Warning: This article uses coarse, vulgar language
Lenny Bruce: comedian, satirist, and hardcore supporter of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. Truly groundbreaking in his time, he led the way for comedians like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and basically any comedian who has ever uttered the words “shit,” “fuck,” “cocksucker,” the N word, or anyone who has publicly questioned religion. He was on the cutting edge of comedy, but as with many things, being on the cutting edge means you’re bound to get cut. That is the story of I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, a selection of some of Lenny Bruce’s most famous—or infamous—stand-up bits combined with some fascinating insight into Bruce’s rise to fame and fall into shame and death. This one-man production, starring and written by Ronnie Marmo and directed by Joe Mantegna, provides an incredible view into the life of possibly the most controversial performer in modern history.
I’m Lenny Bruce starts with Bruce (Marmo) butt-naked on a toilet, dead, exactly as he was when he was discovered in his home in 1966. Marmo then proceeds to get up and slowly get dressed, giving the audience some background on how he unfortunately ended up this way, and then proceeds to take the audience all the way back to where Lenny Bruce got his start. Marmo takes you from Bruce’s birth to his death and everywhere in between, recounting Bruce’s breakthrough into comedy, his many court battles, his drug abuse, his love for the stripper Honey, and his attempts to be a good father. It goes from laugh-out-loud funny during the stand-up sections to sobering when Marmo recounts Bruce’s uphill battles in court, fighting against obscenity charges that would be seem Orwellian in this day and age, but were commonplace in the ’50s and ’60s; and truly emotional as you see Bruce as he attempts to be a good father, while having to come to terms with the fact his daughter is constantly shamed for having him as a father. It goes to show that even in the United States, not all speech is equal, which I feel is especially relevant in the world we live in where platforms like Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, forums that have become almost necessary today, can censor who they want, when the want, sometimes even when what’s being said is allowed on their platform. Because, of course, the First Amendment applies to government action, not to private enterprise.
Ronnie Marmo is really exceptional as Lenny Bruce, and does the legendary comedian justice. His reenactments of Bruce’s stand-up were gut-bustingly funny, and his engagement with the audience, without leaving character, made it feel less like you were watching an actor do Bruce’s bits as Bruce, and more like you had somehow gone back in time, and were being treated to a special performance by Bruce himself. Probably my favorite part was after Marmo had told the audience about how Lenny Bruce had been arrested for the using the word “cocksucker” during one of his his performances. Marmo goes on to talk about how the police officer who had to tell the judge what horrible words Bruce had used, and how the cop couldn’t bring himself to say “cocksucker”, or “blah blah” as Marmo put it; but once the cop got going Bruce knew he liked the word, and then everyone in the court couldn’t stop saying it. Marmo then proceeded to ask the men in the audience “who here has said ‘blah blah'”. Then he went further, asking who had had their “blah” “blah’d” and eventually if any of the men in the audience had ” blah’d” a “blah”. It was absolutely hilarious, and throughout the entire bit I couldn’t stop laughing. Marmo didn’t miss a single beat as Lenny Bruce, whether something was funny or depressing, he WAS Lenny Bruce that night. He embodied Bruce’s rebellious spirit, his sadness, his humanity, and it elevated the entire production to a whole other level
In addition, the lighting and sound effects for the show were top-notch. As this is a one-man play, the scenes with Bruce in court have Marmo talking out towards the audience while the booming, bodiless voice of the judge casts judgment upon Lenny Bruce. The lighting was also very well done, and did a lot for the mood of the show, getting darker when Bruce was performing his stand-up in a dark, smoky club, and then becoming almost blinding when it would shift to the court room.
This is a small thing, but I feel it’s an incredibly important part of the production. At the end of the production, as Marmo strips naked and sits back on the toliet, just as the audience finds him at the beginning, a collection of excerpts from famous comedians begins to play. These excerpts included bits from well-known comics like Chris Rock and George Carlin, as well as a female comic I unfortunately could not identify, using “shit,” “fuck,” “spic” and other vulgar language. Nowadays comics like Chris Porter, Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman and others can say whatever they want, no matter how vulgar, and while they may face some backlash, there is no threat of arrest; they can’t be sent to jail for saying these words. I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is a one-of-a-kind production, not just because it’s a deep dive into the rise and fall of Lenny Bruce, but because of how it makes you think, not just about how far our country has come in the 53 years since Lenny Bruce’s death, but also about how much more we need to do to truly become “The Land of the Free”.
I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is playing at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., through December 1. Production is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $69; buy them here.