It’s a pretty groovy time for cats who dig Lenny Bruce. The acerbic comedian — a Long Island native and cultural icon who challenged limits to free speech in the 1960s, paving the way for generations of comics, from Richard Pryor and George Carlin to Chris Rock — is having something of a posthumous, pop-culture comeback these days.
Bruce pops up as a character (played by Luke Kirby) in Amazon’s Emmy-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He’s the focus of an exhibit at the just-opened National Comedy Center in upstate Jamestown. And he’s now coming to life onstage in “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” a new Off-Broadway biographic play written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, and opening Nov. 4 at the midtown nightclub The Cutting Room.
That one-man show may make fans nostalgic, but “I think Lenny has a lot to offer younger generations, too,” says Marmo. “Free speech, censorship … I mean, we’re still fighting for the same things we were fighting for 50 years ago.”
Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola in 1925, Bruce shuttled between various relatives’ homes, living mostly with his strict father on Hughes Street in Bellmore after his parents’ divorce. In his teens he ran away to the Dengler family chicken farm on Wantagh Avenue, then a dirt road in Wantagh, spending two years digging up potatoes and driving a small truck. After dropping out of Wellington C. Mepham High School, and a stint in the U.S. Navy, Bruce found success on the stand-up comedy circuit.
His act — political, profane, skewering everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to the pope — earned him legions of fans. And arrest warrants.
“I have a reputation for being sort of controversial [and] the semantic bear trap of bad taste,” Bruce joked on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
In 1964, he cut short a gig at the Cork N’ Bib Restaurant in Westbury, after police showed up armed with a tape recorder, threatening to arrest him unless he kept his act clean. He was arrested three times in his career for obscenity, fighting each case in the courts. Notables (Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, even Taylor herself) signed petitions on his behalf. The battles took a toll, and he died of a drug overdose in 1966.
“Lenny Bruce was not just a foul-mouthed comic,” Marmo explains. In his show (which donates a portion of proceeds to the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, which fights addiction), he re-creates some of Bruce’s legendary routines onstage, surrounded by audience members seated at nightclub tables and sipping drinks. It’s a bit of a time warp and, for many, brings back memories.
“After the show a lot of people share stories,” says Marmo. “One guy told me, ‘I saw Lenny arrested twice!’ One of his attorneys gave me a bounced check from Lenny. I had one guy last night who’d seen Lenny 10 times in person. He had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Thank you for bringing my hero back.’ ”