It’s impossible to overestimate the influence of Lenny Bruce on today’s standup comedy universe, where each and every sacred cow is there to be proudly skewered, with no barriers on language or concessions to those who might somehow get offended.
Bruce (1925-1966) was more than a barrier-breaker whose material transcended the existing definition of “blue.” He was fearless and freewheeling, and that’s what got him virtually banned from television, convicted on an obscenity charge in 1964 – and why he influenced generations of comics who followed in his giant footsteps.
Coming to Tampa’s David A. Straz Center (Jaeb Theatre) Saturday, I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce is a one-man show starring actor Ronnie Marmo as the comedy legend. Marmo, who also wrote the play, was granted full use of Bruce’s “bits” on religion, racism and sex, as well as his posthumously-published autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.
Bruce’s daughter Kitty had never before given such permission. “She’s very protective of her dad’s legacy,” Marmo told the Catalyst in this video interview. “That makes sense to me. I would be too. But we have a very special friendship, and she’s now entrusted me with the material.”
I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce is directed by actor Joe Mantegna (Criminal Minds, The Simpsons).
Both men point to Bruce’s “stepping out” of his era’s joke-telling norm – talking about real things that were going on both in his life and in the world – as a springboard for the likes of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, both of whom cited Bruce as a major influence.
“He became ‘the example,’” said Marmo. “People at that time didn’t like it when you held a mirror up to society and questioned things. Questioned ‘yeah, but why?’ and nobody wanted to talk about that.”
Observed Mantegna: “Things are a little weirder now than they were in the ‘60s, and I’ve lived through both. In the sense that it’s fluctuating how we define what our freedoms are, and what freedom of speech is. And what that really means.”
He pointed to the most recent round of book-banning in American libraries and schools.
“So in terms of it being timely, the timing couldn’t be better for doing something about Lenny Bruce. And I think anybody who sees this play would get it, in the sense that it brings back a time almost 60, 70 years ago but you can draw parallels to what’s going on today.”
I’m Not a Comedian starts at the end of Bruce’s life. “Joe and I take you back to the moment they found him, and the play goes in reverse,” Marmo said. “There’s a lot of times when I take you back onstage, in a club, and other times I step out – what we refer to as the storytelling aspect – and I just talk to the audience as if we’re right here, right now and I want to take you through what happened.”
After successful multi-performance runs in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the production is on the road for the first time.
“I counted the other day,” said Marmo, “and I think I’m at 392 performances. Of this 90-minute monologue. For the actors watching, you know what that’s like. I remember in the old days when I would have a two-minute monologue to learn, I would be mad.”
Nevertheless, he added, “Every night, I give them my best, whatever it is in that moment. But it is uniquely fresh every night. And I’ve had strangers come back a dozen times. Total strangers.”
Mantegna, who will not be in Tampa for Saturday’s tour stop, is happy to promote I’m Not a Comedian, which has been filmed for a possible future project.
“Everywhere we go the response has been so tremendous,” he explained. “When you’ve got a horse that’s winning the race, you don’t jump off the horse. You ride the horse till it’s dead!
“And hopefully we got a long ride ahead of us.”
Tickets are available here.
Watch the video interview: