Undisputed comic legend Lenny Bruce—born Leonard Alfred Schneider—was one of the greatest stand-up artists of the 20th century. His unwavering commitment to free speech led to numerous obscenity charges and arrests as he fought for freedom of speech all the way to the Supreme Court.
Bruce gained notoriety by focusing on criticisms of the social, political and legal establishments, organized religion, and moralistic attitudes toward sex, drugs and other controversial subjects. Now, 56 years after his death from a heroin overdose, a new generation of fans are learning about Bruce from television and stage, as he is a featured character in Amazon’s award-winning series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and in the one-man show “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” on Saturday, Nov. 19, at the Merage Jewish Community Center.
Directed by Tony Award-winning actor and director Joe Montegna, and written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, the play tells Bruce’s personal story. This one-man show focuses on the life and battles of this comic icon whose work had an impact on poetry, politics, music and film, and who influenced hundreds of comics who continue the fight for freedom of expression.
Bruce was the first comedian to be utterly unafraid of using words generally condemned by society, and he paid the price for it. Based on Lenny’s national best-selling autobiography “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” this show is a searing portrait of the comic that highlights why he still matters today.
Interviewed for Jlife, Marmo explained after playing Lenny in a play, he felt incredible parallels between Lenny’s life and his own, and he identified with a lot of his issues. Both of them dealt with addiction—Marmo successfully beat his—and being the underdog and fighting for what is right. Furthermore, he became fascinated with this man who held up a mirror to society, and decided that he wanted to tell the whole story, and tell it correctly.
Working with writer Jason M. Burns, he incorporated Lenny’s material into the play, which took five years to write. Lenny Bruce’s only child, Kitty Bruce, gave her blessing to Marmo and said that the show is “the best portrayal of my father I have ever seen, brilliant!”
Asked why Bruce’s story is relevant today, Marmo said Lenny was the first person to tell the truth on stage and point out the hypocrisy around us regardless of the consequences. He never stopped fighting for freedom of speech and paved the way for comics like George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.
Marmo added that freedom of speech remains in the headlines today.
“I believe Lenny’s is the voice this country needs right now. In the 1960s, he exposed many of the ‘untouchable’ subjects that are in the news again now: religion, racism, immigration, xenophobia, gender inequality, sexual identity, the criminal justice system, capital punishment, bail reform, government aid, police brutality, corrupt capitalism, the opiate epidemic, marijuana legalization, censorship, I could go on and on. Here we are, over 50 years later, all of the issues Lenny was fighting for are still relevant and even radical. He held up a mirror to society to expose hypocrisy and challenged us to think deeply and honestly.”
Explaining Lenny’s legacy, Marmo suggested that Lenny Bruce expanded the boundaries of America’s public discourse and opened it up to relaxing its puritanism, racism and bigotry. It’s true that his irreverence broke down the barriers to bad taste, but it also resulted in less overt censorship. “To me he was a prophet. … I believe there are two times when somebody dies. First, when you physically die. And then, when they stop talking about you.”
Lenny Bruce is still being talked about long after his death.
Marmo explained that more than just a comedian, Lenny Bruce was a social commentator, provocateur and philosopher. He set out to make his audience aware of their hypocrisy and wake them up from a slumber of complacency. Lenny said: “There aren’t dirty words, just dirty minds.”
“He didn’t consider himself a comedian, he urgently had something important to say, and he rarely cared if people found it funny or not.”
In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki pardoned Lenny Bruce for a 1964 obscenity conviction. Pataki praised Bruce for his courage as a comedian: “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of our precious freedom.”
Visit www.jccoc.org to order tickets to the Merage JCC’s performance “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” and other OC Jewish Arts Festival authors, films and performances.
ALIZA SABLE is the Cultural Arts Director for the Merage JCC and is presenting the 30th annual OC Jewish Arts Festival, running Nov. 5-21.