I probably should have penned this piece last year after the first season of Netflix’s magnificent series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel written and directed by the brilliant Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose work I have admired for years in her previously smart, funny and poignant, Gilmore Girls (2000-2007). Maisel is the finest piece of serial television I have seen since AMC’s titanic Breaking Bad — its characters are deeply vivid, filled with relatable pathos, and deliver exquisite dialogue framed in stellar set-design, music and costuming. The plotlines within the impressive locations and ambiance of 1950s NYC are absolutely riveting. And thus far I have not even sent a nod to its star, who is a tour-de-force as Mrs. Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan or one of my favorite actors, Tony Shalhoub as her father, Abraham or the comedic whirlwind that is Alex Borstein as Maisel’s cantankerous manager or that the first season took home three Golden Globe Awards and five prime-time Emmy’s, including Best Series and Outstanding Comedy Series respectively. Nope. This tribute to what is now my favorite TV show begins and ends with Sherman-Palladino’s resurrection of one of my heroes, Leonard Alfred Schneider, better known as Lenny Bruce.
Anyone who has read a line of this column for the past 20-plus years knows from which I speak. Lenny “not a comedian” Bruce, along with Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson, make up the Holy Trinity of satire around here. There is no James Campion without Lenny, who I have been writing about since I’m 19 and have quoted copiously here in Reality Check from its start, including dedicating a two-part series on a seminal record of Bruce’s impact on American culture and jurisprudence, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of An American Icon in 2002. I have read everything published on or by Lenny Bruce, listened to and studied his every bit, and probably reviewed every film on him made.
Did I mention I am a fan, as in fanatic, as in, drooling worshipper of Lenny Bruce?
So, you can imagine my surprise when then 39-year-old actor, Luke Kirby first enters the series in its opening episode as the 33-year-old Bruce — crumpled, wincing, brandishing a smirk and a cigarette and waving his arms over his signature trench coat like the Mineola martyr he transformed into a lethal weapon. Of course, Lenny is leaving jail, bemused by his persecution for speaking his irreverent mind, as he would infamously do on several occasions from 1961 until his death five years later. He confronts Mrs. Maisel, who was also hauled in for her irreverence cum liberation from her upper-crust prison, mostly as a vehicle of narrative. This is understandable, but as an unofficial “keeper of the Lenny flame,” I was at first put-off if not titillated. This is supposed to be 1958, when there were rumblings that Bruce was pushing boundaries and unleashing his observations into territories not yet expressed in polite (or otherwise) company, but he wasn’t yet the dean of arrested comics. That would, as stated, come soon and often. And, quite frankly, I was not sure how Lenny would fit into this light comedy about a pampered but sharp-witted Upper-West side Jewish house wife and mother who is dragged into the world of edgy comedy by the emotionally violent disruption of her life when her feckless husband leaves her for his secretary. But soon my trepidations were not only quelled but eviscerated.
From the first, in the hands of Kirby, a trained and celebrated Canadian actor, Bruce comes alive — and not in the oft-tired impressionistic biopic way in which the famous and doomed are slathered across screens for lazy melodrama. (Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Bruce in Bob Fosse’s 1974 film Lenny is still one of my faves, though) No, Kirby inhabits the essence and spirit of Bruce, and through this he becomes Mrs. Maisel’s guardian angel first, but thanks to the preternatural chops of Sherman-Palladino’s pen begins to unfurl the subterranean spectacle that is the birth of modern American comedy as a social mirror in a time of nuclear threat, racism, religious fanaticism, and an emerging drug culture, for which Lenny infamously would partake to fatal ends. As the first season progressed, it is clear this is no apparition or mere narrative vehicle. Bruce floats through the series, appearing at the right times to better understand the zeitgeist and to lend credence to the period. And there is no time Kirby does not resurrect him, wholly and without fail.
Quite frankly, this is one of the finest portrayals of a historic figure I have ever seen — in comedy or drama. There is a scene in which Bruce is smoking weed outside a downtown club with jazz cats that Maisel hovers, like us, interlopers in this time-traveled reimagining. Watch Kirby move, interject, parry and jab, both verbally and physically. His wincing bravado masking an entrenched mass of insecurities hidden slightly by this smoldering rage that would soon bring the icon to life for real is remarkable. Holy shit, I have seen it about a half-dozen times now and it gets better every time.
Eventually, Kirby’s Bruce does indeed become the patron saint of Brosnahan’s Mrs. Maisel by season’s end in a fantastic wrap-up of events, but even more, for me, is how we finally see the transformation from Bruce as specter into Bruce as working comedian circa 1958. As he agrees to play Greenwich Village’s famous but now defunct Gaslight on McDougal Street in support of the equally persecuted Mrs. Maisel, Kirby brings Lenny’s soul back into focus effortlessly. This is no longer an interpretation of off-stage Lenny, but the one chronicled in the pantheon of 20th century aura: His mannerisms, his inflections, his very core of the legendary Bruce stage presence, the delivery and mastery of which is on display in a mere two to three minutes of screen time — much of it interrupted by dialogue of the main characters or in the background. But it is truly extraordinary and, for me, an emotional experience.
This season, figuring the Bruce thing did its job vaulting the fictional characters where they needed to go for the second act, it was even more surprising to see his return. I awaited it with great anticipation once I knew Kirby’s Bruce would play a role, but the show is so damn good, it was not as if I merely watched it to see him play his trade. But when he did, man, his creation scaled new heights. All of this culminating in the season finale that forced me to finally get all of this out.
Now, I guess this is a spoiler-alert, but not really — since this entire piece is pretty much my dumbfounded admiration of Luke Kirby’s work and my child-like excitement in seeing Lenny Bruce brought to life with so much passionate respect — but the recreation of Bruce’s truly seminal appearance on the Steven Allen show, which, time-wise, spot-on 1959, is so incredible I really only offer that you need to see it and then watch the film, easily found on YouTube of Bruce’s actual appearance. Again, it is not mere mimicry, it is magnum opus of interpretation, a living, breathing case study in the greatness of a creative genius. You watch a man nailing someone nailing something pretty substantial to the monument of American culture. And it is no wonder it becomes the epiphany for the main character and the revelatory moment for the series.
Thank you, Luke, wherever you are today. You and Amy have put Lenny where he belongs; back in our reverence for his craft, his art, his legacy. The show is great, but this is a gift.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”
And coming in June, 2018; “Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon”