New York — On the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death in 2016, the New York Times published an essay by Jason Zinoman re-examining his legacy entitled “Lenny Bruce Shattered Taboos, but Was He Funny?” Zinoman wrote “In recent years, however, [Bruce] has become more respected than loved. In an essay, Patton Oswalt wrote that he never found Mr. Bruce funny, and that comics who said they did were lying.”
But maybe getting laughs wasn’t the sole point of Bruce’s career. In his one-man show I am Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, now running off-Broadway at The Cutting Room after an acclaimed run in Los Angeles, writer/performer Ronnie Marmo digs into the personal life as well as the stage persona of the man who did indeed influence a lot of subsequent comics. (Several of those comics have seen Marmo’s show and praised it, including Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal and Eric Idle.)
The show is produced by Just Words, LLC with Theatre 68 and Lenny’s daughter, Kitty, and is co-produced by Bren Rapp, co-founder of Dallas’ Fun House Theatre and Film who also produced another one-man show about Bruce, Lenny Bruce is Back, in 2017, starring Dallas actor Joey Folsom.
Marmo’s path to performing Bruce began with an earlier solo show, Lenny Bruce is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed), written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein. He played Bruce in that show twice in 2005 and 2010—for six-month runs each time.
“Through that process, I was discovering what was Lenny. What was missing in that show was that we weren’t doing his material. It was a great show, it was a perfect introduction, but it was a lot safer than what I’m doing,” says Marmo in a phone interview.
He adds “At one point I woke up and said ‘I feel like I need to honor Lenny a bit more and do what he actually did.’ So that’s what happened. I fell in love with Lenny in a real way over the last decade. What made me want to continue this process was our lives parallel in so many ways. I really identify with him at a real personal level. It was just one of those projects where I thought ‘I can’t put this down.’ I feel like I was getting to say a lot through this man.”
Being able to use Bruce’s actual routines in his show was a major step forward, and one that came about because the late comedian’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, gave her blessings. A friend of Kitty’s saw Marmo’s performance in the earlier show and worked out an introduction.
Says Marmo “Over the last decade we have nurtured this beautiful friendship. I tell her all the time, ‘You’re my friend, you’re my sister, you’re my daughter. …I think over time she understood from a real gut place that I love her dad very much.”
One point of similarity between Bruce and Marmo is that both men won custody of their young daughters in divorce proceedings. Kitty lived with her father after he divorced her mother, stripper/showgirl Honey Bruce.
Marmo also adds “I’ve been in recovery for a long time. Lenny never found recovery. There are so many ideals [we share] about how we see society and words and the government. His relationship with his mother – he was in love with his mom. They had this beautiful friendship. My mom was very much like this woman. Every section of his life, I went, ‘Oh my god I identify.’
Both the earlier Bruce show and Marmo’s play ran at his home theater in North Hollywood, Theatre 68. But this latest incarnation really took shape, says Marmo, when director Joe Mantegna came on board. The two men met initially when Marmo got a copy of his screenplay for West of Brooklyn into Mantegna’s hands. (The film, directed by Danny Cistone and starring Marmo and Mantegna, came out in 2008.) But according to Mantegna, it was Marmo’s theater roots that really caught his attention.
“He reminded me of myself and my whole involvement with Organic Theater in Chicago,” says Mantegna in a phone interview. Though it is now a very different company, the original Organic was one of the most exciting progenitors of the off-Loop theater movement in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. Mantegna adds “He’s an urban Italian-American guy from New York. I was the Chicago version of him 20 years earlier.”
Marmo started bringing in drafts of the script to Mantegna, and finally told him that he was ready to get it on its feet. “I had him do it once as he wrote it” says Mantegna. “I told him ‘Just do it, Ronnie. You wrote it, it’s your material, just do it for me.’ He did and I knew it was all there. All the material was there. I just didn’t feel it was a play yet. It was more a series of vignettes telling the story of who this guy is.”
Marmo’s version originally began with one of Bruce’s most incendiary routines—one where he uses the n-word and attempts to strip it of its power. (Whether a white guy like Bruce ever had the standing to try to do that is something we’d probably look at in quite a different light today, to say the least.) That routine is still in the show. But, as Marmo explains, “[Joe] said ‘We can’t open with that. Are you crazy? People need to fall in love with Lenny first.’”
The show now opens with a scene that picks up at the end of Lenny’s life at age 40 from a drug overdose. Mantegna suggested that to Marmo. “He died in such a tragic way. It’s shocking the way this man died,” says Mantegna. “So we have to start at the end and go to the beginning and make the circle complete. That device and that kind of structure made everything else fall into place.”
“People say Lenny Bruce was a foulmouthed shocking comic,” says Marmo. “He just wanted to take the power out of the words. Whenever someone is a visionary invoking change, people don’t like that. They don’t know what to do with that new information.”
As for the n-word routine, Marmo notes that he had just performed it in a preview in New York and noticed that an African-American man was sitting near the front of the stage. “I felt an obligation to express to him in the subtext of it all what Lenny was trying to say was ‘Let’s take the power out of the word.’ He and I were just jiving and everybody was just checking in with this guy in the audience to see what he thought.” It apparently went down well. But, admits Marmo “It hasn’t always gone that way, by the way. People have left the show.”
What is it about Bruce that still has the power to be confrontational? After all, premium cable and popular music—let alone stand-up comedy—have been rife with unvarnished profanity of the sort that got Bruce sent to jail for decades now.
“If anyone takes five minutes to spend with Lenny and his material, it’s all right there,” says Marmo. “He’s so smart. ‘To is a preposition, come is a verb.’ And he explains at the end, ‘If you’re offended by those two words, you probably can’t come.’ And then he goes on to say, ‘You have no use—that’s the purpose. To re-create life.’”
Yet re-creating the life of Bruce takes a toll on Marmo. “It’s a tragedy. Not a comedy. We literally investigate and explore every emotion. We take you on Lenny’s journey. It’s all there. And then after the show it’s like I took a beating.”
But the reward for Marmo is not just in the approbation he’s won from professional comics who idolized Bruce. It’s in the ability to honor Bruce’s legacy, warts and all. “I have a responsibility to Lenny, to Kitty and to everyone who cares about Lenny Bruce or the First Amendment. Or free speech.”
» Kerry Reid is a freelance writer based in Chicago, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.