Leonard Alfred Schneider, also known as Lenny Bruce, was one of the most influential comedians of all time. He was arrested several times during the 1960s for using obscene language in his act, and he paved the way for today’s comedians to speak their minds onstage.
Now, Bruce’s legacy is being captured in a one-man show, “I Am Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” which premieres June 23 at Theatre 68 in North Hollywood.
The show stars Ronnie Marmo, who wrote the play and serves as Theatre 68’s artistic director.
“Lenny’s voice needs to be heard,” Marmo said in a phone interview. “This next generation needs to know who Lenny Bruce is and was. I love what he stood for and who he was. He was an out-of-the-box thinker and had something new and fresh to say.”
The 75-minute play follows Bruce on his journey as a young comic through his struggles with the law and drugs.
“I try to take the audience on a full experience of seeing flashes of his brilliance in his prime and also the reality of what it looked like when his life was coming to an end,” Marmo said.
Bruce was found dead on the bathroom floor of his Hollywood Hills home in 1966.
“The police found him naked, dead of an overdose, at 40 years old,” Marmo said. “The government and society didn’t know what to do with him, so they embarrassed him by propping him onto the toilet naked and releasing the pictures to the press. They were threatened by him.”
Marmo previously played Bruce in his one-man show “Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed)” in 2005, and again in 2010. He was then approached to record the audiobook for Bruce’s autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” released in 2016.
“I was asked to do it as Lenny,” he said. “That put the final nail in my coffin that it was time to introduce my play to the world.”
Over a five-year period, Marmo wrote “I Am Not a Comedian … ” with his friend Jason M. Burns, creator of the web series “Adults Only” and a New York Times best-selling author.
The show is directed by Tony Award-winning actor Joe Mantegna, who played Richard Roma in the first American production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and stars in the “Criminal Minds” TV series. Mantegna and Marmo worked together on the movie “West of Brooklyn,” which Marmo wrote and Mantegna acted in. Mantegna was in the 2011 documentary “Looking for Lenny,” and understudied the role of Bruce in the play “Lenny.”
“I value Joe’s career and how he has navigated through [the industry],” Marmo said. “It’s taken two years to figure out our schedules, but Joe finally gave me a definitive yes on directing.”
Bruce had one child, Kitty Bruce, who gave her blessings to Marmo before he decided to go forward with the show. “Kitty heard about ‘Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed)’ but she had nothing to do with that production,” Marmo said. “When we finally got connected, I flew out to Pennsylvania to meet her. She said people were always trying to take advantage of her dad and use his likeness and material to make money. She said that she never wanted to bother me, though.”
Today, Marmo and Kitty Bruce are still in contact. “We are very close,” Marmo said. “She’s one of my favorite people in the world. It’s a beautiful responsibility to portray her dad and I take it very seriously.”
Although Bruce was arrested and jailed nearly 60 years ago for saying the word “shmuck” onstage, Marmo said the struggle for free speech is ongoing, even when comics like Chris Rock and Louis CK say much worse things. “I felt like Lenny’s voice and his fight for freedom of speech is so relevant today, sadly. Many things change and yet it all stays the same.”
A lot of people know Bruce only as a controversial comedian, and Marmo wants his audiences to see the deeper side of the performer and, through his play, get a real glimpse into Bruce’s life.
“I feel very fortunate and blessed that I get to do this,” Marmo said. “When people hear ‘Lenny Bruce,’ they think ‘foul mouth.’ But he was such a brilliant mind, and they don’t really know who Lenny was based on an article they read. Hopefully, they will be clear on who Lenny was and why his work is still necessary.”
“I Am Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” premieres June 23 at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $25.