In 1966, at the age of 40, famed stand-up comic/provocateur Lenny Bruce died of a morphine overdose in his bathroom.
Ever since, Bruce has remained a persistently present figure in popular culture, from the 1974 film “Lenny,” starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Bob Fosse, to the current television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in which he appears as a supporting character. In between, big-name musicians (Bob Dylan and REM, for example) wrote songs that at least mention him.
Asking why is a fair question. Why Lenny Bruce instead of, say, Dick Gregory, a comic from the same era whose name peaked back into public consciousness when he died in 2017? Both stand-ups poked at hypocrisy and boldly made use of the n-word — albeit with perspectives from different sides of the racial divide. Both were arrested multiple times and fought censorship in the courts. Gregory clearly encountered more obstacles on his path to success, as one of the first black comics to cross over to a white audience. Both had something to say, although Gregory was decidedly even more political.
Did Bruce become the pop culture icon because death at 40 is in itself dramatic? Perhaps. Is it because Bruce was a better comic craftsman than Gregory? Could be: Comedy Central’s 100 best list would suggest that, with Bruce at No. 3 and Gregory at No. 82, still not shabby for an all-time litany. Is it because Bruce was a cool cat, oh-so-hip and associated with the Beats? Is it because he had a more fascinating personality, haunted by demons and building his lonesomeness into his routine? Is it, simply and painfully, because Bruce was white?
It’s not an either/or, of course. Remembering Lenny Bruce doesn’t come at the expense of others. But doing another play (yes, there have been plays, too) about this one guy does demand that the work make the case for why, and why now?
“I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” the one-person show now playing at the Royal George Theatre after runs in New York and L.A., boasts a generally winning turn by writer-performer Ronnie Marmo. But the solid summoning of Bruce’s ghost — he first talks to us naked and dead and sitting on the toilet — never provides a reason we should be watching him in the first place.
In this telling, Bruce’s addiction doesn’t get explored with any depth — just an armband and syringe, a doped-up performance, and death. His court case — presented as an essential cause of his death — is recounted without ever being made interesting. His association with the Beats is mostly expressed by repetitive jazz underscoring during the interludes. In terms of Bruce’s personal life, the focus remains almost solely on his relationship with wife Honey, but other than a wrenching depiction of a car accident, it’s just all love, despite their divorce and custody dispute.
Which leaves us, really, with the re-creation of Bruce’s stand-up routines, several of which Marmo delivers at length, occasionally with the house lights up to better enable interaction with the audience (be prepared to raise your hand for details of your sex life). They’re funny, especially well-crafted and can even be lyrically rhythmic. And director Joe Mantegna creatively uses lights to snap back and forth between narration and faithfully reconstructed comedy routines.
But the routines are also ridiculously dated, which should surprise exactly nobody. No form depends more on immediate social context than stand-up; what’s amusing today can be dull tomorrow. A white comic using the n-word to suggest we undo its evil power to hurt may have been a brave stance in the middle of the last century, but it now reeks with white privilege.
Re-enacting Lenny Bruce’s work, no matter how much it paved the way for Richard Pryor and George Carlin, just doesn’t come across as justification for the 90 minutes of “I’m Not a Comedian … .” Today, you can watch nearly all of it on YouTube in a fraction of the time. It’s the why that matters, and in this case it’s the why that’s missing.
Now, about Dick Gregory….
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.