.

That’s what happened to Bruce. He was deported and he was banned from performing again in either England or Scotland – two parts of Great Britain. When we say someone was “banned” (banned), we mean they were prohibited from doing something – they were prevented from doing something. Bruce returned to New York in 1964, and once again he was arrested by the police for obscenity.

Many famous performers and writers were upset. They were angry that Bruce had been arrested again. This group included some rather famous people: John Updike, James Baldwin, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, and the poet Allen Ginsberg. They all signed a piece of paper, a petition, asking that Bruce not be prosecuted, that Bruce not be found guilty, and that he be allowed to perform without censorship. “Censorship” (censorship) is when the government tells you that you can’t say certain things in public or in a newspaper.

Some people said that Bruce should have the same protection as others have under the Constitution, a protection of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the ability to say what you want to say – to express an opinion. However, as I mentioned earlier, in most places, freedom of speech is not unlimited. There is this exception to the law, and that would include things such as obscenity. Bruce and his lawyers argued that he wasn’t using obscenity; he was just using some vulgar words as part of his satire.

It took the judges a long time to make a decision in this case, and when they finally did, they said that yes, Bruce was guilty of obscenity. Bruce again appealed the decision to another level of judges, but during this time he began to get involved – as other performers did, during the 1960s, especially – in drugs. In fact, he ended up having to spend a lot of his money on his legal defense, and because of this, in 1965 he declared bankruptcy. When you “declare bankruptcy,” you say that you don’t have any money left to pay the people to whom you owe money.

Finally, in 1966, sadly, Bruce died of a drug overdose. An “overdose” is when you take so many drugs that it kills you. Ironically, in 1970, four years later, the New York Supreme Court agreed that Lenny Bruce did not break any obscenity laws, but by that time, of course, it was much too late. Nevertheless, the case of Lenny Bruce had a strong influence on other comedians and artists during the 60s and 70s, and many felt that he was one of the first that allowed greater freedom in expression in the arts. Other people think he was just a guy who told vulgar jokes. It depends on your perspective.

Let’s now turn briefly to our second topic, which is the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society is an organization that, not surprisingly, focuses on preventing and curing cancer. It’s a nonprofit organization. “Cancer” (cancer), you probably know, is a disease that is caused by these unusual increases in dangerous cells in your body.

When I say it’s a “nonprofit organization,” I mean it’s not like a business that is trying to make a lot of money to get rich – it’s an organization that tries to help people, and the money that it gets is just to pay for the expenses of that organization. It’s called the American Cancer Society. “Society” is an older word for “organization” or “group.” The American Cancer Society was originally started way back in 1913.

We think of cancer as being sort of a modern illness, a disease that people only became aware of or concerned about during the twentieth century, but the American Cancer Society started quite early on in the twentieth century. It was first started by a group of doctors and businessmen. At this time, there was really no effective treatment for cancer. These doctors and businessmen wanted to educate people, to get people to know more about cancer – what it was and how dangerous it was – as well as to try to find new treatments for cancer to help people get better who had cancer.

In 1936, a woman named Marjorie Illig suggested that the organization add a large number of volunteers who could go out into the streets, who could go out and talk to people, in order to, we would say, “raise awareness” of cancer. “To raise (raise) awareness” of something is to get more people to realize that this is a problem, to tell people about this problem.

Eventually, the American Cancer Society became one of the largest volunteer organizations in the United States. A “volunteer” is a person who works for a group or organization but doesn’t get paid. The American Cancer Society today focuses on four basic areas. It tries to get people to stay healthy; that is, not to get sick by doing the right things – by eating the right food, perhaps. It also tries to help people who are sick get well. “To get well” means to become healthy when you have a disease or are sick.

Thirdly, the American Cancer Society is looking to find a cure to cancer. A “cure” (cure) is something that essentially stops a disease, something that eliminates a disease from your body so that now you are healthy, now you don’t have that disease anymore. The fourth thing the American Cancer Society tries to do is, in its words, “to fight back.” I’m not exactly sure what it means “to fight back” – presumably it means to help people who are already sick with cancer get better, though that seems to sound like the same as getting well.

Well anyway, the organization has different programs to help people avoid certain kinds of cancer. One of the biggest things it tries to do is to get people to stop smoking. Smoking cigarettes, of course, as well as other things that you might smoke can cause lung cancer, among other things. The American Cancer Society also helps people get educated about different kinds of food that might either give you cancer or make your cancer worse.

One thing the American Cancer Society does is conduct screening tests. A “screening test” is a test that you give people to see if they are sick or not. “Screening” comes from the verb “to screen” (screen). “To screen” means that you examine or look at people, looking for problems, looking for things that they may need to do something about, especially when it comes to their health. Screening tests help doctors diagnose cancer in people. “To diagnose” (diagnose) means to identify a problem. It’s when a doctor identifies some problem or some illness that you have.

