The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel delves into the world of stand-up comedy as it went through radical changes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, primarily through the eyes of its fictional protagonist Midge Maisel. But Midge meets various real-life figures during her career and the show portrays them as mystifying and legendary personas. Most mystified and legendary of all is the portrayal of Lenny Bruce, and that’s not entirely without reason. He contributed not only to the world of comedy, but helped advance free expression in the United States. What the series seldom portrays, though, are the more troubling aspects of his life.
Midge meets Bruce early on, with a chance encounter spurring on a friendly relationship that recurs throughout the series. Through many of his appearances Bruce is conveyed as an almost fairy godmother-like mentor figure, championing Midge’s career, providing her with opportunities, and serving as a golden example for much of what she wants to become. To that end, the show depicts Bruce as a brave and socially conscious comedian testing the boundaries of the freedom of speech while being effortlessly and tirelessly hilarious. Fans of comics like David Cross or Ali Wong (who just released a Netflix special) will see things they recognize in the character.
Since he’s one of the most influential comedians of his era — cited by countless successors and contemporaries like Richard Pryor and George Carlin as a titanic source of inspiration — Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is not without cause in presenting Bruce with such grandeur. But as with any real-life figure, there are unsavory realities that don’t fit neatly into the show’s depiction. In honoring his legacy, particularly in light of his commitment to honest expression, it’s important to keep those realities in view.
A large portion of what the series ignores about Bruce is his personal life. While Midge oftentimes interacts with Bruce in comedy clubs or behind stage curtains, it’s uncontroversial to point out that he was a real human being who continued to exist outside those clubs. By the time the show takes place, Bruce had a wife (rarely seen in the series) and a child (never shown at all). His tumultuous relationship with his wife was marred with infamous repeated domestic disputes over the years, exacerbated by increasingly excessive drug abuse the series shows little of, perhaps not wanting to be accused of glamorizing drug use.
In testing the boundaries of free speech, Bruce’s act is fondly recalled for its ability to expose the hypocritical and puritanical reaction against such humor. The portions sampled for the series tend more toward his use of profanity and sexual vulgarity rather than his use of racial slurs that would not compare favorably with modern standards. Challenging sexual taboos in a repressed age can be remembered as brave, and the series leans into that by transferring those challenges to Midge herself quite often — but even in 2022 when TV shows are more controversial, the excessive use of racial and ethnic pejoratives is not so readily accepted as a positive quality.
With all that in mind, it’s best to understand that the Lenny Bruce of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a fictional character. In that role, he can serve the demands of the plot and the needs of the characters around him far more efficiently than a realistic and problematic portrayal of the comedian would.
It’s in the nature of controversial subject matter that not everyone will react similarly. In straying away from Bruce’s more negative qualities, the show focuses its attention elsewhere and reminds viewers of the great contributions he made. Yet in honoring the truth of Bruce’s legacy as an individual, it is just as important to remember there was much more to him than the series can ever show.
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