Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s titular character, Midge, is fictional, but the New York City of the 1960s that she lives in is very, very real. The sights, the sounds, the Gaslight—they’re all representative of the city during that time. Another very real part of this show? Lenny Bruce (played on the show by Luke Kirby), Midge’s comedy BFF and the guy voted most likely to bail her out of jail. Lenny and Midge have a very unexpected friendship, and all the arrests and drama and controversy that Lenny Bruce found himself in the show also happened IRL. Here’s what we know.
Alright, so who is Lenny Bruce?
According to his website, Leonard Alfred Schneider was born on Long Island, in Mineola, New York, on October 13, 1925. (A Libra! Naturally!) His mother was an actress and stage performer and his dad was a shoe clerk—luckily, for the entirety of American culture, Lenny took after his mother and dedicated himself to a life on the stage.
He caused controversy from the beginning.
His first controversial performance came when he dressed in drag for his naval shipmates when he was stationed in Italy during World War II. After an honorable discharge in 1945, Bruce moved to New York City to make it as a comedian, eventually settling on Lenny Bruce as his stage name. He spent years honing his act, and was, as his website says, dubbed a “sick” comedian because he didn’t shy away from ranting about religion, patriotism, race, drugs, abortions, you name it—he had strong opinions and he wasn’t about to be quiet about them.
He made his way to TV, despite all the dirty jokes.
Bruce cleaned up his act for television appearances—that “All Alone” bit on The Steve Allen Show from Season 2 actually happened, and you can watch it on YouTube.
He had plenty of problems with the law.
Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges in real life just as he was on Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He was charged with violating obscenity laws all over the world, and that speech he gave Midge at the end of Season 1 talking about all the money he’s giving lawyers? That was true, too, because he had run out of places that would allow him to play. In 1964, he was arrested, charged, and brought to trial on an obscenity charge in New York City following a particularly dirty set at Cafe Au Go Go.
Ephraim London, then one of the country’s best First Amendment lawyers, represented Bruce, who was ultimately convicted (although he was posthumously pardoned by Governor George Pataki in 2003). By 1966, Bruce couldn’t find anywhere to play because no club wanted to deal with being slapped with an obscenity charge for hosting his act.
He struggled with drug and alcohol problems, which caused his death.
Bruce struggled with addiction, and he died on August 3, 1966, following an accidental morphine overdose in his Los Angeles home. He’s buried in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Right now, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is set at the beginning of the 1960s, so there are a handful of years to go before Bruce’s death. As Bruce is such a central character on the show at the moment (according to Vanity Fair, Bruce’s daughter, Kitty, visited the set of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to help Kirby in playing her father), it will be particularly sad to watch Midge’s star rise while Bruce’s starts to fall.