The American Cancer Society has been very successful in getting money to fund research on cancer. “To fund” (fund) means to get money for, to pay for something. The Cancer Society is a large organization. It’s what we might call a “grassroots” organization. A “grassroots (grassroots) organization” is one that focuses most of its energy on individuals telling other individuals about these problems.

It tries to get a large group of people out there who can talk to their friends and their neighbors and their coworkers about certain issues – and in this case, cancer. Each person works in the community where he or she lives to try to raise awareness about cancer, and of course to get money for the American Cancer Society to fund more research on preventing and curing cancer. So, that’s a little bit about the American Cancer Society.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question is from Evgenius (Evgenius) in Russia. The question has to do with two verbs, “to assume” and “to guess” (guess). Let’s start with the verb “to assume.” When you “assume” something, you think something is true or probably true without actually having any facts or perhaps evidence that tells you that it’s true. You’re not 100 percent sure, but you act based on the assumption that it’s true.

“Assumption,” of course, comes from the word “to assume” that means that this is what you are thinking. You have assumptions – you assume things – usually in order to come to a conclusion about something or to act in a certain way. For example, your friend is an hour late for a dinner appointment. You assume that your friend had an accident or perhaps forgot about the appointment, and so you decide to leave the restaurant where you were going to meet. You make an assumption or assume something to be true even though you don’t know a hundred percent for sure.

We also use the verb “to assume” to mean to be given a certain job or responsibility. We can talk about someone “assuming the role,” or the job, of president. This person takes on, begins to act as the president, or whatever the job is. So those are two meanings of the verb “to assume.”

“To guess” is a much broader word, a much more general word, that refers to any opinion or idea that you have about something when you’re not sure. There are cases where you can use both “guess” and “assume” in the same situation. “I guess he forgot about our dinner.” “I assume he forgot about our dinner.” However, when you say, “I guess” something, there isn’t any connection to a conclusion or an action that you are therefore going to take.

“Guess” can also be used in a broader sense to mean simply an idea about, say, a problem or a question that someone has. If the teacher asks you, “What’s 5 plus 5 minus 7 divided by 4?” you may not know the answer, but you could guess. You could say, “Oh, I think it’s this.” You’re not sure. You haven’t really thought about it very carefully, but you can guess the answer – you give your idea about what the answer might be.

Some people might say that we use the verb “assume” when we have some reason for thinking that our idea is true based on our past experience, for example. People might say that using the verb “to guess” – there’s a lot less reason for you to think that. It’s more of an opinion or an idea that you have, without a lot of facts behind it, shall we say.

Our next question comes from Argentina, from Diego (Diego). Diego wants to know the difference between a “turtle” (turtle) and a “tortoise” (tortoise). Well, let me tell you, Diego, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m not exactly what you call an expert on animals, but I’ll do my best to give an explanation.

A “turtle” is an animal, what we would call a “reptile” (reptile), that moves very slowly. It has a hard shell – that is, the outer part of its body is hard. A turtle can pull its head and its legs into this hard part of the body, this shell, and it can live in water. Those are some of the characteristics of a turtle.

Now, a “tortoise” is also a slow-moving reptile that has a hard shell. The difference is that a tortoise lives on the land, lives on dry ground, and a turtle lives in the water – or at least, that’s what it says here in front of me. I have no idea whether that’s true or not, but that’s the best answer I can give you.

The tortoise is probably most famous or most well known to most people not because they’ve seen one, but because they’ve heard a story called “The Tortoise and the Hare.” This is an old, old story – it goes back to the ancient Greeks, in fact – about two different animals. One is a “hare,” which is basically a rabbit that can run very fast. The other is a tortoise that moves very slowly. If you haven’t heard the story, you can look it up: “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

Finally – because we’re almost out of time, quickly – Andre (Andre) from France wants to know the difference between “to totter” (totter) and “to teeter” (teeter). Well, “to totter” is to move your body back and forth as if you are about to fall. If you are, for example, on top of a wall and your body is moving back and forth and it looks like you might fall, we might say that you’re “tottering.”

“To teeter” is basically the same. “To teeter” means to move back and forth or side to side in such a way that you may fall at any minute. “Teeter” and “totter” both refer to moving back and forth or side to side in a way that would suggest that you are about to fall down. Now, interestingly enough there is a noun that combines these two words in English: a “teeter-totter.”

A “teeter-totter” is more commonly known in other places as a “seesaw” (seesaw). Basically, it’s a long, narrow board in the middle of which is something which in physics we would call a “fulcrum” (fulcrum). Basically, the board is balanced on something and attached to something and can move up and down. So, when one child moves up, the other child goes down, and when the other child goes up, the first child goes down, and so forth. Children often entertain themselves by going up and down on a seesaw or a teeter-totter.

