When director Joe Mantegna and actor Ronnie Marmo introduced their one-man show “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce” to lower Manhattan in 2019, they thought it important, just like the performer whose life inspired the play, to use the racially charged “N-Word,” even though it sometimes led to audience members prematurely leaving the theater.
The idea was to strip that vile term of its power for both Bruce in the 1960s and Marmo, a half-century later.
But after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police during a May 2020 arrest that led to a summer of nationwide protests, and amid the national cultural shift that’s occurred in recent years, Mantegna and Marmo are bringing their show back to the east coast — and they’re leaving the racial slur behind.
“I realized, I don’t think Lenny would do the bit now,” Marmo told the Daily News by phone from his Los Angeles home.
In a decision Marmo said was approved by Bruce’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, he cut out a striking segment of the play that started with Marmo, as Bruce, performing a stand-up show including the line “Are there any n—–s here tonight?”
Marmo, 51, reasoned that times have changed since 2012 when he started writing the Lenny Bruce homage he completed in 2017.
“I realized there’s a balance between being an artist and telling the truth, and not being tone-deaf to the world I’m living in,” he said.
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Marmo insists it isn’t the so-called “cancel culture” or “woke” audience he fears offending. Young liberals, he said, is a crowd he wants to introduce to Bruce’s comedy. The actor more so worries about emboldening a racist demographic that has become more brazen since his show opened nearly six years ago.
“The people on the right who are screaming ‘Screw you! First amendment! Free speech! I’ll say what I want’… those people think I’m doing the show for them,” he marveled. “Lenny is rolling over in his grave.”
He recalls one incident where he spied a group of theatergoers in the front row laughing at his use of provocative language for what he thought was the wrong reason.
“I stopped the bit and said, ‘Stop laughing,’” Marmo claims. “Usually people get the spirit of it.”
Joking about race in America has always been tricky.
During a May interview with podcaster Al Franken, where Bruce was discussed, 53-year-old funnyman Patton Oswalt said his generation’s seemingly progressive comedians in the aughts misread the room when it came to race jokes in America.
“We thought we were beyond racism,” the comic said. “We didn’t realize we were actually mapping out a blueprint for a lot of the alt-right people and a lot of the edgelords and a lot of the the s–t-posters to use, for them to go ‘I’m just being ironic,’ when no, no, you actually mean that.”
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He also complained those provocateurs aren’t funny.
Top podcaster Joe Rogan found himself having to confront his liberal use of the N-word when videos of him strung together saying it repeatedly without context went viral in February. Rogan, insisting he’s no bigot, issued a public apology. He told his millions of fans he never used the word as a pejorative and declared he doesn’t use it at all now. The Newark, N.J., native called having to address the issue “the most regretful and shameful thing that I’ve ever had to talk about publicly.”
Rogan defended he simply repeated “n–ger” as said, rather than opting for the more PC “N-Word.”
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The idea of literally replacing “N–ger” with the term “the N-word” in a skit about the word itself is something Marmo said “would be really silly.”
“I don’t know if the [N-word] bit will ever end up in the play,” he said. “It might.”
“I’m not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” begins its East Coast return with Oct. 14 and 15 performances at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Mass., minutes from the New York State border. More shows will be announced soon. That performance will include two other skits by Bruce that take the place of the routine featuring the slur. They focus around religious jokes considered risqué in Bruce’s day.