Last night I ventured into deepest, darkest North Hollywood to take in a one-man show about comedian Lenny Bruce (1925 – 1966) that is now on the third extension of its original run. I Am Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is directed by Joe Mantegna and stars Ronnie Marmo, the latter an actor who is also artistic director at the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company. Although Marmo’s performance is quite remarkable, the show ironically fails because of exactly what Bruce himself complained about the most during his turbulent career, a career that ended abruptly in a drug overdose on August 3, 1966.
Despite being one of the entertainment industry’s sharpest, most creative comedians, Lenny Bruce became more famous for his repeated arrests for narcotic use and violation of obscenity laws during his performances. In the latter stages of his career, his act consisted of tirades against the police and the hypocrisy of the court system, with him proclaiming endlessly that his use of language was guaranteed as free speech by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Bruce was eventually granted a pardon by New York governor George Pataki in 2003.
Bruce was a trailblazer in that he was America’s first observational comic. Before him, stand-up comedians were basically glorified joke tellers like Henny Youngman and Bob Hope. All that changed with Bruce. Contemporaries such as Shelley Berman, Jackie Vernon, and Dick Gregory copied his style, his manner, and his in-your-face nightclub bravado, hardened by years of handling drunken hecklers. Without Lenny Bruce, there would have been no George Carlin, no Richard Pryor, no Chris Rock, all brilliant performers who commented on everyday occurrences, often using profanity to make their point.
I Am Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is not a comedy as much as it is a Shakespearean tragedy. The show begins with a shocking image: Bruce’s dead, naked body is seated on a toilet in his apartment after he overdosed on morphine. His body had been found on the floor with a needle in his arm, but was propped up on the toilet for the benefit of photographers. This stark scene sets up the rest of the play, as Marmo comes to life and casually dresses while taking the audience through meticulously researched vignettes of Bruce’s life and career. He talks about the three most influential women in his life: his mother, Sally Marr, a stage performer; his wife, former stripper Honey Harlow; and his daughter Kitty. As morose jazz solos by John Coltrane play in the background and between scenes (the introspective “Naima” is used frequently), Marmo performs as he were a defense attorney, justifying Bruce’s troubles with the law, with drugs, and with his career, until he arrives once again at the bleak scene that opened the show.
Chief among Bruce’s struggles was his use of language that was, in the 1950s and early ’60s, shockingly frank and profane. Plainclothes detectives would attend his gigs and take notes of each and every use of profanity, presenting them in court as evidence against Bruce. “They’re only words!” Bruce would proclaim with exasperation to judge after judge, pleading to let him explain himself by performing his routine. But he was never permitted to do so.
The problem with I Am Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is that the play, like Bruce’s life, focuses on his dark side – the consequences of his battle to comment about modern society. “I wanted to be a hip, Jewish version of James Dean,” Bruce would say. But, like the court cases, the play fails to show enough of what made Bruce funny in the first place. Instead, Marmo and co-writer Jason M. Burns’ script dwells on the miseries of Bruce’s life as opposed to his incendiary, groundbreaking talent. There are flashes of this, but too few of Bruce’s better-known routines are displayed, such as his discussions of the differences between men and women, definitions of “Jewish” vs. “goyish,” and his riffing on subjects as varied as jazz, morality, politics, patriotism, and religion, all of which were novel topics for standup comedians. One of his signature routines was a song, “All Alone” about Bruce’s frustrations with married life: “But to me she was so petty / Sometimes I wish that she were dead / But it would probably take her two hours to get ready.” (Marmo recites the words instead of singing them.) In a show about an entertainer who made people laugh, the theater is strangely silent through most of the play. In an opening scene, Marmo describes the time when he got his first laugh – it was his quick-witted response to a drunken heckler, and the rush he got from that moment stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Attending the play at Saturday evening’s performance was Lenny Bruce’s daughter Kitty, who was only ten years old when her father died, with Marmo proudly introducing her from the audience after the show. We can only imagine how difficult it was to see her father portrayed in the brutal way he is depicted in the play, without balancing it with more positive examples of his genius and what made him influential in the first place. “He had a way, on-stage and off-stage that made people think,” his daughter said in a recent interview. “It made people laugh, and made people wonder.”
Lenny Bruce single-handedly changed the nature of what standup comedy is today. In contemporary society, thousands of would-be standup comics in brick-walled comedy clubs throughout the world owe a debt to Lenny Bruce and his groundbreaking, risk-taking career. Marmo’s superb performance notwithstanding, there still remains to be a tribute to Bruce that fully displays his formidable talent as a performer. Instead, we see Lenny Bruce only as a tragic martyr and we’re not quite sure what Lenny would have thought about that.
I Am Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce plays at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For tickets, visit Theatre68.com. Due to frequent, coarse language, simulated drug use, and nudity, the play is not recommended for youngsters.