Before comedians like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle came along, there was Lenny Bruce.
Many considered Lenny Bruce to be ahead of his time.
When he first hit stages in the late 1940s, stand-up comedians mostly played it safe. Politics and religion were considered controversial topics. In those sanitized early post-World War II days, comedians largely avoided controversy, discussing things that they and their audiences were comfortable with and delivering safe one liners like “take my wife … please.”
Lenny Bruce eventually changed much of that. After starting out doing impressions, he began discussing things people likely thought about but rarely, if ever, discussed openly.
Bruce broke taboos and brought a lot out into the open for the first time — social issues, sexuality and the hypocrisy of some religious leaders, especially those who asked for money.
Bruce criticized society, spoke candidly about himself and challenged authority, which made some powerful people uncomfortable.
He paved the way for the edgy comics who came after him and paid a heavy price for it.
From 1961 to 1964, Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges over a half-dozen times. He was barred from the United Kingdom and Australia. In 1964, he was convicted on obscenity charges after a lengthy and widely publicized trial in a New York courtroom.
In 2003, New York Gov. George Pataki granted Bruce a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction.
Many stand-up comedy fans today are too young to remember Lenny Bruce. Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in New York, Bruce, a Jewish man, died in 1966 of a drug overdose at the age of 40.
But Pittsburgh audiences will have an opportunity to experience Bruce’s brand of comedy this weekend when the one-man play “I’m not a comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” makes a two-night stop at the Byham Theater, Downtown.
Playwright and actor Ronnie Marmo, who has starred in over 70 feature films and television shows, most recently guest starring on “Criminal Minds” and “Lethal Weapon,” plays Bruce. The play, written by Marmo and directed by Joe Mantegna, depicts Bruce’s life and death: a firm belief in freedom of speech, and strong societal views.
Critic Nancy Bianconi called it “a mesmerizing masterpiece of theatre. Marmo’s performance was powerful and riveting, making me laugh and cry from scene to scene.”
Marmo isn’t old enough to have seen Lenny Bruce perform live . But he’s studied him enough to come to the conclusion, as others have, that he revolutionized comedy.
“Aside from being one of the original, freestyle stand-up comics, being one of the first to not have a set routine and get on stage and just kind of talk about what he wanted to talk about, he revolutionized comedy in the way we know it today,” Marmo said.
“So, if you like comedy, you have Lenny Bruce to thank for a lot of how we deliver it nowadays.
“Also, he spoke truth to power. He fought for freedom of speech. He was so ahead of his time and held a mirror up to society, and he had a big problem with hypocrisy. He was the guy who was like, ‘Yeah, let’s talk about this.’ He was the voice for a lot of people — the hipsters, the beatniks, the brown and Black people of the time. He fought for pretty much everybody.”
But why did the authorities and the powers that be have such a problem with him?
“You know, there’s always that first guy to come along and pay the ultimate price so that there’s a new normal,” Marmo said. “We see that in our society now. (Former NFL quarterback Colin) Kaepernick kneeled and he was the sacrificial lamb for that. And now lots people do lots of things, right? There’s always that first guy.”
While Bruce’s act was considered “obscene” by some, it wasn’t necessarily dirty words that got him in trouble, it was his ideas. For example, Bruce was arrested for doing a bit called “Religions Incorporated.”
“It’s very funny and he had the Pope Jewish but back then nobody was doing that kind of comedy. And some Catholic cop was offended,” Marmo said. “There was not one dirty word, but he got arrested. It was just a different time. When people live a certain way and somebody comes along and changes the game … yeah, they were stressed out about that.”
During one of Bruce’s performances, actress Gloria Swanson, seated near the front of the stage, famously got up and walked out in a huff. Comedian Steve Allen, one of the few network talk show hosts who would have him as a guest, introduced Bruce as “the most shocking comedian of our times.”
However, Marmo insists that Bruce was not engaging in shock for the sake of shock.
“He believed in what he was saying and he fought for the truth all the way to the end. I think that makes him great,” Marmo said. “He was just a smart, very funny person.”
So, if the Brooklyn-born Marmo isn’t old enough to have seen Lenny Bruce perform, how did he get to know his subject so well?
“I read everything I could get my hands on,” he said. “I listened to everything I could listen to. I spent a lot of time with Kitty Bruce, his daughter, and she opened the door and trusted me with lots of stuff in the attic. I went through lots of information — letters, private notes. That’s what I love about our show.
“Generally speaking, when people do things about Lenny, they hit the same six bullet points because that’s what you find on Google. But a third of our show is directly from Kitty Bruce. To me, that’s what makes it really special. If you want to learn about Lenny, you come to the show.”
And for her part, Kitty Bruce has given the show her blessing.
“The best portrayal of my father I have ever seen,” she was quoted as saying.
Marmo became interested in Bruce while playing him in a previous one-man play called “Lenny’s Back and Boy is he P——-” directed by Charlie Brill.
“Once I did a deep dive, I fell in love,” Marmo said. “And I set off to write my own because I want to tell the whole story. So, I packed it all in 90 minutes. As an artist and a writer and an actor when you find something that not only means something to you, artistically, but means something to lots of people, then man that’s a home run. It was all kind of divinely inspired.”
Marmo has now been performing the show for five years and 404 performances.
“He’s been with me for a long time. It’s a lot of work but, honestly, it’s magic when I’m out there and the audience is with me. There’s nothing better. Most of the time, I can’t really wrap my head around the fact that I’m educating an entire generation of people. And also taking the older generation back in time.”
Marmo said he feels Pittsburghers will really identify with this show.
“If there is such a thing as a blue collar comedian, I think Lenny is it.”