If you are unsure of something in English, there’s no reason to guess – just email us at eslpod@eslpod.com and we’ll try to answer your question on a future Café. Remember, we get a lot of questions and don’t have time to answer questions individually by email, but we will add your question to our list and with luck, before I die and before you die, we’ll answer it.

From Los Angeles, California – on a happy note – thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

satirist – a person who makes fun of the weaknesses of other people or of a society as a way of making a statement about politics or current issues

* If the president says or does anything foolish, satirists will tell jokes, draw cartoons, or write opinion pieces that make fun of him.

to hone – to refine gradually; to perfect something over a period of time

* Matthais loved working with wood and as he got older and honed his skills, he was able to build beautiful furniture.

obscenity – words or images that are offensive to people, usually swear or curse words

* When a movie contains obscenities, it gets a rating of “R” to let parents know that it is not appropriate for young children.

to ban – to prohibit; to not allow something from existing or occurring

* Many travelers were happy when smoking was banned from airplanes because it made it easier to breathe on long airplane flights.

censorship – when the government or other authority say that people may not say, write, publish, or perform certain types of things

* In some countries, the government has strict censorship rules about what information gets printed in newspapers.

freedom of speech – the ability and right to say whatever one wants without fear of being punished

* Freedom of speech allows for peaceful protests in front of government buildings.

to declare bankruptcy – to say officially that one is unable to pay the money one owes

* Several major airlines had to declare bankruptcy because they were unable to pay employees salaries and retirement benefits.

cancer – a serious disease caused by unusual increases of dangerous cells on small parts of one’s body

* Kiama smoked for over 20 years and developed lung cancer in her 50’s.

nonprofit – an organization not intended to earn money, but formed for a specific purpose or cause

* In addition to helping pay for research, the money the nonprofit organization earns from its fundraiser pays for scholarships.

screening test – a medical test to see if one has a disease, illness, or other medical problem

* Before traveling to rural China to teach, Kim had to take a number of screening tests to be sure that she was healthy.

to diagnose – to have a doctor identify a specific illness or disease; to have a professional identify a problem

* The mechanic diagnosed the problem with Mikki’s old car.

to fund – to pay for a particular thing or program

* After her first major art sale, Kailani used the profits to fund construction of an art studio in her home.

grassroots organization – an organization formed and operated by ordinary people, not by a company, the government, or other large organization

* We started a grassroots organization to collect money to build a new park.

to assume – to think that something is true or probably true without knowing that it is true

* Everyone assumes Bo will get the role because her husband is the director.

to guess – to form an opinion or give an answer about something when one does not know much or anything about it

* Can you guess what I bought you as your Christmas present?

turtle – a slow-moving reptile (cold-blooded animal) enclosed in a hard shell into which it can pull back its head and thick legs and lives well in water

* We saw a lot of sea turtles near the edge of the beach.

tortoise – a slow-moving reptile (cold-blooded animal) enclosed in a hard shell into which it can pull back its head and thick legs and lives well on land

* Look at how slowly that tortoise walks over sand and rocks.

to totter – for one’s body to move back and forth as one travels forward as if one is about to fall

* Our baby is learning to walk and totters around the house all day.

to teeter – to move in an unsteady way back and forth or from side to side

* You’re making me nervous teetering on the top of that wall. You’re going to fall!

What Insiders Know
The Yellow Ribbon

In the U.S., the yellow ribbon has become a “symbol” (sign) of support for someone who is “absent” (not there; not present). The yellow ribbon has a long history, but many Americans remember it from a 1973 song called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”

The song is sung “from the perspective of” (from the point of view of) a “convict” (a person who has been in prison). He writes a letter to the woman he loves. He wants to know if she still wants him in her life. He asks her to tie a yellow ribbon around the “ole” (old) “oak tree” (a type of large tree) if she wants him to return. If he sees a yellow ribbon, he will stay, but he doesn’t, he’ll “get on the bus, forget about us, put the “blame” (the fault; the responsible for the bad thing that has happened) on” him.

When he finally arrives in town on the bus, he is afraid to look and asks the bus driver to look for him. Soon, all of the people on the bus are “cheering” (making loud noises of celebration) because what do they see? They see 100 yellow ribbons tied to the oak tree. It’s clear that the woman he loves wants him back.

The song became very popular in the U.S. and spent four weeks at the “top of the charts” (in the number one position of a list of popularity). The song was by Dawn “featuring” (having as a guest performer, but not normally part of the group) the popular singer at the time Tony Orlando.

Today, you’ll see people with yellow ribbons on their cars, tied to something outside of their homes, or “displayed” (placed for others to see it) in other ways to show their support for absent loved ones, especially those “serving” (working) in the “military” (the country’s fighting forces) “overseas” (in another country).