CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) — Before Carlin, before Pryor, there was Lenny Bruce.
“Lenny was a pioneer in comedy, in free speech,” said Ronnie Marmo, who wrote and stars in the one-man play “I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce.”
“I did another Lenny Bruce play called ‘Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed).’ It was a great show, I learned a lot and I fell in love with Lenny, but I wanted to tell more of the story, so that play had been written, so I set off to write my own and tell all of it. The good, the bad and everything in between,” Marmo said.
Marmo said he was drawn to telling Bruce’s story because he was a game changer in comedy and in changing societal norms.
“A fellow comedian told me I reminded him of Lenny Bruce, and as time went on, I realized there was a real connection there,” he said.
Chicago native Joe Mantegna directs the show.
“I actually understudied the role of Lenny, in the play ‘Lenny’ written by Julian Barry that became the movie Dustin Hoffman did here in Chicago. It was back in the early 80’s at the 11th Street Theater. Just by understudying that role gave me a familiarity of who Lenny Bruce was,” said Mantegna, who got his start in various plays in Chicago, including “Bleacher Bums.”
After successful runs in Los Angeles and New York, Marmo brings his show to the Royal George Theatre.
“I’m excited to be here. I knew we had to come to Chicago. I have so much love and respect for this city and I’m so glad to be here,” Marmo said. “This is the perfect spot for this play. The intimacy, it’s in their cabaret space which is you know, Lenny Bruce. It’s perfect.”
“I always knew in the back of my head that if this play was going to be successful, we needed to come to Chicago. Chicago is even inherent in the play. We mention Chicago because Lenny was arrested in Chicago,” Mantegna said.
On December 5, 1962, Bruce was arrested on stage at the legendary Gate of Horn folk club.
Marmo said he’s had help channeling Bruce thanks to the blessing of his daughter Kitty Bruce.
“If you’re a Lenny Bruce fan, you’re going to learn things you can’t find on Google. I got a lot of this information from Kitty directly, or from the boxes in the attic as it were of her dad. That helped for sure. I just try to capture his spirit and tell the truth,” Marmo said.
Bruce was known for his open, free-style and critical form of comedy which included satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity. His 1964 conviction in an obscenity trial was followed by a posthumous pardon, the first in the history of New York state, by then-Governor George Pataki in 2003.
Marmo said his show is about free speech and having conversations about the “uncomfortable.”
“This play is opening a lot of conversations. I have a lot of cups of coffee with strangers after the show. Let’s talk about that. I’m not Lenny Bruce, but I’m certainly not going to put tape over his mouth and I’m going to take you back to the 60’s and that’s what Joe and I have done,” he said. “It’s important for us to look in the mirror and be part of the change.”
Mantegna agreed and said free speech is more important today, more than ever.
“In a lot of ways, we’re slipping backwards in our political correctness and free speech. I understand there has to be some limitations on things, but I think sometimes we take things a little to far and we start infringing on the tenants that this country was built on,” Mantegna said.
“I want people to walk away thinking about how precious free speech is and how we take it for granted. The very things we enjoy today, Lenny Bruce, 50 years ago, died for those things. They say he died of an overdose, but he died of an overdose of the police. They hounded this man because he was too smart and they try to put you in the envelope. I just want people to know how fortunate we are and maybe they can take a breath and step back and we can get back to the freedoms we enjoy.”
Bruce died in August 1966. The official cause of death was “acute morphine poisoning caused by an overdose.”
“I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is at the Royal George Theater through Dec. 1.
“A lot of people think we need Lenny right now and I’m proud that Joe and I are presenting this,” Marmo said.